A Brief History of "Outlaw" Motorcycle Clubs


William L. Dulaney


Little scholarly research exists which addresses outlaw motorcycle clubs. These works attempt to explore warring factions of outlaw clubs, provide club members’ perspectives about media portrayal, expose myths, and elucidate motorcycle club culture.*1 The literature reveals gaps which leave many unanswered questions: Where do outlaw motorcycle clubs come from? How did they start? How or why did they evolve into alleged international crime organizations? The few histories of outlaw motorcycle organizations date the origins of such clubs to around 1947 and tend to oversimplify the issues of why these clubs formed and who actually joined them. Histories such as these are built on foundations of weak evidence, rendering inconsequential the origins of the subculture and relegating members of early organizations to the marginal status of “malcontents on the edge of society, and other antisocial types who just wanted to raise hell” (Valentine 147). This article extends current research by reaching back nearly half a century before 1947 to link the dawn of motorcycle organizations with the present reality of outlaw motorcycle clubs. The overarching goal of the article is to offer a more comprehensive history, an evolutionary history that may allow for a better understanding of contemporary motorcycle subculture.

What follows is a taxonomy of social and historical factors affecting group formation of motorcycle clubs according to the following temporal classification:

1. Preformative period: 1901-1944, the genesis of social organization around motorcycling

2. Formative period: 1945-1957, social and historical events of the post-World War II era coalesced in the formation of outlaw motorcycle clubs, and

3. Transformative period: 1958-present.

Underpinning the primary and secondary historical data cited in this essay are in-depth interviews with and personal histories of long-time members of outlaw motorcycle clubs, both one-percent and non-one-percent organizations. This ethnographic study, conducted by the author, took place primarily in the southeastern United States (e.g., Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia) from June 2000 through May 2004, but extensive participant observations took place in Texas, New York, Indiana, Ohio, Arkansas, Utah, Arizona, and California while attending regional and national motorcycle club gatherings. *2

Finally, a point of clarification is in order. For the purposes of this essay the term outlaw is used to describe motorcycling organizations that are not affiliated with the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), and the name of a specific motorcycling organization (i.e. the Outlaws Motorcycle Club). It is important to note that for the purposes of this essay the term outlaw does not, in and of itself, refer to the breaking of law. However, when used in the context of describing “one-percent” motorcycle clubs, which are defined in detail below, the term takes on a more ominous tone. It is not my intention to suggest that the term outlaw is synonymous with illegal endeavor; rather, I wish to outline important differences and commonalities between one-percent and outlaw motorcycle clubs