Continuing my study of Bikes and Babes, we’ll take a look at women motorcyclists that made history in the early years.
In 1915 Avis and Effie Hotchkiss, a mother and daughter team, rode from New York to California to attend the San Francisco World’s Fair while making themselves the first female riders to cross the United States. They rode on a three speed V-twin Harley Davidson equipped with a sidecar to accommodate Avis. It took them two months and, upon reaching San Francisco, Effie made it a point to make a splash in the Pacific Coast ocean so that she experienced the waters of both coasts, and, in a sense, live up to altering the tides of the times before making their way back to New York!
The next year, two society women in their 20s, sisters Adeline and Augusta Van Buren bought a pair of Indian Powerplus Bikes. They were the first people ever to climb up and down Pike’s Peak. They, too, completed a transcontinental ride. Their 3,300-mile trip took almost two months, and they had to contend not only with many unpaved roads, but also with social mores. Once they were arrested for publicly wearing trousers.
Known as the Motorcycle Queen of Miami, Bessie Stringfield started riding when she was 16. She was the first African-American woman to travel cross-country solo, and she did it at age 19 in 1929, riding a 1928 Indian Scout. Bessie traveled through all of the lower 48 states during the ’30s and ’40s at a time when the country was rife with prejudice and hatred. She later rode in Europe, Brazil, and Haiti and during World War II she served as one of the few motorcycle despatch riders for the United States military.
Women’s Royal Naval Service, Miss Barrington Ward, Dispatch — 1941
Vivian Bales, The “Enthusiast Girl” was a young, female rider who appeared on the cover of The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine in May and November, 1929 and toured the country on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle following her cover shot. Harley-Davidson will always be grateful to her for the goodwill she spread on her cross-country motorcycle trip, a trip that would make her one of the first great women riders.
Linda Dugeau learned to ride a motorcycle in 1932, and stories about her early tours appeared in the pages of Motorcyclist magazine. In 1938, she began a letter-writing campaign to establish a national network of female motorcyclists who owned and rode their own machines. Thus was born the Motor Maids. In the 1930s, women riders were so rare that it took Linda and Dot Robinson three years to locate the charter members of The Motor Maids. The organization was chartered with the AMA in 1941, making it the oldest motorcycle organization for women in North America.
Dot Robinson was a woman before her time. In 1939, following up on the idea formulated by Linda Dugeau, Dot rode all over the United States looking for women who owned and rode their own motorcycles. She found 51 ladies who became the charter members of the Motor Maids of America, now known as the Motor Maids, Inc. To this day, the founding premise, that the group consist of women who own and ride their own motorcycles, is still the backbone of the organization.
Terry Strong, female partner to “Flash” White, was a motorcycle daredevil performing in a Motordrome 30 feet in diameter with 15 foot high walls, doing acrobatic stunts with and without hands. This photograph was featured in Life Magazine 1948.
In 1932, Louise Scherbyn began riding at the encouragement of her husband. She was initially worried about her reputation, but soon overcame that. Louise claims to be the first American woman to reach the Timagami Forest of Canada in 1937. Louise became involved in many motorcycle clubs, eventually founding the Women’s International Motorcycle Association (WIMA), which still exists today.
Anke-Eve Goldman was a female racer in the ’50s and ’60s who had a passion for speed and high performance motorcycles. This six-foot beauty taught German on a U.S. Air Force base to the children of soldiers stationed there. A motorcycle riding school teacher, Anke, by the late 50s, quickly became quite a popular figure and spokesperson for BMW, although in later years rode M.V. Agusta 750cc DOHC 4-cylinder hotrods, perhaps the first and only woman to do so. She was a glorious sensation.
Marianne Weber, a Journalist from Belgium, tested the R68 for the French magazine “MOTORCYCLE” (issue 81/August 18, 1952) and achieved a top speed of more than 160 km/h and gave the proof that the R68 was a real 100-mph racing-bike. This photo was made by “R.G. Everts” in April 1952. Marianne Weber later achieved 162.895 km/h (101.24 mph) in 1954.
In an era when riding a motor-bike was not thought to be a terribly ladylike occupation, Beryl Swain became, in 1962, the first woman solo rider to negotiate the notorious Isle of Man Tourist Trophy course in an official event. That year she rode her Italian Itom 50cc Racer into 22nd place in a field of 25 in a TT race around the notorious 37-mile mountain road course, which has claimed many lives and inflicted fearful injuries over the years. It was the first year in which the 50cc Ultra Lightweight class had been granted world championship status, and the class was to prove immensely popular. But this was not, alas, to be the start of an international career for Swain. Feeling that Isle of Man TT racing was far too dangerous for solo women, the sport’s ruling body moved swiftly and revoked her international license, effectively putting an end to a career at that level.
Olga Kevelos, Trials motorcyclist, was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham to a Greek financier father and English mother on 6 November 1923. Working at the Royal Observatory when the Second World War broke out, she volunteered to work on the canals with “The Idle Women”, the waterborne equivalent of the Land Girls. Their badges bore the legend “IW”, for “Inland Waterways” and she spent the war on barges carrying vital supplies. The women were far from idle. “[It was] hard work, with no respite at all,” she said later. “We worked an 18- to 20-hour day, and nobody ever stopped.” After the War, having taken motobike lessons from a boyfriend, she became a successful Trials rider. “It started as a way to see my boyfriend at weekends at first, but I soon realized I enjoyed it and was quite good at it, too,” she said.
She began competing internationally, with the backing of almost every major British motorcycle manufacturer during the course of her career. She won two gold medals at the 1949 and 1953 international six-day trials and went on to ride with varying degrees of success in every every International Six-Day Trial through 1966 and in every Scottish Six-Day Trial until she retired in 1970.
As more and more female motorcyclists take to the trails and roadways, I believe we’ll see even more women riding into documented history. I’ll close here with a couple of photographs of my own grandmother, Vera Evangline War, from her motorcycle trip in California in 1922, that I unfortunately know very little about, other than she looked great and appeared to be having a wonderful time with her fellow riders.
Highway 50 near Strawberry Lodge, California