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John Penton's record breaking BMW ride

by Landon Hall

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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 ½ 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

John Penton and daughter Barbara, 2006.

10/23/2014 9:34:10 AM

"If I rode a Harley I would have had to use a support vehicle." ROTFLMAO I just love it!

10/18/2014 5:06:36 AM

It is possibly a good idea to work on the proven strategy Thanks much

7/31/2014 9:50:36 AM

John Penton is truly one of the unsung heroes of motorcycling in America and around the world. If you haven't read the book, at least go see the movie "The Penton Story" now showing in limited release across the US. (Google it for a showing in your area). It tells the story of John's personal, business and motorcycling life including details about his influence on the Penton, High Point, Alpine Stars, Thor, and KTM brands. Yeah, John had major influence over all of them. It's a heart warming, heart breaking, spirit lifting story about a real American pioneer from Ohio that changed motorcycling as we all know it for the better. Thank you John!

7/17/2014 8:38:06 PM

Penton family, I don' know if you remember Bob Armstrong who rode and sold Hodakas as a distributor and from his dealership in Sweetwater, TN, but he sure remembers competing with you guys. One time someone in your family stopped by the shop and left a business card on the door of the shop. He also competed with several of you in 1970 in the ISDT in Spain. Bob was my Dad. He held the Penton family in high regard and loved competing with you. He had great respect for your equipment, too! Dad passed away 3 years ago. May God bless his soul. Kind regards, Jody Armstrong

don hocott
12/7/2010 9:23:53 PM

I believe John Penton is probably the best overall off road motorcyclist that Ever lived! I remember riding the "Little Burr" enduro in the seventies that He won.There had been floods just before the event and the course had to be redone.This event was 250 miles long but the course had to be changed to two 125 mile laps due to part of the course being impassable.As I recollect, not only did he win the event (High Point)He was the only rider to complete both laps ! This was a national event with many of the best riders in the country participating. I competed on Penton motorcycles for a number of years and so admired John Penton that I named my son born in 1971 John Penton Hocott !