Sturgis and the ’80s

Sturgis and the ’80s

As I see it, the history of Sturgis is the history of our motorcycle subculture, and our subculture tells the bigger story of our country’s history. It shows in the fashions, the trends, the economic ups and downs as well as the politics. This may be more obvious in the 1980s than other decades, as it opened in the middle of the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the Oil Shock that had us in long lines at gas stations for the second time in less than 10-years. Just look at my photo “Faces, City Park. 1980,” below and you’ll see where we were at. Zooming in, you won’t see fashion logos, as plain T’s and work-shirts were standard issue. Can you imagine, Harley-Davidson didn’t even start enforcing their trademark until 1981, which meant right up this point, shops like the iconic 2-Wheelers in Denver were free to sell all of the Harley logoed product they were making.

Say, “1980s” to someone and it usually conjures a reaction if they lived through it. For some, it was their favorite decade, others would prefer to forget it (maybe it’s the big hair), and then for those that weren’t born, it’s just history. Regardless of your perspective, one has to acknowledge, it brought us sensations like MTV and music videos, Michael Jackson, Madonna, U2, Hip Hop and Punk. And of course, shoulder pads with and the oh so fluorescent clothing. It was also the last decade without the internet, and before cell phones started appearing in hands of the not super-rich. (It’s hard to imagine today… no email, no texts, and no calls without being tethered to a wall!) A simpler time shall we say?

I find it significant that the Sony Walkman exploded in the 1980s—400 million were ultimately sold! The Walkman represented our collective desire for personal choice, albeit in this case, for music. You could record personal mixes of your favorite tunes, and so for the first time, you could walk down the street, or better yet, ride your bike down the highway, listening to what you wanted, when you wanted, and in the order you wanted. You could also see this with the popularity of VHS recordings, video rentals and cable TV—with 24/7 programming, and channels like HBO and Showtime. In a way, didn’t this also represent some sort of “freedom”?

Haven’t bikers always flown their Freedom Flag doing what they want, when they want, and without anyone bossing them around? Someone in City Park would say, “Grudge Race on 79!”, and the next thing we all scrambled out by Bear Butte to take over the entire highway. (Grudge Racing Near Bear Butte, Sturgis, SD. 1980).

That’s Crazy John Markwald on the right running nitrous in his Honda, while Donnie Smith’s brother Happy looked on from the right. For the official drags, since there wasn’t to be a drag strip in Sturgis until 1987, we’d ride out of the park to Belle Fourche and watch Pete Hill race his awesome Knucklehead. (After the Storm – Riding to the Drags in Belle Fourche, SD. 1980)

As you can tell, we were making our own entertainment in the early part of the decade. We’d race through the campground, (Crash, City Park. Sturgis, SD, 1981), drink around a campfire all night, and you couldn’t beat the people watching. What we came up with was always fun and usually harmless, although the City of Sturgis believed the opposite.

We thought they would try anything to shut City Park camping down. But in the end, it just took their lack of maintenance. When the toilets were totally neglected, the bikers did what bikers do best; they took matters into their own hands and simply burned them down. (Up in Flames, Sturgis, South Dakota, 1982) And that was that. The City had what they wanted, the perfect excuse to shut the park permanently.

The following year, the campers were dispersed. Some went up to Boulder Canyon, where they just camped on the side of the road., but most went to the different campgrounds that had appeared—including the Buffalo Chip, which picked up the lion’s share.

One thing I noticed in Sturgis before anywhere else, was how things were changing with women riders. Yes, there were women like Gloria Struck and her fellow Motor-Maids that had been riding for decades, but for the most part, male bikers in the ’70s felt a woman’s place was on the back of a bike. It didn’t matter that there was a strong feminist movement going back to the 1960s, because… well may I suggest… bikers aren’t always “early adopters”.

I distinctly remember making a call from a pay phone on Main Street to my Easyriders Magazine editor Frank Kaisler in the CA office. Frank had sent me on assignment to Sturgis as the only one representing the magazine in 1982, and so I would report in daily. On this occasion, I explained how I was seeing more women riding down Main Street than I’d ever seen before—more than 10! And I proposed a separate article just on the phenomenon.

