On Any Sunday: More than a Film — A Game Changer for Motorcycling

More than just a film, On Any Sunday was a game changer for motorcycling.

Photo from Dain Gingerelli Collection

Fifty years ago this July, motorcycling experienced a rebirth in America, if not the world. That mid-summer month is when, in 1971, Bruce Brown’s movie On Any Sunday premiered on the big screen, in the process changing the sport — and industry — of motorcycling forever.

After years of suffering Hollywood’s steady stream of low-budget, B-grade biker flicks that depicted motorcycles and motorcyclists in a dark and dreary light, Brown’s documentary lit up the silver screen in a refreshing, even magical, way. Gone were those brawny brawling bikers, replaced by real people with a genuine affection for motorcycling. The movie’s ensemble of characters included the entire Class C brigade of professional Expert-class warriors who chased the Number One plate every year in pursuit of the AMA’s coveted Grand National Championship; weekend warriors who composed California’s grass-roots sport of desert Hare & Hound competition that typically rewarded those amateur racers with broken bones and bikes, with perhaps a small trophy to the winner; budding motocross legends who, only a few years later, would command six-digit salaries; and many more unknown heroes.

OAS also introduced the world to the quiet, unassuming and ever versatile Malcolm Smith who, with his mischievous ear-to-ear grin, soon became the movie’s unofficial poster child. Finally, and almost with passing, the cast included a nondescript amateur racer named Harvey Mushman, better known as actor Steve McQueen who, with the princely sum of $313,000, served as the film’s initial underwriter when production began in 1969.

Bruce Brown himself makes adjustments to the helmet camera that future 1972 Grand National Champion Mark Brelsford wore for on-track filming. MX action stirred the souls of future champions, too. Photo from Dain Gingerelli Collection

We could end this exposé right here and chances are that you could finish the ride down Memory Lane in your own mind, recalling your favorite scenes of the movie, perhaps stacking them with the nostalgia of your first-ever motorcycle ride, a life-altering experience that hooked you forever into this wild, wacky and wonderful sport of motorized two-wheeling. This magazine’s mantra, “Ride ‘Em, Don’t Hide ‘Em,” might even mystically trace its origins to July 1971. 
But let’s get back to the show, and even before the theater lights were turned off and the film projector turned on for the long-awaited premier, Brown, McQueen and more than a few other members of the film crew weren’t so sure how the movie would be accepted by the general public. The acid test, Brown & Co. figured, would be at the official screening in New York City, home to many of the industry’s film critics. Cycle magazine’s Frank Conner was among the media guests at that screening, and in the October 1971 issue he described the film critics as people who “don’t go to the movies for relaxation; it’s their job, and if anybody in that crowd was looking forward to seeing this particular film, he certainly managed to hide his enthusiasm.” Hmmm, OAS was already playing to a tough crowd.

4/17/2021 8:36:42 PM

1971, To a 9 year old kid this was gold, shortly afterwards I received a used Yamaha JT1. at 59 I have 20 bikes in the garage, Yes I think it had an influence.

2/19/2021 8:51:51 PM

Amazon Prime video has On Any Sunday free to Amazon Prime members. Search for “motorcycle” and you’ll find a lot of interesting videos.

2/19/2021 4:36:47 PM

It was a pleasure to see enlongated bikes wirh spiked tires failing to reach the top during the hill climb that Malcomb stumbled across while enjoying a desert ride on his Husky. They'd fall or wheelie-over somewhere near the top. Most bikes.were let back down the hill by rope while a.few escapted their riders and scattered crowds at the bottom of the hill as they raced, riderless, back down the steep hill. Then Malcomb joined in. He ride up ro the top, gently turned and simply rode back down... and away. It confirmed in me I was.on tne right path - and repeated his performance. Oh wait - no, I did that before the movie. Still, Malcomb showed me that I was on solid ground, style-wise. Too bad Harvey smoked like a bad BBQ.

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