The First Toy Run

December 4, 2008

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The fine and revered institution of the motorcycle toy run is now in its 35th year.

It all started in the long ago, “Biker’s Rights” year of 1973.

And, unless you lived through it you can’t begin to imagine how strange life was then.  Try to imagine outlaws demonstrating in the streets, chanting, “Stop the helmet law, man!  Stop the helmet law now!”  Seventy-three was a time when most bikers looked like hippies, hippies wanted to look like bikers and bikers and hippies were both held-by the government, by the FBI, by Nixon, by Middle America-in the same low regard.

Now the hippies are all United States Senators and we are all still scooter trash.  And, like us the toy run will simply not go away.

The Good Old Days

Seventy-three was the year Easyriders magazine instigated ABATE, which meant “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.”  Which really meant “Us Against the Helmet Law.”  Doesn’t the original meaning of ABATE sound like something a hippie chick made up?  Well, in one version of history the hippie chick was a secretary at Easyriders.

Seventy-three was the year a bunch of guys in Los Angeles who did not necessarily ride with a club got together to became the Modified Motorcycle Association (MMA).  And, what “Modified Motorcycle” really meant was a chopper.

And, ’73 was one of many years when the police were determined to crush us and the helmet law was just one weapon in their arsenal.  California cops were also very big on “safety inspections.”  And, as you certainly know, when a cop says “safety inspection” what he really means is, “Now I got you, you son of a bitch!”

The MMA

Every California bike was supposed to have at least one mirror, two mufflers, an odometer, a horn, two brakes, a high beam indicator, turn signals and handlebars that were lower than your shoulders.  Nag, nag, nag.

And, if a cop couldn’t write you up for any of that there was always Vehicle Code 24002:  Unsafe Equipment, which usually meant that you had stretched your front end and lowered the bike down into the weeds.  But, like all the cops’ most favorite laws, in the end VC24002 meant anything a cop wanted it to mean.

VC24002 was really authorization to harass bikers.  So, depending on the cop, you could be cited for too high a sissy bar or for swapping the shocks on your Ironhead for struts.

The MMA allowed guys to compare notes on what you could and could not get away with in which jurisdictions.  And, it was a spokesman for bikers rights.  And, for a brief time, it assumed the thankless role of goodwill ambassador from the biker subculture to the great, straight world at large.

Most members of the MMA were not patch-holders but the public and the police did not know that.  The authorities saw them as outlaws because they looked, sounded and rode like outlaws and because they had that same anti-authoritarian attitude that the American establishment, beginning about with King Charles, has always found so vexing.

In ’73, bikers were generally regarded as vermin.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Over the previous three years, there had been a series of unfortunate incidents involving bikers.  Mistakes were made.  And, when bikers do wrong nobody ever forgets.

In 1970, three Bandidos were accused of murdering an FBI informant in El Paso.  And, members of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club got into a shootout with “hippies” in Atlanta.  And, most horrifying of all, one the Outlaws charged was a Vietnam Veteran who had been at My Lai.

In 1971, the whole country buzzed over a brawl between 19 bikers and 250 “youths” at a concert in Watsonville, California.  And, ’71 was a particularly rough news year for the Hells Angels.  Eight of them were accused of an apparently bogus, yet well publicized gang rape in New York.  In California the Angels were accused of murdering two prospects.  And, five more people died in a brawl in Cleveland between members of HA and members of the Breed Motorcycle Club.

Members of the Storm Troopers Motorcycle Club and the Pagans had a fairly public gun fight in North Carolina in 1972.

And, in 1973, the year Sonny Barger took a fall, 12 members of the Mongols MC were charged with pulling an “ailing” Vietnam Vet from his car and killing him.

All of this was on top of a very famous, holiday charity event held on December 6, 1969 at the abandoned Altamont Speedway in northern California.

Altamont was supposed to be supposed to be “Mick Jagger’s Christmas and Chanukah Rite for American Youth.”  The Angels were invited to provide security for the band.

