Sonny Barger aboard his 80-inch Harley stroker with high bars and long tailpipies, 1959. This bike design was considered pretty progressive for it’s time.
Ralph “Sonny” Barger, long considered the Godfather of the Hells Angels MC (having started the original Oakland chapter) is definitely an original “one percenter” if there ever was one. There’s a lot of very interesting history behind Sonny and the Hells Angels that I can’t post, so if you’re itching for more, check out his books Here’s a little collection of pics, along with some of Sonny’s personal accounts on his life and times, and the history of the club– and be sure to check out the vintage Hells Angels video at the end of the post.
From Sonny Barger’s autobiography–
“When I saw The Wild One, Lee Marvin instantly became my hero Lee’s character, Chino, was my man. Marlon Brando as Johnny was the bully. His boys rode Triumphs and BSAs and wore uniforms. Lee’s attitude was ‘If you f*ck with me, I’ll hit you back.’ Lee and his boys were riding f*cked-up Harleys and Indians. I certainly saw more of Chino in me than Johnny. I still do.”
“As a street tough, I looked the part. I wore my Levi’s jeans with one-inch-wide cuffs at the bottom, smoked Camels (as opposed to Lucky Strikes, my Dad’s brand), had the attitude, and rode a motorcycle My friends and I wore V-neck T-shirts with a cigarette pack rolled up in the sleeve. We bought black engineer boots (with a silver buckle) at the Red Wing shoe store, the same place Oakland working grunts bought their work boots. If you had the cash, a black leather jacket made sense if you rode motorcycles.”
“I joined my first bike club, the Oakland Panthers, in 1956. It didn’t last too long. We were a bunch of local bike riders who liked to hang out. Freewheeling clubs were just starting out then. After a couple weeks I knew we weren’t cutting it. We seemed pretty pointless, like we weren’t a real club. We were just a bunch of kids. Some of us didn’t even know each other’s names.”
“I quit the club as quickly as I started it. Sure, they’d party, but when the sh*t came down, they didn’t stick together. I felt no brotherhood. When the cops busted someone, he was on his own It was like ‘F*ck him, I’m outta here.’ What I needed was more solidarity and less cover your own ass.”
“During both world wars, bomber squadrons and divisions of military men formed their own tight circles. Bands of young draftees and enlistees would think up a name and design a cool-looking logo to show how tough and deadly they were as fighters. Patches were sewn on government-issue leather bomber jackets and the brass seemed okay with it.”
“The term ‘Hell’s Angels’ had been bouncing around the military as far back as World War I, when a fighter squadron first took on the name. During the 1920s in Detroit, a motorcycle club affiliated with the American Motorcyclist Association named themselves Hell’s Angels… A group of mercenary war pilots called the Flying Tigers flew for the Chinese, and one of their squadrons called themselves Hell’s Angels WWII had a few groups called Hell’s Angels, including an American Air Force bomber company stationed in england, the 358th Bomber Squadron, another Navy torpedo squadron– I think it was the 109th Airborne– and the 108th Airborne, paratroopers during the Korean War.”
“As far back as 1917, during WWI, both the German and American infantries successfully used bike (motorcycle) riders as couriers, scouts, and communications dispatchers. In response, the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company won big government contracts manufacturing bikes for the American war machine in Europe, delivering up to 20,000 cycles. During the 1930s and 1940s, Hitler’s Nazi war machine trained motorcyclists into more active combat roles, using higher-tech BMWs. Hitler’s Panzer divisions relied heavily on skilled motorcycle soldiers Instead of scouts and messengers, motorcyclists mounted machine guns on their bikes, rode on reconnaissance missions, scouted ambushes, occupied bridges and landmarks, rode through land-mined fields, and escorted tanks into battle.”
“As a result, aggressive, restless, roaming daredevil riders evolved by the end of WWII, unafraid to ride full-throttle and kick ass. Some cite returning wartime bikers as the beginning of ‘outlaw motorcycle types’ dating from 1948 to the early 1950s. Before WWII, motorcycle clubs were like gentleman’s clubs– riders actually wore coats and ties. After WWII, clubs like the Boozefighters retained both the aggressive spirit of war and combat and the look– leather bomber jackets, flight goggles, and long scarves One of their credos was– Jesus Died So We Could Ride.“
“Clubless and bored, I rode around the Oakland streets with a new wild bunch. We talked about starting up another club. One of the riders, Boots, Don Reeves, wore a modified Air Force-like patch he’d found in Sacramento– a small skull wearing an aviator set inside a set of wings. I thought it was cool as hell. The bottom rocker read ‘Sacto.’ We later found out that Boots’s patch came from a defunct motorcycle club in North Sacramento. Boots’s idea was to name our new club after the patch, the Hell’s Angels. We all liked the name, so we hit a local trophy shop in Hayward and made up a set of patches based on the design (later called the death head) in April of 1957, not really knowing that there were other Hell’s Angels motorcycle clubs around the state of California For almost the first year of our existence we didn’t even use “Oakland” as a bottom rocker. Instead, we were “Nomad” Hell’s Angels. Yeah, that sounded like us.”