A History of Maico Motorcycles and American Sport Motorcycle Culture, 1955-1983

Open Access
Russell, David Wayne
Graduate Program:
American Studies
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 25, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Charles David Kupfer, Dissertation Advisor
  • Charles David Kupfer, Committee Chair
  • Simon Josef Bronner, Committee Member
  • Anne Ayer Verplanck, Committee Member
  • Seth Wolpert, Committee Member
  • Maico
  • motorcycling
  • motorcycle
  • racing
  • Seventies
  • 1970s
Within American motorcycling, sport riders—the skilled enthusiasts who compete on motorcycles in a variety of venues—are often overlooked. This dissertation explains the practices and characteristics of a unique group of these American sport riders who embraced off-road motorcycle competition in the 1960s and 1970s. It reveals a cultural entity vastly different from the more flamboyant “biker” and “outlaw” groups, investigated by scholars over the past few decades. These enthusiasts relied on a close-knit group of fellow riders and dealers, and usually maintained and modified their bikes themselves. This group continued an American racing subculture far removed from that of the on-road motorcyclists. The freedom to try new things, expressed in early 1970s world culture, further propelled off-road riding and racing, contributing to the “motorcycle boom” and the 1973 high point of motorcycle sales in the United States. One of the several high-quality racing motorcycles available to these sport riders was the German Maico. Maico developed a particularly exceptional motorcycle that attracted many of the most committed riders in the United States in the 1950s through 1981. While several other motorcycle brands attracted similar followings, and could perhaps provide an equally good material culture object from which to assess the men who rode them, Maico’s status as the finest of the brands and its very unique rise and fall, lend the story special appeal and make Maico a optimal touchstone for the culture. The young men who embraced this culture came from varied backgrounds, but were largely working class and, despite long hair and their devotion to motorcycles, conservative in outlook. These socio-economic markers will each be analyzed. Many of the young men structured their lives in order to be able to race. Maico, in turn, sponsored these racers on a limited basis and used images of their successes to promote their motorcycles. Some period photographs of young men on Maicos have become iconic, and these will be analyzed. The successes and ultimate failure of the Maico Company are important in themselves, revealing a complex transnational relationship with the United States that at times flourished, but on other occasions hastened the company’s downfall. As Maico management displaced their American distributers in the mid-1970s and roiled with family infighting at home, the company’s fortunes declined. Examination also reveals a unique and sometimes contentious relationship among American consumers and the German manufacturer. The peculiarities of Maico motorcycles, combined with internal struggles and competition from around the world, further pressured Maico. In 1983, two years after introducing the off-road motorcycle considered by many to be the single best ever made, Maico collapsed. Maico devotees left the field as better motorcycles were available and as age, injuries, and life events pressured them. Many discovered after joining professional life late, that their adventure had been purchased at a cost. Yet the memories of exhilaration, freedom, and joy remain, and these memories prod men today to collect, restore, and ride Maico motorcycles. This work chronicles the object’s origins in Germany and especially its use in the United States. My methodology comprises four approaches, including: examining the motorcycle/artifact through the lens of material culture; ethnography of individuals and examination of the group’s practices (largely derived from oral histories); the rhetorical and visual analysis of personal letters, advertisements, and articles; and photographic analysis. Texts by prominent motorcycling writers and American Studies scholars are used to support my thesis. This work is hoped to be of use to those examining American leisure activities and middle/working-class life in the period surrounding the 1970s, as well as anyone desiring insights into American motorcycle racing and off-road riding culture of the late 1900s.