History and Historiography

How the Hells Angels Split with Sixties Counterculture

By Saul Austerlitz

It was a marriage of opposites, the collision of the middle-class rebels of the local music scene and the working-class motorcycle enthusiasts. Each had seen themselves as refugees from polite society, standing in opposition to the enforced consensus of postwar America.

For the bikers, the hippies and musicians were well-liked acquaintances, offering entrée to many of the Angels’ favored pastimes. For the counterculture, the feelings were stronger, with the Hells Angels seen as allies in the battle against middle-class bourgeois mores. The counterculture in the Bay Area had long thought of itself as a kind of outlaw posse, living beyond the law and grateful for the company of all who similarly found themselves at odds with the establishment. It believed itself to be a large-tent party, encompassing anyone and everyone for whom the mainstream made no space.


With the end of the war, the country stood on the cusp of a huge surge in the popularity of motorcycle riding. In 1945, there had been only 198,000 motorcycles registered in the United States. By the early 1950s, there were already 500,000, and within two decades, there would be more than 3 million motorcycles on the roads and highways.

The bikers formed makeshift, ragtag associations. Men interested in motorcycles banded together and gave themselves masculine, grandiose names like the Outlaws. They would gather together to putter with their bikes, ride them on local roads and freeways, and drink beer together. It was mostly a working-class activity, one redolent of axle grease and wrenches, like a fleet of alcohol-fueled mechanics trained to work only on their own roaring two-wheeled beasts.


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