But the event did not turn out as well as everybody had hoped.  The New York Times described it as, “an orgy of violence and madness, leaving in its wake four dead, hundreds injured, thousands freaked-out and the counter-culture riven to its base.”

Bikers Not Bad Just Different

So, bikers had gotten kind of a bad reputation in general and the MMA took it upon itself to show the world that bikers were really good folks.  We were just different was all.  And, the MMA decided to accomplish this by organizing something they called a “toy run.”

Christmas charity drives of one kind or another had been around since at least the 1890s.  The Police Athletic League (PAL) began to sponsor “toy drives” for needy kids during World War II.  And, after that war the Marine Corps began its annual “Toys For Tots.”

The MMA’s brilliant innovation was to transform the toy drive into a run.  And, of course the idea was a hit.

The First Run

The San Fernando Valley Charter of the Hells Angels wanted in and because of their fame they were able to enlist the help of television star Art Linkletter -author of a best selling book called Kids Say the Darnedest Things.  That first run, 200 bikes escorted two truck loads of toys from Griffith Park to Los Angeles city hall.

Then, on their own, to prove what good citizens they were, the Angels organized a “holiday blood drive.”

Naturally, the Los Angeles Police Department was completely flummoxed.  “I suppose Hitler did some good things, too,” one anonymous cop told the Los Angeles Times.

It was good for kids.  Cops hated it.  Clearly, this was an idea whose time had come.

People Liked Us

A week after the first toy run in El Lay, a couple of clubs in Bergen, New Jersey named the Skyway Riders and the Travelers held their own toy run.  “A number of residents here were terrified” the New York Times reported, “But the worst never came.  There were no gang fights…or the assorted other crimes depicted on television.”

Suddenly, people liked us.  They really, really liked us.  And, if you listened hard enough you could hear bikers all over the country thinking, “What a great idea!”

Toy runs popped up like mushrooms.  The next year, 1974, there wasn’t a biker’s rights organization or an outlaw club in the country that didn’t sponsor a toy run.  By the time Harley-Davidson invented its own club, the Harley Owners Group (HOG), in 1983 the toy run had become an institution.

Reporters Love Toy Runs

Now, the motorcycle toy run is a staple of local journalism in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and South Africa.  Everybody has seen the same story at least a hundred times.

This copy from KAUZ, “News Channel 6” in Texas a couple of weeks ago is pretty typical:  “It was quite a sight parading through town this afternoon. Hundreds of motorcyclists made their way from Memorial Stadium to downtown Wichita Falls. It was all part of this year’s toy run.”

The toy run has become one of those stories, as reporters say, that writes itself.  And, reporters really like it when stories write themselves.  It makes the job a lot easier.  In fact, local television stations would probably sponsor toy runs themselves if they had to, just for the video footage.

Toy Runs Version 2.0

Now toy runs start at the end of October in places like Flagstaff and they run right up until Christmas.

The last toy run of the season this year in Southern California looks like the Vagos’ run on December 23rd.  The San Fernando Valley Angels, who were part of that first run in 1973 will hold another one next weekend.  The Angels’ run is just one of seven toy runs in Southern California and Nevada in the next three days.

But there will be no MMA toy run in Los Angeles this year.  The original toy run was cancelled after 1979.

Cops Hate Us

In its last year the original run included about 5,000 participants representing every club in Los Angeles and bikers who had never even thought of joining a club.  The original annual toy run was one place where Hells Angels, Mongols, Satan’s Slaves and Devil’s Disciples could coexist peacefully if only for a day.  The ride still started at Griffith Park but by then its end had been moved to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

The event was a crowd pleaser.  Tens of thousands of people lined the streets to watch the motorcycles parade by.

But, it was not popular with the police and it was cancelled on the recommendation of the Pasadena Police Chief at the time, a man named Robert H. McGowan.

