Twistgrip: Summer of 1958

Sixty years ago in the summer of 1958, neat stuff was going on in the world of motorcycling. We recently told you about the 60th Anniversary celebration of one of those things: the creation of S&S Cycle.

It’s always a rare treat to find artifacts from those days. At an antique shop here in Wisconsin, I recently stumbled across some great bits of the history of that summer sixty years ago.

Motorcycle Flashback: A Look into Twistgrip Magazine from Summer 1958I found original issues of a small magazine called Twistgrip, the official publication of the Worldwide Cycle Club, for the months of May, June and July 1958, as well as the January 1959 issue. The club was headquartered in Los Angeles.

The front-page story by Charles C. Clayton in the May 1958 issue (the fifth issue ever published) was the repeat victory of 1957 Catalina champ, Bob Sandgren in the 100-mile 1958 Catalina Grand Prix on a Triumph TR6.

Sandgren’s victory was made all the more impressive due to the fact that his footpegs had vibrated loose and fallen off by the seventh lap! He finished the race having to ride with his feet up on the engine cases.

The late Bud Ekins, who won the Catalina GP in 1955 was a DNF in the 1958 event when first the brakes failed and then the oil tank ruptured on his Triumph. The January 1959 issue’s cover story (image) was Ekins’ victory in the Big Bear Run.

That victory, taken on a ‘59 Triumph TR6 desert sled came despite a flat front tire and bent rim! In the early sixties, Bud Ekins would be the stunt rider for Steve McQueen to perform the motorcycle leap over a fence in “The Great Escape” and later, Ekins was the motorcycle stunt coordinator (and probably rider) for the TV show “Then Came Bronson.”

The remaining bikes in the Catalina top five reads like a catalog of classic motorcycles: Al Colley on a 500cc Ariel took second, Gary Sowell on a 650cc BSA in third, Vern Hancock on a Matchless single was fourth and Bruce Jackson finished fifth on a 500cc Velocette.

Motorcycle Flashback: A Look into Twistgrip Magazine from Summer 1958 look backThe coverage noted that the highest-finishing American-made bike in any class was a Harley-Davidson Sportster ridden by Ray Tanner, finishing sixth in the Open Class. Indeed, no American-made motorcycles finished in the top three in the 500, 350, 250, 200, 175, or 125cc classes. BSA bikes finished in the top thee places in four of the seven classes.

History now shows that one of North America’s top two manufacturers, Harley-Davidson, soldiered on to the present day, while the other, Indian Motorcycle, went bust in 1953, but the brand has been successfully resurrected in modern times by Polaris.

BSA , meanwhile went bust in 1973 as part of the Norton-Villiers-Triumph combination but the BSA name has recently been acquired by Mahanidra, with the potential for the brand to also re-emerge.

And both Norton and Triumph are back in business, as well.

The Worldwide Cycle Club reported some interesting statistics back then, including the brand of motorcycles owned by its members. In all, 273 reported owning Harley-Davidson—the most numerous brand among the club’s 1,383 members. Triumph came in second with 197, BSA third with 163, BMW was fourth with 70 and Indian came in fifth most common with 66.

The club also tracked membership by states and country. Not surprising was the top state being the club’s home state, California with 236 members. But what was interesting was that from there, members were more numerous in Ohio (102), New York (77), Illinois (63) and Pennsylvania (52) rather than southern states with longer riding seasons and probably more motorcycles in use.

A guest editorial by Bill Stern, sportscaster for the American Broadcasting Company, in the May, 1958 issue posited that you’re actually safer—or at least less likely to be killed in an accident—on a motorcycle than in a car. Based on data compiled by the National Safety Council and the American Motorcyclist Association, Stern reported that:

  • from 1940 to 1953, there was one automobile accident for every 49,000 miles driven; but during the same period, there was only one motorcycle accident for every 330,000 miles driven.
  • in the same period of time, there was an average of 31,700 deaths per year in auto accidents, while there was an average of only nine deaths per year among motorcycle riders.

Motorcycle Flashback: A Look into Twistgrip Magazine from Summer 1958 reviewOf course, how complete the data might have been at the time is an open question, but the points Stern makes are fascinating in themselves.

The editorial page includes a piece about the epic conflict between Triumph and the FIM over the FIM’s refusal to recognize Johnny Allen’s 1956 world land speed record of 214.40 mph set with the single-engine Triumph-powered streamliner. The non-attributed editorial comment sums it up this way:

“The main reason is that the FIM bigwigs simply can’t believe that a couple of Texans could take a production twin-cylinder motorcycle engine, hop it up to the teeth, and go out and beat a record set by a well-bankrolled factory team that was expected to stand for years.”

That in-your-face assessment of the situation refers to the fact that Allen and his streamliner did, in fact eclipse the record set only a bit earlier that summer with a supercharged, methanol-burning 500cc double overhead cam NSU with massive factory support. The NSU set the record at 210.77 mph. Allen’s “Texas Cee-gar” (also dubbed The Devil’s Arrow) was powered by a normally aspirated 650cc twin. That September, Allen pushed the record to 214.40 mph; a record FIM refused to recognize.

To make the point even more clearly, the Texans swapped out the 650cc engine with a 500cc normally aspirated Triumph twin and broke the NSU record with that, as well reaching 212.288 mph, setting a new class record that has stood for decades.

Motorcycle Flashback: A Look into Twistgrip Magazine from Summer 1958 look backThe June 1958 issue of Twistgrip did a front-page feature on the need to provide positive publicity to motorcycling sport through press releases on club events, racing and encouragement for club membership. Another feature in the issue complete with photos of Mt. Fuji and a rider on an “obstacle course” was about the All-Japan Motorcycle Club. Then boasting 1,897 members, the club was hosted by a U.S. Air Force base that made its facilities available for club events, provided a building for use as a clubhouse and actively supported drag racing on one of the base’s runways!

The issue even featured tidbits of poetry; this anonymous verse, for example:

Ruth and I went for a ride.

Ruth rode in back of me.

I hit a bump at 95

And rode on Ruthlessly.

The July 1958 issue covered Everett Brashear’s victory on a Tom Sifton-tuned BSA in the 25-mile National final at the San Jose Mile. To claim the win, Brashear had to outrun the likes of Sammy Tanner, who placed second on a BSA, and Carroll Resweber on a Harley.

Sammy Tanner, it turned out was about to launch a career as a rock-n-roller and that was covered in the January 1959 issue of Twistgrip, complete with an image of Tanner with his electric guitar and his BSA flat-track thumper.

Those were the days, man.