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!”
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.