Kenny Brown, the “Wild Man” of motorcycle trick-riding is seen here tearing it up on a Triumph.
Or rebellious riders, I should say. Thanks to the The Jockey Journal for these amazing pics of the “Wild Man” in action. Seen above and below, “Wild Man” Kenny Brown toured the country in the ’60s putting on one man shows at Drag Strips with his incredible stunts– always on his trusty Triumph.
The British built bikes, like Triumphs, were coveted by American riders for their lighter weight– and for what some considered better handling than the American built bikes at the time. By the 1950s, more Triumphs were sold here in the U.S. than any other country hands down. Triumph had their own version of the badass big bike, and it’s the stuff of legends– the Triumph Thunderbird.
Kenny Brown favored performing his unique brand of motorcycle trickery on a trusty Triumph.
When Triumph released their 650cc vertical-twin Thunderbird in 1950– their racing legacy was off and running. Right away Triumph became the bike of choice for many serious riders– again because of its lightweight, speed and maneuverability on the track and off-road. They soon cemented themselves as an iconic motorcycle brand in the U.S., setting new standards for the rapidly growing sport.
The Triumph Bonneville bike has been an undeniable legend for over 50 years. It’s namesake is a tribute to Johnny Allen’s 193mph World Record run at the Bonneville Salt Flats back in 1955 in a normally aspirated 650cc Triumph powered streamliner called “The Devil’s Arrow”. 1956 brought an unofficial record at Bonneville for another Stormy Mangum-Jack Wilson-Johnny Allen streamliner, “The Texas Cee-Gar”. Yup, these were Texas boys, and darn proud. They’d tell ya that Triumphs were made in Great Britain– made better in Texas! Obviously the Bonneville’s impact on racing was huge. It was an immensely critical building block for many motorcycle land speed world records and attempts.
Up ’til 1953, all Triumph Thunderbirds were blue. Americans wanted them in black, though, so the factory complied, creating a tougher-looking, U.S. only version known as the Blackbird.
Racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah held huge advantages– but there were also huge consequences to be paid if something went wrong at those speeds. If you remember Rollie Free, you know that back in the day, riders would strip down to just the essentials– fitted bathing suit, sneakers, goggles and helmet, in efforts to combat wind resistance and gain critical speed. Back around 1953, 18-year-old Tommy Smith was doing just that for a speed record attempt aboard a Triumph Thunderbird. The Triumph started to wobble, and disaster struck– he lost control of the bike at around 130 mph. Poor little Tommy ended-up with one catastrophic case of road rash that took two years to recover from. Since then, racers have been required to wear leathers on high speed rides at Bonneville.
Arguably the biggest boost for Triumph motorcycles came from Marlon Brando’s 1954 movie “The Wild One.” Riding his own 1950 Thunderbird, Brando played Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels MC in the film that arguably started the biker-flick genre.
James Dean is often knocked for attempting to emulate Marlon Brando by hopping on the motorcycle bandwagon– but that’s just not true. Dean had ben riding since he was a kid back in Indiana farm country. His first bike was a Czech built CZ (ceska zbrojowka or Czechoslovakian weapon factory in English). In 1948 the first series of CZ 350 cc’s appeared in the frame used by the 250 cc. The motor had flat pistons, reverse flow and a capacity of 358 cc. The top speed was underwhelming by today’s standards– 65 mph. When he later bought a new Triumph, Dean sold this bike back to the dealer.
James Dean on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause”, was a well-known Triumph TR5 Trophy rider, but pictured here he’s astride an old Austrian-made “Puch”. These bikes were sold in the U.S. through Sears Roebuck back in the day.
Triumph’s Bonneville celebrated its 50th birthday in 2008, and celebrate it did– releasing two unique one-off designs for the Bonneville each created in a unique collaboration between Ewan McGregor and Belstaff.
According to Triumph– The Bonneville still remains an indisputable icon – a symbol of rebellion and individuality – and still inspires loyalty and emotion in everyone that rides it. Today’s Bonneville is an agile, honest roadster – perfect for getting around town in style or blatting around back lanes.
Marlon Brando astride a British Matchless twin cylinder motorcycle– its ‘M’ logo badge is actually upside-down to resemble a ‘W’, which makes sense since it belonged to stunt rider “Wally” Allbright.
Marlon Brando (and Yvonne Doughty) astride a British Matchless twin cylinder motorcycle– its ‘M’ logo badge is actually upside-down to resemble a ‘W’, which makes sense since it belonged to stunt rider “Wally” Allbright.
Peggy Maley, Marlon Brando and Yvonne Doughty in a studio publicity shot for The Wild One.
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Another stroke of genius. No flattery intended. Brilliant. James Dean is beyond inspiring.
Thanks very much– glad to know there are like-minded gents out there.
Great read! Bonneville is classic.
i am an instant fan!
my grandfather owned a textiles company in NYC and i grew up around well dressed men and bolts of fabric. i love the selvedge!
and i like looking at uber boy things, makes me happy.
i don’t know if i can leave a pic, but here’s my dad’s passport pic from the 70’s.
i’ll be rounding back around here often.
