Riding motorcycles with your buddies is the very essence of any bike club, it’s all good clean fun. Just don't start mixing the motorcycle riding and comradeship with any organized crime, because at that point the club will become a gang, the members will become outlaws, and life, in general, will be very different.
Pretty much all the biggest, most well-known MC’s (Motorcycle Clubs) were founded in the USA and although there are clubs all over the world, the true heart of the one-percenter is very much ensconced in the American psyche.
There are thought to be around five hundred outlaw clubs operating in the US, with many, if not most, riding the outlaw biker's number one bike of choice - Harley Davidson. Let's dive into the secret world of bikers.
The American Motorcyclist Association sanctions competition and organizations such as motorcycle clubs. Some sources say the origin of the term "outlaw biker group" was in reference to clubs that weren’t sanctioned by the AMA. After several members of these non-AMA-sanctioned clubs made the news as a result of their shenanigans, the term gained a closer association to disregard for the law.
Some outlaw motorcycle clubs can be distinguished by a "1%" patch worn on the colors. This is said to refer to a comment by the American Motorcyclist Association that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens, implying the last one percent were outlaws. These outlaws immediately embraced the term and wear it with pride on their vests.
To understand the evolution of outlaw motorcycle groups, we'll have to go back to the beginning. Supposedly, the very first outlaw group was founded in 1935 in a suburban Chicago bar - the unimaginatively named “Outlaw Motorcycle Club,” more commonly known as the Outlaws, were the first group of, well, outlaw bikers.
After the Outlaws were first formed, it would be another 13 years before the Angels appeared on the scene in the San Bernardino, California. The Angels, Outlaws, and other clubs experienced exponential growth in the post-World War II era thanks to a large influx of disenfranchised ex-military personnel. To this day, a lot of members of these clubs are military veterans.
Most of the returning WW2 soldiers who joined biker clubs felt strongly about the country they fought for. With this sense of loyalty, identity, patriotism, and pride, most American veterans wouldn’t consider buying a non-US-made motorcycle. Adding to this, Harleys were actually the cheap bikes of the time. This was amplified by the US Army selling off inventory of surplus bikes following the second world war.
Axis nations weren’t really selling or exporting motorcycles after WWII. When Japan finally did get back on its feet, outlaws remained opposed to buying Japanese bikes - perhaps because the AMA embraced Japanese machinery? In addition to being American, H-Ds embody freedom, independence, rebellion, strength, and masculinity. Though Harleys are a lot more expensive these days, yet they remain the go-to choice for outlaw motorcycle clubs.
The creation of the originals by veterans of the Second World War is mirrored by their maintenance by veterans of the Vietnam War and now the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – unlike street thugs, memberships of biker gangs skew more into their forties than teens. It's not unusual for a club to have many ex-military members who are highly trained.
Initially trying to distance themselves from the outlaw clubs, Harley would later embrace the one-percenter culture. Tattoos, club vests, and beards built a mystique around bikers like that enjoyed by mobsters and Robin Hood-like figures. Harley quickly capitalized on this mystique by offering a dream of personal freedom to doctors, lawyers, accountants, and plastic surgeons - attracted by the brand’s hard edge, and the lure of escapism.
The Angels have grown into a sophisticated business organization that carefully guards its symbols and trademarks. The organization has pursued trademark infringement litigation against such entities as Toys'R'Us, Amazon, Saks, and Marvel Comics. They even sued the Disney Corporation over the film Wild Hogs. Typically, cases are settled with a recall of products, cessation of manufacture of infringing items, and occasionally damages which are usually donated to charity.
There is one club that possesses much more sophistication when it comes to marketing their image, symbols, trademarks. For the Angels, merchandise has evolved into a highly sophisticated process that even involves a detailed and extensive website where the public can purchase clothing and browse pics and videos. The Mongols, Outlaws, and most other motorcycle clubs have also started creating websites with similar information and merchandise.
People often think of bikers as free-spirited anarchists who want to live by no rules. Biker outlaws look like that, but they’re structured more like the military. It’s hierarchical; they have a huge amount of rules and regulations and by-laws, and they’re incredibly structured. They’re more advanced than your normal street click and they’ll do surveillance on their enemies.
The insignia on the back of their vests states the name and sports its logo. Most crucial is the ‘bottom rocker’, which runs underneath the logo, declaring the state the group dominates. In a Highlander-esque system, only one gang can rule a state at a time, so donning a state claimed by another is seen as a serious provocation - serious enough to start a war.
As it's often impossible to pin something to the clubs or their leaders, law enforcement agencies have to use various loopholes in order to get to them. This is nothing new, that's how they finally managed to lock up Al Capone back in the day as well. The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act is usually the government's go-to "weapon" these days.
While openly wearing gear and showing off tattoos the police know is either a provocation or a record of past criminal acts, you may be surprised to learn that being a member of any gang, biker or not, is not illegal in the US – but, it can lead to greater police harassment and enhanced prison sentences for related activity.
It’s important that members own and ride a motorcycle - preferably a Harley. The bikers themselves say that their clubs really are organizations dedicated to riding, however, there have been many instances of that rule being fudged. To this day, there are many overseas chapters of the big clubs that infuriate domestic leadership by accepting members who ride small motorcycles, even scooters, if they ride at all.
You can’t just apply to be a 1-percenter biker. The clubs are looking for just the right kind of men they believe check all of their boxes. Three criteria stand out in an ideal recruit: the ability to take care of himself in a ﬁght, the ability to make himself, or the club, money and the ability to keep his mouth shut.
Charles Falco – who infiltrated three of these groups said: “It’s like pledging for a violent fraternity. You’re basically their slaves and, depending on the biker gang, it could be four months or two years. You’re pretty much at these guys’ beck and call 24/7 – A tiny mistake will get you a black eye.” Extensive background checks are done on prospective members.
Most clubs have a minimum size limit for bikes, measured by their engine displacement. The Outlaws constitution says that they will take bikes with engines as small as 605 cubic centimeters, while Bandidos cut off at 750, the Warlocks at 883 and the Pagan’s at 900. These rules originated in the 1970s when the Harley-Davidson brand hit its lowest point.
“It’s always been important for Hells Angels to ride American-made machines,” wrote Hells Angels legend Sonny Barger in his memoir. “In terms of pure workmanship, personally I don’t like Harleys. I ride them because I’m in the club, and that’s the image, but if I could, I would seriously consider riding a Honda ST1100 or a BMW.” Barger later switched from a Harley-Davidson to a Victory for his primary ride.
Many unofficial lists of requirements for joining a one-percenter MC include owning a functioning Harley-Davidson. However, some do specify that exceptions such as Indians and Buells are sometimes permitted. In addition to just owning an American bike, members are expected to utilize V-twin-powered American motorcycles as their primary means of transportation.