The freedom of the road has been pulling motorcycle riders on to their bikes for more than 100 years. It’s a rich saga that the Washington State History Museum is exploring in an exhibit opening Saturday: “Let’s Ride: Motorcycling the Northwest.”
The show features nearly two dozen motorcycles built between 1906-2009 – all but one loaned by private collectors. The exhibit presents the artistry and science of motorcycles and their history.
Curator Redmond Barnett is fascinated that motorcycles appeal to so many different social groups. “There are motorcycles used by the police and motorcycles used by social dissenters,” he said. From Bikers for Christ to Hells Angels, there seems to be a motorcycle group for everyone.
The museum went to work on the motorcycle show at the suggestion of one of its bike-riding staffers. Barnett was soon hooked.
“We discovered all these fascinating collections with interesting Northwest stories that we had not told before,” Barnett said.
A 1956 Harley-Davidson and a 1911 Flying Merkel racer open the show. With its white tires and orange frame, the Merkel looks more bicycle than motorcycle.
Technology was changing fast in the early days of motorcycles. Two Excelsior bikes highlight the two schools of thought at the time. One, from 1913, has a belt drive while another, from 1915, has a chain drive. Chains won that battle, though belts have made a comeback in recent years.
The first known motorcycle in Washington dates to 1901, the first races to 1905 and the first arrest for speeding to 1909, Barnett said.
Some of the first riders in Washington were a group of Olympia doctors. They used their motorcycles in 1903-04 for transportation, recreation and to make house calls. Dr. George W. Ingham, 35, once said his Indian bike “went up the East Fourth Street hill at a 30-mile clip” – a breathtaking pace in the early 1900s.
Most of the bikes in the show are restored. But one, a 1906 Indian, has never been rehabbed. A patina of rust and cracked tires speaks to its 107-year existence.
Washington’s history is intertwined with motorcycle history in sometimes unexpected ways. Package delivery titan United Parcel Service can trace its roots back to a Seattle-based motorcycle delivery service in the 1910s.
Where there are motorcycles, there is racing. A wooden racing track operated from 1915-1922 where today’s Clover Park Technical College sits. Crashes on it resulted in a lot of splinters, Barnett said.
Motorcycles and their riders have probably always been associated with danger. Where would American cinematic history be without outlaw biker Marlon Brando being asked, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
His reply: “What do you got?”
The exhibit explores the motorcycle’s intersection with war, literature and the movies. Displays – but not their bikes – highlight police motorcycles and daredevil rider Evel Knievel, who once owned a motorcycle shop in Moses Lake.
The pink leathers of Tammy Sessions, a champion racer from the 1970s, hang in a display case. Her left boot is outfitted with a metal skid plate for tight turns.
A 1918 Pope once owned by actor Steve McQueen is on display as are bikes from Japan and Great Britain. The final bike in the show is a 2009 Brammo Enertia – a fully electric motorcycle.
There is one aspect of motorcycle culture missing from the show, however. The space is disturbingly quiet. ‘Let’s Ride: Motorcycling the Northwest’
When: Saturday-June 23
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Tickets: $9.50 for adults; $7 for seniors, students and military; ages 5 and younger get in free
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays–Sundays
More information: washingtonhistory.orgCraig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/getout