1974 Harley-Davidson Sportster: "Then Came Bronson" Motorcycle

"Then Came Bronson" custom Sportster

bronson 1

Don “Donson” Collins’ 1974 Harley-Davidson Sportster faithfully recreates the bike used on the show Then Came Bronson, right down to the groovy “All Seeing Eye” on the tank.

Photos by Daniel Peirce

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1969 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster
The original Bronson Bikes were modified 1969 XLH Sportsters. They were not radical customs and used standard engine components, but had a number of visual changes including: 21-inch alloy front wheel with ribbed tire • “Peanut” gas tank from the XLCH model • Special handlebars • Bobbed and chromed front fender • Bobbed rear fender • Slim custom seat • Chrome chain guard, voltage regulator and oil tank • British aftermarket tail light • Earlier small air cleaner • Chrome Bates headlight • Schwinn bicycle sissy bar • Special Bronson Red paint • “All Seeing Eye” tank logos
Engine: 900cc OHV air-cooled 45-degree V-twin, 76.2mm x 96.8mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio, 50hp @ 6,300rpm
Top speed: 122mph (period test)
Carburetion: Single Model HD Tillotson
Transmission: 4-speed, right foot shift, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, magneto and breaker points
Frame/wheelbase: Dual-downtube steel cradle/ 57in (1,448mm)
Suspension: Telescopic forks front, twin shock absorbers with adjustable preload rear
Brakes: 8in (203mm) SLS drum front, 8in (203mm) SLS drum rear
Tires: 3.5 x 19in front, 4 x 18in rear
Weight (wet): 452lbs (205kg)
Seat height: 30.5in (775mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 2.2gal (8.3ltr)/40-50mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $1,850 (est.)/$5,000-$11,000

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll never forget Then Came Bronson, a short-lived TV show chronicling the adventures of Jim Bronson, a disillusioned but likeable young newspaper reporter out on a voyage of personal discovery.

Propelling Bronson from one episode to the next was his Harley-Davidson Sportster, transporting him through a kaleidoscope of fascinating characters and situations that both challenged and strengthened his gentle spirit.

Taken at face value, the travails of a social dropout played by a largely unknown actor riding around on a not-especially-good custom sportster doing improbable things doesn’t seem like much of a storyline.

But American society was undergoing tumultuous change, fueled by angst of a raging war, race riots, political assassinations, hippies and corporate cultures sucking the life out of ourselves or our parents. Craziness was all around. The time was ripe for a hero.

Had the show aired a few years earlier, Bronson might have lived in the Old West. But this lonesome cowboy rode a motorcycle that caught the eye and spirit of a generation raised on Westerns but more interested in bikes. That was part of the appeal, although Then Came Bronson was not really about motorcycles, or even riding them. Rather it was about freedom, adventure, the call of the Long, Lonesome Highway and being true to one’s self.

The story behind Then Came Bronson (TCB) is as interesting as it is unlikely. The pilot aired in March of 1969, and was released in Europe as a feature film. The series ran for only the 1969-1970 television season and was then cancelled. Since then, it has become a cult-classic among motorcycle enthusiasts and devotees of American television.

It really began many years earlier with the true-life exploits of Birney Jarvis. Jarvis’ good friend, the late Denne Bart Petitclerc, noted American journalist, screenwriter and television producer, wrote the series pilot. Robert H. Justman of Star Trek fame was executive producer and James Dean look-alike actor Michael Parks played the title character.

Jarvis was retained as adviser for the pilot, and the legendary Bud Ekins provided the motorcycle stunts and technical accuracy. The list of guest stars included well-known actors and motorcycle racers and enthusiasts. The soundtrack included vocals by Parks, including Long Lonesome Highway, which along with Parks’ signature “Hang in There” tagline has become symbolic of the of the series.

Motorcyclists were very limited in role models or heroes then. Some might have uneasily admired Johnny in the 1953 movie classic The Wild One. The TV series Route 66 with its Corvette driving heroes provided positive role models, but who could afford a Corvette? And didn’t it have too many wheels, anyway?

TCB is sometimes wrongly accused of mimicking the iconic motorcycle movie Easy Rider, which was actually filmed after the pilot and is the antithesis of TCB. Easy Rider was a tale of two drug dealers’ cross-country trip and death at the hands of a shotgun toting redneck. But it did create a mantra for American youth that struck a chord with the more law abiding Bronson fan.

Many TCB fans found a personal defining moment in the opening credits of each episode, as Bronson pulled up beside a weary, beaten-down commuter in a tired station wagon:

Commuter: “Taking a trip?”
Bronson: “Yeah.”
Commuter: “Where to?”
Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
Commuter: “Man, I wish I was you.”
Bronson: “Really?”
Commuter: “Yeah.”
Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”

The scene shifts to our hero leaving the big city and “Working for the Man” for The Long Lonesome Highway and Freedom.

