Harley Davidson and the Hells Angels – A Tangled History

Harley-Davidson and the Hells Angels. Few pairings are as synonymous as

those two names. The pairing of Harley Davidson and the Hells Angels is

something akin to peanut butter and jelly, but sometimes it turns into

oil and water. In other words, sometimes the two don’t mix. Since the

formation of Hells Angels, Harley Davidson has been their motorcycle of

choice, which hasn’t always thrilled the company. They faced

a negative reaction from the buying public, who connected the company

to the biker gang.

Since the early days of the biker gang, the Hells Angels have seemed to

revel in their poor reputation. To this day many members still wear a

patch on their jacket, signifying their

“one-percenter” status. The label was given to them

in the 1950s after the American Motorcyclist Association claimed that

1% of all bikers clubs were outlaws, the Hells Angels included.

Harley seemed willing, albeit reluctantly, to accept the relationship

until the 1966 release of a Hunter S. Thompson book. Hell’s

Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang

delivered an unflinching description of the gang in action. Thompson

lived around the gang for nearly a year, only leaving after receiving a

severe beating from some members. He wrote about everything

the gang did, including violent beatings and gang rape.

This rape of two teenage girls, 14 and 15, by a group of outlaws, sent

shockwaves across the country. Over 300 Hells Angels members were

gathered for a rally in California when the event occurred, landing

four members in jail, and the rest escorted from the area. The men were

eventually acquitted of rape, but Harley-Davidson was still left with yet

another black mark on their record. Suddenly the company saw themselves

as a willing participants to the actions committed by the gang.

Another incident, documented and verified in Thompson’s book,

occurred in 1961. A man accidentally hit one of the members’

bikes with his car, a shouting match ensued, and the man was severely

beaten as well as having his car destroyed. At the same time, articles

detailing the worst offenses of the Hells Angels appeared in Time,

Life, and The New York Times. In each instance, the bikers connection

to the bikes they loved appeared front and center.

The most famous incident involving the Hells Angels took place in

Altamont, California in 1969. Members of the Oakland chapter were hired

as security guards for a concert featuring some of the biggest bands at

the time. A concert goer who charged the stage was stabbed to death by

one of the Hells Angels. Despite charges being dropped, the incident

had already done damage to Harley-Davidson’s reputation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the tangled relationship between

Harley-Davidson and the Hells Angels became even more strained. A 1983

incident led to four members being charged with conspiracy, after a

conflict with another biker gang. In more recent years, the Hells

Angels tangled with a rival gang in Nevada. The skirmish ended with two

members dead, and two in prison.

Harley-Davidson’s affiliation with the Hells Angels, willing

or not, suffered as a result of poor public opinion. The motorcycle

gangs were the long time loyal customers, who depended on the company

for equipment, but not their only customers. The majority of people who

purchased a motorcycle, had no involvement in a biker gang, but were

fearful of others thinking they were. When the Harley-Angels connection

formed, some customers took their loyalty elsewhere. Throughout certain

points in the history of the company, they’ve blamed their

financial woes on the biker gang. They claim that when the Hells Angels

make the front page, sales plummet.

The history of Harley-Davidson and the Hells Angels, is a long and

tangled one. Thanks to the publicity surrounding the bikers, the

company reached a widespread audience of new consumers. The same

publicity has caused damage to the company’s reputation, but

they have always managed to bounce back. Harley Davidson and the Hells

Angels are two groups that will forever be connected.

Source by Mel Raskinski

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