Bunches of Ruffians

McGowan called the participants, “an out-of-town bunch of ruffians who come into the city to cleanse their consciences once a year.”  He complained that his eight officers were “no match for the mob” and that as a result the Pasadena Police were forced to “overlook minor crimes.”

McGowan found one those “minor crimes” at the final, 1979 run to be particularly galling.  It seems one biker held up a large sign that read, “Show me your tits.”

And, “about one in every four females did just that,” McGowan complained.  Then he grimly warned that Pasadena was “courting very serious criminal problems if it continues to permit this mob to bring toys to our children.”

So the original toy run came to an end.  And, Pasadena was saved.

And, to this day a hundred thousand “ruffians” continue to “cleanse their consciences” every year.  And, the kids and the spectators all still like us even if the cops still do not.

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14 Responses to “The First Toy Run”

  1. Tr Says:

    Storm troopers south florida. Fat Rat

  2. FF Says:

    Roll that wheel again, croupier

  3. FF Says:

    Bump for Sandy.

  4. Chrome Says:

    To Sandy, Jungle Jim, Cocomojo,
    I am in Sarasota. Been here for 40+years.I am with the Christian Motorcyclists Association (CMA) Check the chapter website. I am the webmaster. http://www.cmaser6.org/fl/faithriders.

  5. cocomojo Says:

    Hey Fatty, I knew Wes and Roach from Poughkeepsie, and George “Chrome Dome” in Sarasota as well as almost everyone in the Sarasota chapter and most in Ft lauderdale and West Palm. Knew a Buck but not in New York. The Buck I knew was Buck Bailey president of the Lauderdale chapter. I also knew several brothers in Durham who were involved in that shooting with the Pagans. There was quite an article about it in the Police Gazette. Yes the Stormtroopers disbanded on an offer to patch over to the Hell’s Angels but Florida didn’t patch over because we had welcomed the Outlaws into Florida and let them set up shop in Miami under the wing so to speak of our chapters in Lauderdale and West Palm. If we had picked up HA colors it would have meant trouble with the Outlaws who were our friends and who always stopped to party with us in Sarasota when they came south. People like “Big Red” Outlaw VP from Chicago, Vinnie outlaw president from Detroit, and Jim Nolan Outlaw president from Chicago who gave me an Outlaw 1% patch. I was involved in one way or another for most of the time from 1970 thru 1974 when Mike Coyle was prez in Sarasota till I left Florida and moved to New Mexico. My last prez “Rotten Roge” Roger Pierson hung up his patch shortly after I did and picked up an Outlaw patch. He later was Nolan’s right hand man and David Allen Coe’s bodyguard.until he was gunned down in the doorway of Nolans home in Miami. I don’t regret anyof thos times and have had some good friends not just my old Stormtrooper brothers but Outlaws and Hells Angels both. I’ve also known some Bandits out here in New Mexico and Texas who were and are good solid people. YES the patch means a lot, but the people even more.

  6. cocomojo Says:

    Hey Fatty, I knew Wes and Roach from Poughkeepsie, and George “Chrome Dome” in Sarasota as well as almost everyone in the Sarasota chapter and most in Ft lauderdale and West Palm. Knew a Buck but not in New York. The Buck I knew was Buck Bailey president of the Lauderdale chapter. I also knew several brothers in Durham who were involved in that shooting with the Pagans. There was quite an article about it in the Police Gazette. Yes the Stormtroopers disbanded on an offer to patch over to the Hell’s Angels but Florida didn’t patch over because we had welcomed the Outlaws into Florida and let them set up shop in Miami under the wing so to speak of our chapters in Lauderdale and West Palm. If we had picked up HA colors it would have meant trouble with the Outlaws who were our friends and who allways stoped to party with us in Sarasota when they came south. People like “Big Red” Outlaw VP from Chicago, Vinnie outlaw president from Detroit, and Jim Nolan Outlaw president from Chicago who gave me an Outlaw 1% patch. I was involved in one way or another for most of the time from 1970 thru 1974 when Mike Coyle was prez in Sarasota till I left Florida and moved to New Mexico. My last prez “Rotten Roge” Roger Pierson hung up his patch shortly after I did and picked up an Outlaw patch. He later was Nolan’s right hand man and David Allen Coe’s bodyguard.until he was gunned down in the doorway of Nolans home in Miami. I don’t regret anyof thos times and have had some good friends not just my old Stormtrooper brothers but Outlaws and Hells Angels both. I’ve also known some Bandits out here in New Mexico and Texas who were and are good solid people. YES the patch means a lot, but the people even more.

