By David Walters
The culture has shifted to say the least since William, Arthur, Walter and the boys got down to business. It has changed since Yonkers MC first transitioned from Bicycles to single valve engines. The culture has changed since the last board track race, or since Playa Del Rey saw its last race. The discussion of what direction we are moving our culture and our future into is a debated one. It doesn’t contain a right answer and it as all the arguments of a physical, socioeconomic, societal, and tradition in support of either side of the argument. This article certainly isn’t here to sway you to the older days or the change brought on by the 60s. Another day another time.
The early days of Motorcycle history, racing, and clubs, should be something that everybody enjoys though. Look past your favorite team or your Support Your Local whatever. Preserving our culture, heritage, past and our future should be everyone’s concern. I don’t care if you are a Top 1% club, a mom and popper, a hard-core racer, a hooligan, or a weekend warrior with your buddies. All of us were born in Milwaukee, London (the oldest MC) and Elmhurst, Culver City, Oakland, and of course Play Del Ray.
Ashley Franklin “A.F” Van Order was literally everything I wish I was. Born in Illinois in 1886, he would go on to become a Board Track racer, the first historian and photographer of Motorcycle events during the early Southern California Racing heyday, witness the birth of some of the first Motorcycle Clubs (not the first), founded of one of the most prestigious MCs (not an MC in the traditional sense), and a 3-time Hall of Fame inductee (AMA, Sturgis, and Trailblazers MC HOF). He would be there in the early 1900s at Agriculture Park in Southern California, the birthplace of American Motorcycle Racing.
Van Order started off in the dangerous world of Board Track Racing. Racers would race in wooden motordomes, similar to bicycle races of Europe and would hit speeds in access of 100mph at points on the high banked tracks. This was the Super Bowl of the sporting world at the time. As many as 12 to 20,000 spectators would attend early races in Southern California. It was not uncommon after bills and promoters were paid, for a winning rider to take home over 5,000 dollars in prize money. Quite a sum in the 1905. It was in 1910 that he moved to Southern California to ride and race year-round.
Van Order would end his racing career after a devastating injury took partial sight in one of his eyes. The story goes that after the injury his wife issued him an ultimatum, he could continue to race with a partial eye or stay married. This caused him to focus on selling bikes, taking some of the first recorded pictures of motorcycles, motorcycle events, and races. He would become one of the first to recognize the need to preserve the early history of the culture and spent the last half of his life doing exactly that. Van Order was the first historian and without his passion we would have considerably less knowledge of our own beginnings
Van Order would record pictures of some of the legendary first production bikes of Indian, Excelsior, and Harley. He would travel with the Harley racing team the “Wrecking Crew”. One of his closest friends was Lawrence Ray Weishaar. Ray as he was known was a champion Class A racer in the 1910s and 20s. He made HOG famous for Harley and not as a Harley owners group. Ray had a pig for a mascot and after Ray or someone on the Wrecking Crew won a race, the pig would take a victory lap with the rider. Ray would unfortunately be killed in a race as would another famous Wrecking Crew member, Shrimp Burns.
Some historical clubs owe their first documented pictures to him. He covered the rise and fall of board tracks and wrote stories about the riders who raced, and too often lost their lives, on incredibly dangerous circuits of the day. He covered the great on-track battles between the big three American makers, Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior. In 1936 he founded the Trailblazers MC, originally called “The Old Timers”. His requirement for membership was that a rider had to have at least 20 years of experience on a motorcycle. At the first banquet meeting held in Los Angels, 145 people attended. Van Order documented the distance traveled, total miles a rider had in a career, or how long they had been riding for, and documented it in the first notes of a Trailblazers meeting (as I mentioned, called The Old Timers for the first few years).
You can still see facts pulled from the notes on the Trailblazers website including the documentation that one attendee had been riding since 1899. The Trailblazers MC today still holds an annual banquet and is deeply involved in the preservation of Motorcycle history. To be inducted into their Hall of Fame is a high honor and includes such notables as – Hap Alzia, Scott Autrey, Cannonball Baker, John Cameron, John Davis, Bud Elkins, Floyd Emde, Jim Hunter, Hap Jones, Ed Kretz SR and Jr and many other greats. Today legendary rider Don Emde (Daytona 200 winner among other accolades) sits as the President of the Trailblazers.
Van Order passed away in 1954. Before his death he had also been writing for Motorcyclist Magazine for over 20 years. He had a popular column called “30 years with Van” where he documented and discussed many of the early aspects and start to the sport and its stars. Van Order was inducted in to the AMA Hall of Fame in 1998.
The last bit from his AMA induction into the AMA Hall of Fame says it best – ” Many of Van Order’s original film images, converted from glass plates, sat in a shoebox for more than 40 years, passed down to his daughter. The box of film was eventually passed down to Van Order’s great-grandson, and under his care the precious images are being restored and preserved. Several of Van Order’s images were displayed as part of the Guggenheim Museum’s “The Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit. It’s safe to say that if it were not for A.F. Van Order, much of the rich history of the early days of motorcycle racing in America would be lost to time.