The implied message was, “Don’t ever become the guy in the station wagon.” Fans were drawn to Jim’s loud, red, race-winning, girl-getting Freedom Machine even if they were relegated to a 50cc step-through.

It’s understandable how social change, teenage angst and a rebellion-without-becoming-an-outlaw-biker eagerness created loyal fans early on. But what about the on-going infatuation with a 40-year-old, single-season TV series amongst today’s riders?

Why it still resonates today

The current TCB phenomenon is not readily explained. Partly, it’s the Mayberry RFD factor, a nostalgic longing for the TV shows of that era, especially those depicting a quieter, gentler lifestyle in a simpler time.

Most current-day Bronson fans enjoyed the series and had or have motorcycles. They tend to be casual about motorcycling but admit to being influenced at the time. Some weekend warriors concede that back in the day, emulating Bronson was a socially acceptable, low-risk way to rebel. Yet true devotees know that Bronson set them on a life-long road of impassioned motorcycling. One follower describes Bronson as “the big brother I never had.”

A few zealous fans have elevated “Bronsonism” to a pseudo-religion of sorts, with all the detailed knowledge, jargon, costumes and zeal of even the most devout Trekkie. Enhancing this analogy is the fact that several of the TCB production crew and actors were involved with the Star Trek series, which ended in 1969, and parallels exist between the premise and story-lines of the two series.

A small band of dedicated fans have created a virtual Bronson community, centered on the website JimBronson.com. Some call themselves “Bronsonites” while their webmaster refers to the members, motorcycles and website as “Bronson’s Garage.” They have lovingly built detailed replicas of Bronson’s custom Sportster, and have amassed related history, memorabilia and trivia such as full video collections of the pilot and 26 weekly episodes.

Bronsonites and their bikes have appeared in motorcycle shows, exhibits and rallies, radio and TV interview shows, and at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. Their favorite events are reunions, such as the 40th anniversary celebration of the pilot, held last year at California’s Bixby Creek Bridge, seen in the opening credits of the show. Another was held this June around Jackson Hole, Wyo., where several of the original episodes were shot.

Bronson archetype Birney Jarvis is often guest of honor at their events. He is popular with visitors and happily narrates his photo albums with his amazing stories.

Bronsonites spread the word, finding old fans and creating new ones, and offering help to others’ efforts to create their own Bronson Sportsters. This includes detailed specifications, parts sources, parts crafted by fellow Bronsonites and formulas for the correct “Bronson Red” paint. They have even recreated stickers of the “All Seeing Eye” that adorned Bronson’s gas tank.

In addition to bikes, buds and nostalgia, psychic payback comes when someone at a show or on the road says, “Hey, that’s the Bronson Bike!” or “That show got me started riding motorcycles.”

Some yearn for the show to return as a series or pilot sequel (the pilot has been re-mastered and released on DVD). Some scheme to get Michael Parks’ signature on their Sporty’s tank … several already have Birney’s!

Don “Donson” Collins’ Bronson Sporty

Don “Donson” Collins is a semi-retired 53-year-old bike-nut from Canyon, Texas, near Palo Duro Canyon State Park. He has lived all over the country doing all kinds of work, including building uranium and gold mining facilities, and as an aircraft mechanic he built and repaired Hueys, Cobras and V-22 Osprey aircraft for Bell Helicopter. Don hovers between Gentleman and Wildman, equally comfortable in either mode.

Don’s early motorcycle fever was thwarted by his Marine WWII veteran Dad, who hated motorcycles. But when TCB aired, the die was cast. Don soaked it in and “became” Bronson, in his young psyche at least, and set about building a life centered on a passion for motorcycles and sailing. It started with small trail bikes and progressed through dirt bikes, Brit bikes, hot-rods, café racers and cruisers.

His “2-Wheel Ranch & Museum” includes a 1947 Indian Chief, two late model big-engine Harleys, a half-built S&S powered bobber, a passel of 1970s trail and mini-bikes, and a home-made Whizzer. Other attractions include a 1930’s 2-cylinder Maytag washing machine engine, antique gas pump, a large RCA “Nipper” dog that may have toured with Elvis Presley, and a Japanese rifle “liberated” from Iwo Jima by his dad. And most importantly, his long-awaited Holy Grail: a Bronson Replica Sportster.

Don’s Sporty is a 1974 XLH 1000 with electric and kick-starters, actually a partial-conversion originally built by another Bronsonite. Don has restored, upgraded and further modified his bike to include all the “Bronson bits,” and it is nearly identical to the original. A recent finishing touch is the custom made Bronson Luggage; matching duffel bags for the front and back of his Sporty.