Welcome and thanks for sharing. Tell me more about your Grandfather.
okay. hmm? let’s see. can i write this in a comment?
my grandfather was a ukrainian jewish immigrant to new york before wwii. he left school in 7th grade and began working in the garment business. whether it was by accident or not it must have been the right place for him because he had a great sense for textiles and business. at some point, he began his own company with a partner: schwartz liebman and co. he was considered a “prince” in the business as i am told, lots of hot heads typically and he was always a gentleman, did the right thing, etc. enough so that he was very well loved.
he married my grandmother rose who was an irish catholic (with a hint of cherokee or mohawk sprinkled in my father insists for romance factor) and agreed to raise my dad and his two brothers as catholics. my g.m. had a weak heart (as they said then) and so he would take them to church every sunday.
he was a great dresser, wow! my dad still has a pair of the best shoes ever, a pinstripe suit and glorious ties that were his and worn by him and then my dad too. my dad’s dresser drawers was a mecca of all things awesomely man. cufflinks and white little collar stick thingies and the best real horn shoe horn and shoe brushes more identical black socks and v-neck undershirts layered precisely. a giant heavy drawer in the middle was seprated in three and stacked with the most delicious starched shirts, blue stripe, white, pink, yeah, and handsome dress sweaters, but also rugged irish sweaters. velvety corduroy trouses and just all with a lingering smell of good cologne and soap. he used to let take the blade off one of his razors and lather up my face and let me shave with him sometimes. yeah! and he had all the most amazing three piece suits. wow.
that’s how men’s clothing i think should be made. women can get away with fashion but men’s clothes i think must be timeless and well crafted. (although it’s not really fair, but i was seriously spoiled by uber well dressed men).
okay, back to grandpa norman, (who actually was nathan but he didn’t know his real name till he was a middle aged man), had a house built in east hampton with a great private beachfront and the place was just dreamy, i remember spending my summers there as a kid and the whole thing was danish modern with amazing fabrics (of course) but all of the place sort of vibed subtley of the sea. super high shine floors with a wall of windows looking out over the great lawn and onto the beach, reflecting the feeling of the generally calm bay. a sail boat. boston whaler. fast and fun. water skiing and volleyball. the meals were always corn drenched in butter and salted madly, giant lobster and uber thick steaks (i am a veg now but then i grew up a lobster glutton as all my family were long island peeps) and he would cook us kids the best scrambled eggs and buttered toast for breakfast as you looked out at the sea.
he was an abe lincoln fanatic and had tables made to display special things he had collected which eventually were donated to museums. he was famous for jumping parking meters or seeing a grand banister and having to slide down it, other idiosyncracies similar, i am told, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. when she passed, before i was born he moved into the village and i guess soon after sold the business to cranston prints (i could be wrong on the name).
he bought my dad an austin healey (convertible) for his senior year of college and tho i doubt he would have needed it to woo my mom, you know…a cool car doesn’t hurt. the joke was she had to get out of the car and fix the mirrors all the time cause they were always getting bumped and were too far away for him to do it on his own. (romantic?)
in the eves of our house’s attic in jamaica estates we had bolts of fabrics, like a whole line of a style in various colors and i loved being up there sliding my hand between them. it was my hide out. it had a strange kind of magic for me. my mom says it was the formaldehyde making me feverish which may be true but i loved fabric, still do!
my dad went into investment banking which he was amazing at and his brothers did their own things too…still i wish i could have taken over the business but i was a generation too late.
in his retirement years my grandfather remarried a woman he knew as a child growing up who had become a malibu gal! she had this glass box of a house hanging onto the edge of a cliff looking out onto the sea. he moved out there. she is 93 now and still amazing! and he went on many adventures around america with her in a giant white jeep cherokee chief, often getting it stuck out on some canyon in the desert and just being a bad boy in his sixties. i believe he had a heart attack while recaning a handsome old rocking chair. the chair was just sort of left with the weaving exactly as it was, a giant loop of the rush or cane or whatever it was called, tucked in but unfinished. i thought it was a beautiful mellow death actually and in a way reminded me of textiles, you know– weaving.
and on the extreme other side of grandfathers, my maternal grandfather was a wild character. he was a spy in wwii, a pow and eventually a narc while moonlighting as superintendent of schools in long island. a feared man, seriously! he smoked a corn cob pipe, had a freaky twitch on one side of his face from the war and absurdly giant forearms. his nick name was popeye. if you’ve ever read the book or have seen the french connection that was based on my grandfather and his partner’s work. too many stories about that man. bullet holes in the caddy doors, flying through windshields before they had shatter proof glass, broken necks and backs, near death this and that, chase cars and rendez vous. and although we won’t know for sure ever, many people in the family claim he was the first trainer of the navy seals. i do remember him telling me, like in lieu of proper bedtime stories several interesting ways to kill a man– among other things. should i say that in a blog comment. wink wink.
strange fun beginnings and still a strange fun life so far.
thanks for inspiring me to think a bit about my colorful family…the memories go on and on.
