At 94 years young, Gloria is a living, breathing window to the world of motorcycling’s first century — and an inspiration to riders everywhere
Words by Mitch Boehm
Photos by Michael Lichter, Marilyn Stemp and the Struck Family Archive
Sometimes in life there are things you just gotta do. And reading Gloria Tramontin Struck’s 2018 autobiography – titled Gloria, A Lifetime Motorcyclist – is one of them.
It truly is one of those hidden gems in our motorcycling universe, and anyone with even a shred of curiosity about the human condition and what makes our favorite sport tick should order a copy immediately so it’s less hidden. Ignore that advice and you’ll miss out in a major way.
The book’s subtitle is 75 years on two wheels and still riding, which rings true enough. Three quarters of a century is a pretty good number of years to live, let alone ride.
But Gloria’s life story is much more than a longevity tale.
Gloria’s book, and indeed the woman herself, are in many ways a window on the 20th century, and motorcycling’s prominent role in it. From her birth in the mid 1920s, the depression years of the 1930s and the WWII years of the 1940s, to the dynamic motorcycle culture of the ’50s, the explosion of two-wheeled popularity in the ’60s and ’70s, and smack into the bike-hyper ’90s and the early 21st century, Gloria has seen and lived a lot of the stuff many of us only know from history books – and much of it from the seat of a motorcycle.
Grasp the woman’s hand (gingerly, of course, as she turns 95 this July) and look into those piercing blue eyes and you get the feeling you could almost be transported, Harry Potter portkey-like, back in time to an earlier era – to the beach races at Daytona, perhaps, or one of the early Motor Maids conventions in the ’40s or ’50s, or maybe to her family’s Excelsior-Henderson shop in Clifton, New Jersey during the ’20s or ’30s.
All of which makes Gloria Tramontin Struck motorcycling’s Grand Dame. She’s a trailblazer with a story that’s epic in scope, as in many ways it’s the story of motorcycling’s amazing first century, and the greatest generation that lived it.
Gloria Struck is one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. Still riding bikes at an age when most women (and men) have given up such pursuits, she thinks nothing of hopping on her Harley and riding across country for some of the biggest motorcycle events in the nation. I want to be just like her when I grow up! – Christine Paige Diers
Where did this resilient woman come from? Some of you know this, but the nutshell version bears repeating. Gloria was born to Ernest and Pierina Tramontin in 1925 in an apartment attached to the back of the couple’s bicycle and motorcycle shop called Lexington Cycle in Clifton, New Jersey. It was the Roaring ’20s and things were mostly good in America, but darkness was approaching for young Gloria and her five-year-older brother Arthur, both personally and nationally. Her father died in ’28 of gangrene poisoning after a motorcycle accident with a left-turning car destroyed his leg, and of course the stock market crash of late 1929 plunged the country into depression.
Pierina kept the shop open part-time during the ’30s with help from Ernest’s brother Joseph while also working in a sweatshop, often bringing young Gloria along as there was no one else to watch her. Gloria remembers cutting cardboard shapes to put inside her shoes when the soles wore out, and often went hungry. “A can of pork and beans and a roll was a great meal,” she says.
Times were tough, but the gritty family survived. In ’38 at the age of 13 Gloria was helping her mom in the shop, typing motor vehicle forms, doing basic accounting and paying bills. Brother Arthur – nicknamed ‘Bub’ – was helping, too, selling bikes (the shop was now an Indian dealer), selling parts and fixing them in the back. Bub was also riding a lot and getting good at it, doing stunt riding and even racing a bit. When Pearl Harbor pushed America into WWII, he went to work for Indian and helped develop its military-spec machines, and eventually drifted into the military himself.
Despite literally growing up in a motorcycle shop, Gloria had only been on a bike once, and had no interest in doing it twice. “One day Bub grabbed me and said I was gonna learn,” Gloria says, “and even though I said ‘no way’, he won the argument. I ended up riding a ’31 Indian Scout in a field.” Gloria was sixteen. It was 1941. And things blossomed from there. She began riding the shop’s used bikes, first locally but venturing farther afield on a wide range of machines, from Triumphs and BSAs to Ariels and Harleys.
She bought her first bike – a shaft-drive, army-spec camo-green Indian that, ironically, Bub had helped design while working at Indian – in ’44, and sold it a few years later to buy a beautiful blue ’41 Indian Scout. She joined the Motor Maids organization in ’46 at the age of 21, and began riding everywhere and anywhere, often accompanying her mother to the beach – she on a bike, her mother in a car – during the summer, lane-splitting and cutting through traffic and adding grey to her mother’s hair.
