A Century of Motorcycling | The 1930s

By Motorcyclist Staff, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

Hope was about all many Americans had in the fourth decade of the 20th century, and even that could be hard to come by. Little Orphan Annie, Shirley Temple and The Wizard of Oz helped the country keep its chin up in the wake of the Depression, as the Great Plains and points east were enveloped in a giant Dust Bowl. The depressed economy put the brakes on technological progress and froze U.S. motorcycle design at the 1930 level, while foreign manufacturers continued to advance. A tax levied on bikes over 224 lbs. prompted the British to produce lighter-weight machines, getting a leg up on once-dominant Harley-Davidson and Indian.

1930

Harley-Davidson introduces a 74 cubic-inch side-valve V-twin and 30 c.i. single.

J.S. Wright sets a new motorcycle land-speed record of 150 mph on his JAP-powered OEC streamliner.

The first Ariel Square Four is produced, based on a design conceived two years prior.

Police cars get radios. Motorcyclists fret.

Mahatma Gandhi leads Indian opposition to British rule, pioneering the use of non-violent civil disobedience.

1931

Empire State Building opens. At 1454 feet it will stand as the world’s tallest building for 35 years.

The Star Spangled Banner is adopted as the American national anthem.

1932

The Western Motorcyclist and Bicyclist becomes the official publication of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), and the title is changed to The Motorcyclist. The union helps the magazine weather the Depression, when all other American motorcycle magazines went under.

Warner Brothers releases the first All-Talking, All-Color movie.

1933

President Franklin D. Roosevelt implements his New Deal, intended to address the “3Rs”: Relief, Recovery and Reform.

Triumph introduces its first 650cc twin.

Japanese manufacturer Rikuo begins building Harley-Davidson copies under license. The two companies continue to collaborate until the onset of WWII.

Adolf Hitler wins the German federal election to become the Chancellor of Germany, bringing his Nazi beliefs to the forefront of German politics.

Prohibition repealed.

Scotch tape introduced.

1934

Coast-to-coast record set by C. Randolph Whiting on an Indian: 123 hours.

1935

Ernst Henne sets a new land-speed record on a BMW: 159 mph.

New transcontinental record set by Earl Robinson on a Harley: 78 hours, 54 minutes.

First parking meter is installed in Oklahoma City. Within 20 years, more than 1 million are in use across America.

1936

Harley-Davidson introduces the iconic 61 c.i., 45-degree, OHV V-Twin, nicknamed the “Knucklehead” because the cylinder heads resemble clenched fists.

Ernst Henne and BMW raise the land-speed record: 170 mph

Transcontiental record set by Rody Rodenberg on an Indian: 71 hours, 20 minutes.

Transcontinental record set by Connelly & Dauria in Harley-Davidson sidecar: 69 hours, 46 minutes.

Life magazine founded.

1937

Triumph introduces its legendary 500cc Speed Twin, which becomes the standard by which all other sporting motorcycles are measured.

Ernst Henne sets a new speed record on a fully-faired, supercharged, 500cc BMW: 174 mph. The record stands for 14 years. Henne lives to age 101.

First Daytona 200 is held on a 3.2-mile beach course. Ed Kretz wins on a 750cc Indian.

The Hindenberg explodes while attempting to dock in New Jersey. The disaster erodes public confidence and marks the end of the airship era.

Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Model 10 Electra disappear in the Pacific Ocean while attempting a flight around the world.

World’s Fair held in Paris, France.

The Golden Gate Bridge opens in San Francisco.

1938

BSA introduces the Gold Star, developed from the 500cc Empire Star and named after the gold-star medal awarded for race wins.

Triumph introduces the 500cc Tiger 100, which upgrades the Speed Twin design with forged-aluminum pistons, a forged cylinder block and lighter chassis. The engine produces a staggering 33 bhp and is praised as the greatest sports bike of the era.

Hitler annexes Austria as part of his plan to reunite German-speaking nations.

1939

First flashing turn signal.

WWII begins in Europe when France declares war on Germany after Nazi troops invade Poland.

Nuclear fission discovered.

By Motorcyclist Staff
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