1974 Harley-Davidson Sportster: "Then Came Bronson" Motorcycle
"Then Came Bronson" custom Sportster
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
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?”
Commuter: “Where to?”
Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
Commuter: “Man, I wish I was you.”
Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”
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