Frank liked the idea, but knowing the readers of ER may object, it was pushed to their second publication, Iron Horse Magazine. The article was titled “Scooter Vamps” and ran just 3-pages. For contrast, by the end of the decade, women like Lori Dalton (Off the Line. Sturgis, SD. 1988) were pulling fast times on the drag strip, and Cris Simmons and Jo Giovannoni’s “Harley Women’s Magazine” was all fired up—HD gave them full permission to use their name. Women were off to the races!

What I consider the most significant aspect of Sturgis in the 1980s was its growth. Consider that they hit a record number of 40,000 visitors on the 40th anniversary rally in 1980. And then, for the 50th anniversary, just 10-years later, that number was multiplied 10-fold to 400,000!! Sturgis was on fire and reinventing itself along the way.

The growth was staggering, and it was almost entirely organic. At the same time, don’t think it happened in a bubble, as there was such a clear link to what was going on at Harley-Davidson. The Motor Co. was also reinventing itself starting in 1981 when Vaughn Beals and 12 other members of top management (including Willie G Davidson) bought the company back from AMF. It is believed this leveraged buyout likely saved the company from where it was headed—total liquidation.

Two big things happened for the Motor Co. in 1983, including the passage of the protectionist motorcycle tariff on 700cc+ imports, as well as the formation of HOG (Harley Owners Group). These were followed with the release of the Evolution motor in 1984. Overnight, the quality and performance of the bikes improved. This also led to a customer base that evolved, grew, and went to a level of brand loyalty that had never been seen before.

These developments make it seem like the stars were aligned for Harley-Davidson, but I’d like to also give some credit to Malcolm Forbes, the millionaire publishing tycoon. He was known for flying to exotic locations on his Boeing “Capitalist Tool” 727 with Harley-Davidsons in the hold. He’d take friends on amazing tours to places like Russia and China that were nearly impossible for the average person to get into. He was also very good at gifting new Harleys to kings, princes and even Liz Taylor (a purple 883 Sportster named Purple Passion to go with her newly released perfume of the same name).

Forbes’ knack for promotion also brought him to the “Motorcycle Mecca,” as Sturgis was becoming known. It was 1987 when he launched his 200 ft. long x 80 ft. tall Harley-Davidson Softail hot air balloon and flew it right over Main Street—just because he could! The publicity he garnered of a Harley being the coolest thing out there, EVEN for people with money, was perfectly timed to bring in new riders from the monied professional class.

Every year, the rally got bigger and bigger, more energized, and more fun. The Buffalo Chip added bigger names to their concert lineup as many promoters threw their hats into the ring. There was even a concert one year on the land owned by the local radio station northeast of the junction of 79 and 34, just to see if it had legs. It was an incredible event. But needless to say, it was a one hit wonder! (Bikers National Anthem, Steppenwolf plays the Hills, Sturgis, SD. 1987)

The custom motorcycle industry came into its own throughout the 80s, just as the overall motorcycle business continued to grow. More and more vendors came to Sturgis and took over sidewalks, parking lots, empty pieces of land, and local shops—where the shop owners thought it more profitable to lease the space (and go on vacation), rather than to stay open. It was the beginning of entertainment being supplied (for a fee) over bikers just making their own fun. And coinciding with this was a general tightening of the atmosphere.

More police were appearing on the streets, and they weren’t as relaxed and willing to have fun with the bikers as they seemed to be earlier on. (Harass the Police, Sturgis, SD 1980) Maybe it was all because of the rocket trajectory the rally was on as it approached its 50th anniversary. No one could predict what was coming, but there was a strong electric buzz in the air. To be clear, Sturgis was still great and getting better all the time. I’d venture to even say the best! But it was changing, and we weren’t going to be able to get away with everything we took for granted early on.

Most of the images in this post come from my “Limited Edition” print series available through my website or by emailing me at

Michael Lichter
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