When her mother retired in ’47, Bub took over the business, which now carried Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Gloria had her first bad accident around that time on a ’46 Indian Chief, hitting a car that made a U-turn directly in front of her. She cut her face badly (no helmet) and totaled the bike, but wasn’t hurt seriously. Still, Mom got another dose of grey.
I remember asking Gloria what it was like in the early days as a woman rider on her own. Did she worry? Was she ever scared? “I never worried,” she told me. “I always acted like a lady and I was always treated like one.” There’s wisdom in that statement, and Gloria is living proof that a confident attitude can have positive results. Any woman rider – in fact, any rider at all – can learn from Gloria’s rich experience and well-lived years. – Marilyn Stemp
Gloria’s first real motorcycle trip happened in 1950, an 1800-mile trek to Canada and back (via Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Canada and upstate New York) to meet fellow Motor Maid member Marion Oler, and was a revelation. The sights and sounds, the trials and tribulations, the new friends met along the way and all the things motorcycle road trips are known for … Gloria experienced it all, and even wrote about it for Harley-Davidson’s Enthusiast magazine a couple of years later. It resonated with folks all over the country, and even with some American troops in Korea, who sent letters. Gloria still has them, and treasures them still.
“From then on,” Gloria told this author, “I was hooked on motorcycle touring. And pretty much since that trip I’ve been traveling on my motorcycle, meeting people, seeing the country – and the world – and just enjoying it.”
I have flown to a number of motorcycle events over the years, and at virtually every one I can expect to be greeted by a little wisp of a lady named Gloria who’d give me a smile and a hug, and who rode hundreds and hundreds of miles – fall, winter, spring and summer – to be with us. Gloria, we love you! – Rod Woodruff
Like anyone else, life happened for Gloria during the following decades. She met an army vet named Len and married, raised two children (Lori and Glen), became a highly successful Avon cosmetics representative (working there for 44 years!) and, of course, continued riding and touring and living a motorcycling lifestyle. Along the way she made thousands of friends, earned a handful of awards, made her way into several Halls of Fame, and endeared herself to a large portion of the motorcycling industry and public.
Obviously, Gloria is no stranger to adversity, and she’s unfortunately dealing with some today. She fell in church a couple months back and broke her hip, which required surgery and a stay in a rehab center – all complicated by the coronavirus situation we’re still experiencing today. She’s back home now with daughter Lori and happier because of it, though it’ll be a few more weeks until she can put weight on that repaired hip. She’s confined to a wheelchair for the time being – and it’s undoubtedly not the sort of two-wheel transportation she’d prefer.
“It’s been a little scary,” she told this author while rehabbing back in March. “I keep thinking I’ll have to go to three wheels, which is not something I want to do. I have to be careful now. But like I’m always preaching, never give up, right? My plan is to come back, prove I’m not so old. [Laughs!] When I was 91 the docs said I had the health of a 45-year-old. Gonna try the best I can!”
That’s pure Gloria. Saucy, stubborn and resilient. A trooper with a sense of humor.
I’ve had the pleasure of riding long distances with Gloria and her daughter Lori, and let me tell you … they can ride! Gloria is a dynamo and the sticker on her helmet says it all: “Fear me!” She’s a tough little Jersey girl with a heart of gold. I love her contagious laughter and how she constantly reminds me that we are making memories – even when we ride in the rain! She leads by example on how to embrace life and enjoy every moment. Gloria is my second mother and I love her dearly and I can’t wait to ride with her again. She is my hero. – Cris Sommer-Simmons.
At last August’s Sturgis Hall of Fame induction breakfast, I remember sitting there and listening to Gloria accept a Lifetime Achievement award, and laughing right along with several hundred attendees. “You know me,” she said with a mischievous grin and that Jersey-girl accent. “I’ve been busy baking cookies for my grandchildren and great grandchildren, and knitting afghans! Hell! That’s not me! I’d rather be riding on two wheels, around the country, meeting old friends and new friends. Isn’t that what motorcycles are for?!”
It doesn’t often get put more simply than that.
Gloria’s oft-stated goal is to ride across the country when she’s 100. Whether or not that comes to pass is anyone’s guess. But given the nine and half decade’s worth of fortitude contained in that little body, are any motorcyclists who know and love her gonna count her out? Not likely.
So, heal up fast, Gloria! You’re an inspiration to us all, and we need you out there.