Motorcycles and their place in television and pop culture

Forty-five years ago, “CHiPs,” the long-running television series starring actors Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as California Highway Patrol officers, made motorcycles family-friendly.

For decades, films like “The Wild One,” Marlon Brando’s 1953 film about bikers who terrorize a small town after one of its leaders is thrown in jail, gave motorcycles an unruly reputation in the dominant culture. Suddenly motorcycles were synonymous with outlaw spirit and rebellion.

In the film’s most famous exchange, a local woman asks Brando’s gang leader, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

“What do you have?” he growls in response.

The leather-jacketed anarchic vibe established by “The Wild One” has dominated biker movies for decades. The poster for 1969’s “Run Angel, Run,” for example, screamed “raw and violent” in words larger than the film’s title.

Then, on September 15, 1977, the anarchy embodied in “The Wild Ones” gave way to “CHiPs,” a moving crime drama about two Los Angeles patrolmen on motorcycles. The good-natured antics of the show’s main characters, Frank (Ponch) Poncherello and Jon Baker, were front and center, but for many viewers the real stars were the motorcycles.

Ponch and Jon rode a Kawasaki Z1-P and KZ900-C2 in seasons 1 and 2, and a KZ1000-C1 from season 3 onwards, as they raced the freeways of Los Angeles solving crimes and rescuing people in difficulty. Popularity and Estrada’s smiley advice on how to look good on a cycle—”Sit up straight, don’t slouch, and smile”—was the exact opposite of rebellion in “The Wild Bunch.”

“These ‘chippies’ never draw their guns,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote of the TV show. “They let their bikes do the talking instead.”

Since the launch of “CHiPs” in 1977, motorcycles – ridden by heroes, anti-heroes and villains – have made their way into movies and TV shows as “a burst of dirty thunder”, as the wrote Hunter S. Thompson in his book “Hell’s Angels”. : The strange and terrible saga of outlaw motorcycle gangs.

One of the starkest depictions of biker life in recent years appears in “Sons of Anarchy,” the adrenaline-charged television series starring Ron Perlman as the leader of an outlaw motorcycle club. law based in Charming, California.

Members of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original) ride Harleys. There’s the 1946 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, customized for the show using 1946-1951 bike parts, and the 2006 Harley Davidson Dayna Street Bob, a true outlaw motorcycle that’s stripped of any part not required by law, such as a passenger seat.

Although he admitted that “the bikes don’t like me and it’s mutual,” Perlman rode the coolest bike in the series. His huge 2008 Harley Davidson Dyna Super Glide was an extension of Perlman’s persona: big, bold and intimidating.

The musician Prince had a hit with his song “Little Red Corvette,” but it was another vehicle that was his most iconic moment. Loosely based on his own life, the 1984 film “Purple Rain” tells the story of an up-and-coming musician balancing life, love and career on the streets of Minneapolis.

Shot on the backlot of Warner Bros. studios, where a set was dressed to resemble a gritty alley, the movie poster shows Prince shrouded in smoke and perched atop a purple 1981 Hondamatic Honda CM400A motorcycle (his height of 30-inch seat modified to fit the musician’s five-foot-two frame), as the amorous Apollonia watches over him. The image was also used on the accompanying album cover and later home video and DVD covers.

The motorcycle featured spoked wheels and pink velor inserts, custom fairing, handlebars and seats, was embossed in red, and included an early version of the singer’s unpronounceable love symbol, a combination of the male and female glyphs. . New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby felt the photo summed up the film’s plot perfectly. “(This is) probably the flashiest album cover ever released as a movie,” he wrote.

Motorcycles also feature heavily in “The Matrix” movie franchise. In the first film, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity rides a Triumph Speed ​​Triple when she sees Agent Smith kidnap Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves.

Harley Davidsons appeared in the third film in the series, ‘The Matrix Revolutions’, and a Ducati Panigale Streetfighter is put through its paces in the most recent film, 2021’s ‘The Matrix Resurrections’. most spectacular of the franchise, however, is the centerpiece of the second film, “The Matrix Reloaded”.

Using a mix of live action stunt driving and CGI, its freeway chase sequence features Trinity on a sleek Ducati 996 as she leaps from the back of a straight truck, weaves through heavy traffic, dodges from being crushed against a cement barrier and attempts to save a character known as Keymaker.

Moss, who shared riding duties with a host of stuntmen, said operating the bike with a passenger in the back was unnerving. “I knew if I allowed my mind to doubt for a moment,” she told Entertainment Weekly, “that I could hurt another human being.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter who — the good, the bad, or even an escapee from The Matrix — popular culture decides to ride a motorcycle. As “CHiPs” star Estrada once said, “There are only two types of motorcyclists. Those who have descended and those who descend.

Wiley C. Thompson