Like all Iron Head Sportsters, Don’s is of antiquated technology and design. The restoration and conversion has been less an event and more a long process that continues to this day. Like many of us, Don is on a budget, so it is taking time to get the bike truly finished. The parts of the bike that are complete are immaculate; other things, not so much. Like the recalcitrant transmission that has succumbed to old age and high mileage, recently deciding to grind, crunch and lazily jump through its four gears. It is next in line for a total rebuild.

The latest upgrade was a complete re-make of the wiring harness to eliminate the twisted wire, electrical tape and T-nut splices. But Don is determined, and bolstered by his aircraft experience and Bronsonite buddies, has “hung in there” and is nearing the end of his homage to TCB.

Next on the list after the tranny rebuild is a switch to a carburetor of newer, better design that should, Don hopes, actually idle and run without stalling, spitting gas or catching on fire and melting the new wiring harness!

“Donson” himself ponders whether he is dedicated or merely stubborn, or maybe just crazy to go through all this for what will always be simply an old Sportster with an odd decal on the gas tank.

Don isn’t alone, however; there are a dozen or more Bronson Replica Sportys around the country, and we know at least several more are being built. Odd, perhaps, but if you’re a Bronsonite it’s a fairly easy, inexpensive way to build and enjoy a unique but recognizable iconic American motorcycle that carries only positive “baggage.”

Whether Bronsonite, casual fan or just someone with fond memories of motorcycling, Then Came Bronson has touched the lives of many motorcyclists “of a certain age.” For this we must be grateful to Birney Jarvis, Michael Parks, Denne Pititclerc, Robert Justman, Bud Ekins and many more, especially those dedicated few who ensure Bronson will live on. To all of them ... Hang In There! MC

Bronson Trivia – Things a True Bronsonite Should Know

The second season was planned before the show was cancelled. It was to continue Bronson’s journey of discovery, ending in Florida. There, Bronson would sell his Sportster, buy a sailboat and continue his adventures under sail.

Legendary among Bronsonites is Bonnie Bedelia’s role as Temple Brooks in the pilot. In one scene Temple is contemplating suicide and tearing off her wedding dress as she rushes into the surf, only to be saved by Bronson. She was still partially attired and marginally acceptable to the more restrained American market, but there was an alternate version: European fans were treated to the sight of a topless Temple running through the surf with an astonished Bronson in pursuit. That version is in the hands of the Bronson faithful.

In “The Old Motorcycle Fiasco” episode, Keenan Wynn played old motorcycle racer Alex. Alex dragged his old race bike, a 1934 Rudge Ulster, out of the shed and the games began. In fact, Wynn was a long-time motorcycle racer who introduced actors Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen to Triumphs.

McQueen was actually first choice to play Jim Bronson, but he was busy filming the movie Le Mans and declined. How many seasons might TCB have run if McQueen had accepted?

Watch for odd looking “Sportsters” in the episodes. In addition to the three to five different Sportsters used in the series (depending on who you ask), other bikes used in racing and stunt scenes included a CZ 250, an Aermacchi 350 Sprint and a Harley-Davidson 125 Rapido, each wearing a “Sportster suit” and sounding just like Sportsters!

frank spero
10/27/2011 10:22:45 AM

great show i have the cd set and remember seeing it on tv that was a beautiful sportster just like mine at the time except i had a solo seat and pillon pad also took off those heavey baloon mufflers and put on the staggered duals wha a difference i loved that bike had alot of great rides on her


richard backus
9/9/2010 8:50:37 AM

Good eye, Jeff. That was an error (now corrected) inadvertently inserted by our web editor. The bike used in the show was of course not a 1974. The tribute bike is a 1974, but the machine(s) used in the actual show were 1969 H-D XLH Sportsters. Thanks for catching that. Richard Backus Motorcycle Classics


jeff_3
9/8/2010 8:41:07 PM

page 4 is far to late to say ..they were actually 69's .. why a 74' is mention idk. i love my 1974 1000 ironhead / rightside shift


jeff_3
9/8/2010 8:15:41 PM

how could the show air 1969 to 1970 and have a 1974 bike in it. you do the math.


bill w.
8/15/2010 7:54:26 AM

I bought a brand new 1975 Sportster because of the TV show Then Came Bronson. Last year, in honor of the 40th Anniversary of the show, I rebuilt it into the famous Bronson Bike and joined other Bronson Bike owners in touring the country and reliving some of the best times of our lives, and that would be when we started riding motorcycles. My old motorcycle has now had the honor of being in featured in a large a motorcycle show, on exhibit at Sturgis in 2009 and on display at the Harley Davidson Museum's 1st Anniversary. It has been professionally photographed by a famous photographer and even won "Best in Show" at a large Motorcycle Swap Meet. Who would have thought...a year before it was just an old, dirty motorcycle that I've ridden on and off for 35 years, and I plan to ride it for another 35 years. A big thanks out to everyone and to Then Came Bronson. "Hang in there", Bill W.