Was wonderin’ when you’d get to this. My brother turned me on to brit bikes in the early 70’s when he brought home a BSA 441 Victor Special, which, in my small home town stuck out like a sore thumb compared to all the Honda Super Hawks and their newer 4 cylinder younger brothers. Just bought my own 67 Bonnie flat tracker a couple a spring times ago from a little shop on Hollywood and Vermont.
Maybe you know Justin…it’s sweet.
My Triumph Speed Triple is one of my all-time faves.
Where’s Bob Dylan? He had a sweet Triumph Tiger 500 CC!
ive got a 05′ bonneville and i LOVE riding it. ive got it looking like a 60’s model with after market stuff. its got great pick up and doing and gets intense when doing the TON
The bike that James Dean is on is not a Triumph of any type. It is a Styer Damiler Puch; i’m not possitive of the year most likely late ’50. This is a popular photo of James Dean; I have no idea if he owned this or not. But I know it’s a Puch because I own one.
Dean died in ’55 so it’s not possible for it to be a late ’50s model. I’ve never heard of him owning a Puch, so it might have belonged to one of the street kids cast in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Thanks for that info.
Heck, I think we’d all love a 60’s Triumph…
But I think I would take a new Bonneville over a Speed Triple.
also, I love the blog!
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I’ve been riding since childhood and my 2004 Speed Triple is the most amazing bike I’ve ever owned/ridden. Dead reliable with performance, character, and soul to burn. Go get one…
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I don’t know if anyone else shivered like I did when I put together road rash + Bonneville salt flats. Talk about your double whammies!
I’ve taken two cross country trips on a new Bonneville and loved every second of it!
I had a ’69 bonnie aka T120R back in my college days, ’76-’79.
After a nasty encounter with an oldsmobile, I sold what was left of it. The resulting litigation and settlement allowed me to buy 3 windy and wet acres on hawaii’s big island. Always regretting that sale, about 10 years ago, I obtained a ’72 commando. Smoother ride, but a lot more wrenching. At 52, all I can say is this bike is here to stay.
Sweet! My dad used to ride one of these.
Great photos. I’ve just stumbled across your site recently thanks to a link to your post on Andre the Giant. Now, back on point, I’ve got a ’96 Thunderbird Sport that I’ll never, ever part ways with. It needs to warm up soon.
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Love this site, every single thing about it. It’s all the things I love and desire represented in perfect imagery. Great work. When I finish building out my 75′ CB550 my next dream bike to acquire will be a 56′ Matchless G11 and then I’m gonna get me a 70’s rock and roll van and airbrush the bejesus out of it.
I have a 1977 Silver Jubilee Bonneville. Truly my prized possession restored it from the frame up. Still a fickle beast they are tricky to maintain but uber cool.
I admit, I bought a new Bonneville- actually an ironically named America. I love the old ones but I’m not yet a good enough mechanic to plug a classic Bonnie’s oil leaks and sort the Lucas wiring gremlins all the time. I want to take my girlfriend cross country and bought the right bike to do it on.
I’m more than happy with my purchase- it’s a solid, beautiful bike that recalls the old, performs like only a modern bike can, and will be a classic in the future, maybe something I can pass on to my future kids.
Thanks for this post, a friend shared it with me and now I have your other great posts to catch up on.
I’ve watched the wild one tons of times and could never figure out why that matchless had the “M” upside down …..thanks
My favorite Triumph was my ’76 Trident 750 triple. Great in the canyons and a looker too: unusual white/gold color combo that was a lot prettier than it might sound. Lucas electrics sucked though.
having grown up around pre unit British motorbikes and being lucky enough to have worked for a bona fide legend of a frame builder. (spondon engineering) i obviously love bikes from my own country with a fondness i just dont have for others.
they really do have a character unlike anything else.
but the american image of british bikes is all wrong. Americans demanded bigger bars and more chrome, and big plush seats, even changes in chassis design to make them a more lazy ride.
consequently i find most of the post 1960 triumphs to be quite vulgar, especially in American trim.
i own a 1970 us spec bonnie and it has to go.
the romanticism for me lies in 40s and 50`s triumphs like the thunderbird above or a speed twin.
this is my fathers bike which he has owned since he was 16 and to me that rigid rear and nacelle headlamp sum up what a triumph should be.
its an ex raf trw, effectively a sidevalve speed twin.
it just seems the america was 15 years late lusting after british bikes.
by the 60s a pre unit contruction with a vertically split crankcase was well past its sell by date and the british motorcycle industry it could be said was on a slow downwards slope.
incidentally the story of spondon engineering and bob stevenson is kind of in line with this blogs content. he was a hugely charismatic racer whos hand made chassis pioneered modern aluminium frame construction and literally kicked a stagnant industry up the arse in the 60`s and 70`s making bikes that could beat factory teams simply because of a far far superior chassis. hes known as sweary bob and a real character and a challenge to work for but my word he understands the geometry of a motorcycle like no one else.
its actually not that easy to find info on him as theres no wiki page or anything official. a great little known icon though that changed the whole field of motorcycle design.