Story by Conrad Pfeifer
John Penton, 1959. Note his brother's white tank on John's black bike.
Photo courtesy Ed Youngblood
Why did you want to do this ride?
In 1958 I was a mixed-up guy. My wife had just died; I was left with three boys. I was kind of confused. My sister took in one son, and my brothers each took one. My brother Ted told me to just go ride, so I went on a 12,000 mile ride ending up in Mexico. When it was time to come home to Amherst [Ohio] I rode straight through from Mexico. When I got home my brother said that since I did that ride I should go for the coast to coast record [Then held by Cannonball Baker].
What did you do for verification and record keeping?
Checked in at Western Union NYC, kept a letterhead that I had stamped then at each toll booth or tunnel I asked them to stamp it. They looked at it and wondered what I was doing, then stuck it in their machine. I didn't care if it was upside down or backwards, just so it was there
John Penton and Floyd Clymer at end of the ride.
Photo courtesy of Ed Youngblood
Why did you choose BMW?
Anything else I'd be kidding myself. It was a modern motorcycle. It was an absolutely stock motorcycle. If I rode a Harley I would have had to use a support vehicle. Any other brand I would have to carry a bucket of oil, chains and spare parts. It was an absolutely stock bike. The only change I made was a windshield and a larger capacity tank which I took off of my brother's BMW.How did you arrange gas stops without 24 hour gas stations and was fuel an issue?The Turnpikes had service plazas and I knew where they were so I stopped at each of them. I stopped every 125 miles whether I needed gas or not.
What if it was after hours and they were closed?
If they were opened or closed, it didn't matter. (He said with a smile, Mr. Penton did not elaborate but he got gas somehow!
Was the weather a factor and did you run in to any rain?
The Turner Pike in Oklahoma was the only rain I had to deal with. [In] Flagstaff it was cold, 40 degrees or so. It was a shock coming down from Flagstaff on old Route 66 into Barstow where the temperature was over 100 degrees; I remember it [the temperature change] like it was a dream. But I had insulated leather and a rain slicker.
Did you take any rest breaks?
Coming in to Flagstaff Arizona everything was getting real fuzzy. I had two alarm clocks. I set them for a half an hour. I don't know if I slept or not but the alarms went off and my eyes didn't seem fuzzy anymore so I took off. The only food breaks were a Â½ dozen Milky Ways that I carried in a bag on the back seat.
What was your most memorable moment?
Coming into St Louis [Mo.] I saw these flashlights, not stop lights, but flashlights. I thought "what in the hell? I've had it now." But the BMW distributor [Alfred Bondy from New York] called ahead to let them know I was coming. Two of the guys were police officers. They lead me through town on Route 55. That was a big break for me.
What the biggest hurdle in completing the ride?
Getting there, period.
For more information about John Penton read Ed Youngblood's book John Penton and the Off-Road Motorcycle Revolution. Available from Whitehorse press, or visit the Penton Owner's website at www.pentonusa.org
John Penton and daughter Barbara, 2006.