The Popularity of Motorcycles

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Motorcycle Culture

The image that comes to mind when we think of ‘car enthusiast’ is not quite as potent as what we typically imagine a biker to look like – motorcycle enthusiasts seem to have their own dress code, a lot of tattoos, and rock soundtrack. 

What attracts so many people to motorcycles, and why do some make the culture surrounding bikes part of their life?

Motorcycle Cult

When we think of a biker, many of us picture a tough guy with leather clothing, maybe a biker vest with a gang logo, and tattoos, who lives an alternative lifestyle and is very much into rock music. If not part of a biker club themselves, bikers are often found on biker rallies to celebrate with other enthusiasts.

Look at movies like Easy Rider (1969) or TV shows like Sons of Anarchy (2008 – 2014) which have popularized motorbiking respectively. Clearly, there is a certain style and feeling that is connected to biking, that has turned the two-wheeler into a cult object.

What Makes a Cult a Cult?

Let’s look at the definition of the word cult to figure out whether traditional motorcycle culture could be described as such and if so, why it fits. Merriam-Webster defines a cult as:

“A small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.”

And the alternative/addendum:

“A situation in which people admire and care about
something or someone very much or too much.”

Obviously, many motorcycle riders care about their bikes/motorcycling very, or even too much. 

While we don’t consider it as a religion, what are the beliefs surrounding motorcycle culture, and how are they dangerous?

The Danger

This one is easy to answer: Riding a motorcycle is, statistically, much riskier than driving a car. Motorcycles are harder to control, offer less protection, and are often overlooked in traffic situations, leaving the rider vulnerable to injuries. That’s why it is highly recommended to buy motor gear, by for example, that will protect your body from rashes, bruises, and worse. But it is the risk paired with the image of violent gang member bikers that grounds a strong opposition against motorcycling.

The Beliefs

We can study biking history and some motorcycle media to figure out if motorcycle culture has some sort of belief system. There are three “moments” in time that help us understand the motorcycle culture since they pulled it into the mainstream focus:

  • The Wild One

The movie The Wild One from 1953 was based on a short story (Frank Rooney: The Cyclist’s Raid, 1951) that was in turn based on the real-life events of the American Motorcyclist Association motorcycle rally in Hollister, which got out of hand during the Fourth of July weekend in 1947.

The author was inspired by the sensationalistic media coverage. He turned biker gangs into disruptive criminals who wreck towns but still have a good core, like Johnny, who are often just misunderstood and treated unfairly by the authorities and society.

Hollywood bad boy Marlon Brando’s role as biker gang leader Johnny made motorcycling widely popular, especially among teenagers with anti-establishment mindsets. After the movie came out, Schott NYC, the manufacturer of the first motorcycle leather jacket Schott Perfecto, had problems fulfilling the demand for their product. Entire schools started banning motorcycle jackets because they wanted to keep the students away from the bad influence of rebellious motorcycle culture.

  • Easy Rider

Another biker movie that spoke to young people and in turn turned into a landmark of counterculture movies. With its dreary plot disproving the American Dream, it effectively captured the zeitgeist of the time, exploring social issues and the tension towards young adults and their anti-establishment ideals, like the hippie movement and its communal lifestyles. In it, bikers were a dying breed and outlaws in an environment that grows more hostile towards their a-typical lifestyle with each day.

  • Rock & Punk Movements

It’s hard to imagine punk or rock bands without leather jackets. After Brando wore the jacket in The Wild One, these subcultures started to prominently wear the Schott Perfecto as well. Why? It symbolized their rebellious and anti-establishment mindset perfectly.

Clearly, there is a pattern here. Motorcycle culture has been connected to certain ideals from the beginning, that have been reinforced again and again. The three ‘core beliefs’ are:

  • freedom
  • individualism
  • anti-establishment mindset


Motorcycle riders are the modern-day cowboys; outlaws who are unburdened and free to roam. They make their own rules and don’t bend to society’s norms. It’s this mythology that draws many people to motorcycling as more than a simple means of transportation. Among other bikers, they find like-minded individuals with whom they can bond over shared interests. This strong imagery is what separates motorcycles from other vehicles and led to the creation of the motorcycle cult as we know it.

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