  7. Mac Says:

    I bought my first HD in ’73 in NC (home state). I remember the Pagans were in Jacksonville, NC…Outlaws were in the Charlotte area, and the Stormtroopers were in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill). After the incident in ’73 the Stormtroopers became HA’s. When I ended my riding in the NC club system I was an associate of the Third Reich MC in Fayetteville and the Durham HA’s use to come down a lot. There were definitely wild times in the NC cycle scene in the ’70’s!

  8. Fatty02 Says:

    My brother “buck” rode with the storm troopers , Poughkeepsie, ny. Wess was the prez.

  9. Rocky Says:

    I know the MMA and 1973 very well. FYI we had a 39 year reunion in Sturgis this year for the remaining members. Some of us had not ridden together for 35 years. Thanks for the memories.

  10. Rebel Says:

    Dear Big V,

    No disrespect taken at all. I try to tell the truth around here and your account sounds true to me. Thanks.
    Rebel

  11. BigV Says:

    Rebel: A friend of mine from Atlanta asked me to post this, no disrespect intended, sir.

    The below was not written by me:

    “I’d like to suggest a correction to the author of this story. The My Lai connection was when “Tree”- a guy who was a hangaround biker- got shot when he entered a building off The Strip in Atlanta. Tree was shot by a group of hippies involved in dealing pot and heroin. One of the hippies had been at My Lai, but not Tree and not any of the bikers involved. Tree was about 6’5 or 6’6 and he had tried to get in with the hippies and didn’t fit. He tried to hang with the Cross(that became the Outlaws) and he had even hung around the Regents. He had not gone there to rob anyone. The clubs had decided that heroin was going to destroy the Strip and because the cops at the Pig Pen weren’t doing shit- they started cleaning house. Tree was known to want to be a part of the biker world and when he went to the house, the 18/19 year old vet from My Lai shot him with a shotgun. Several of the hippies were arrested, none ever did time as it was ruled self defense.”

  12. Jungle Jim Says:

    Sandy, I was a member of the StormTroopers MC in 1969 and 1970 until I was drafted. Missed the big shootout. I knew George “Chrome” and worked with him and “Pappa Bear” in Venice building newspaper dispensers. He was not president of the club when I was a member and I don’t remember hearing that he was. Michael Coyle “The Bear” (wife Cathy, divorced later) was president then. I never saw him again after I went into the service but I did see Michael. He attended Manatee Junior Colledge in Venice in 1983 as did I. I moved away in 1984 and haven’t had any contact with anyone associated with the club. I hope this may be of some help finding George for your son. I liked George, nice guy, got me the job in Venice. Good luck, Jungle

  13. sandy tack Says:

    I am writeing in regards to my sons father who was a stormtrooper in the late sixty’s he was president of them in sarasota fla. and he was called chrome i’m trying to find him for my son his first name was george. I maybe grabbing at straws here but i was wondering if you could help me find him or know some way that i could. at that time buck was president

  14. skunkbait Says:

    You mentioned the NC shootout with the Pagans. One of my best friends was a member of the Pagans of North Carolina, back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Around the time of the shootut, he married a nice Christian girl, and left the lifestyle (and sadly his old Panhead)behind. A few years ago, he told me that all of the brothers he rode with, were either dead or in prison.

    Now he’s retired, and recently a widower. I’m hoping to get him back on two wheels soon. He’s a grandfather, and a devout Christian now. A toy run might just be the thing to get him rolling again.

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