When I think of airports pre-COVID, I think of facilities jammed with people, security, planes, and long lines.  What I don’t think about is coming across a museum with interesting exhibits on motorcyclists in the facility’s terminals.  But that’s exactly what you’ll find in San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

SFO Museum

SFO has been hosting a museum since 1980.  Its Bureau of Exhibitions and Cultural Educations uses public spaces in the airport to “humanize the Airport Environment” and “showcase the unique cultural life of the Bay Area.”

And as the Bureau evolved and grew, its exhibits were placed in all four SFO terminal buildings.  Recognizing the exhibits as important information and history, the organization changed its name to the San Franciso Airport Museums.  And in 2010, its name was once again changed to the SFO Museum.

Over time, the SFO Museum gained a global reputation for a wide range of subjects.  As an exclusively loan-based, non-collecting organization, the SFO Museum hosts a broad variety of subject matter.  Exhibits include design, craft, folk art, ethnography, science, technology, history, cuisine, costume, and popular culture.

Early American Motorcyclists

And now, the museum is hosting exhibits that showcase motorcycling.  Early American Motorcycles and Early Women Motorcyclists are both the subject of exhibits.

Early American Motorcyclists

Charles Henshaw and Oscar Hedstrom on a Hedstrom Motor-Pacer circa 1901. Photo credit: Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History

The Early America Motorcycle exhibit chronicles a “…bygone era of mechanical innovation and bold industrial design.”  It shows how motorcycle technology rapidly progresses during the early 1900s.  By the 1910s, the number of motorcycle American manufacturers grows to over 100.   According to the SFO Museum:

By 1910, motorcycles featured sturdier frames and more powerful single and twin-cylinder engines. Power was transferred to the rear wheel by a direct-drive belt or chain with single-speed gearing. While the elasticity of belt drives dampened engine vibration, they were prone to wear and breakage, and roller chains proved far more durable. In the 1910s, transmissions increased the speed, hill-climbing capability, and overall utility of motorcycles. Self-generating magnetos replaced battery-powered ignitions and required less maintenance. Engines became more refined with pressure oiling systems and pushrod-operated, dual-overhead valves. Even complex, four-cylinder inline engines were offered for the more discerning rider.

Special skills

During this period, motorcycle technology continues to grow.  However, motorcycles are still far from current modern standards.  In addition, road conditions were generally poor.  This meant that the primitive chassis and stiffly sprung suspensions could throw a rider from the machine.

early american motorcycles

A 1912 Flying Merkel twin-cylinder racer. Photo credit: Dave Scoffone

Because of this, early motorcyclists generally had special skills that would enable them to keep riding.  According to the SFO Museum:

“Athletic ability was required to start and ride these machines, and motorcyclists had to be mechanically minded to manually adjust ignition timing, maintain oil levels, and repair minor issues.”

The Early American Motorcycle exhibition presents fourteen “exceptional” motorcycle examples manufactured before 1916.  It also includes a collection of rare engines and photos from the early era of motorcycling.

You can visit the Early American Motorcycle exhibit in SFO’s International Departure Terminal on Level 3 now through September 19, 2021.  If you are unable to visit the exhibits, you can download the exhibit’s official program (link).

Early Women Motorcyclists

The SFO Museum’s Early Women Motorcyclists exhibit is an all photo exhibit.  The display features many women who have and continue to pave the way for other female motorcyclists to follow in their tracks.

Inside you’ll find information on Effie Hotchkiss and her mother Avis, who depart New York for San Francisco in a sidecar equipped Harley-Davidson to become the first women to ride across the United States on a motorcycle.

early women motorcyclists

(R to L) Effie and Avis Hotchkiss. Photo credit: borntobefreeitaly.it

Also featured are the Van Buren sisters, Augusta and Adeline.  They made a journey similar to the Hotchkisses to become the first women to ride across the United States solo.

Early Women Motorcyclists

The Van Buren Sisters. Photo credit: The SFO Museum

Then there’s Dorothy “Dot” Robinson.  Her regular challenges to male competitors in endurance and sidecar races are well known.  She also worked as a military dispatch rider during the Second World War with a “select” group of women.

Early Women Motorcyclists

The “First Lady of Motorcycling” Dorothy “Dot” Robinson sits on her 1937 Harley-
Davidson ’45. Photo credit: Betty Robinson Fauls.

Perhaps best known as the “First Lady of Motorcycling, Dot’s commitment to women motorcyclists is evident in her role as the first president of the Motor Maids, motorcycling’s first and prestigious club for women motorcyclists.

More “modern” women

Another more “modern” woman rider, Cristine Sommers Simmons (Cris), appears in the exhibit as well.  The SFO Museum calls her a modern-day champion of women in motorcycling.  Cris is the co-founder of Harley Women, the first magazine for women motorcyclists.  She is also a freelance writer whose work appears in the United States, Japan, Spain, and Australia.

Early Women Motorcyclists

Cris Simmons on her 1915 Harley-Davidson “Effie.” Photo credit: Michael Lichter

Cris is the author of the award-winning children’s book Patrick Wants to Ride and The American Motorcycle Girls: 1900 to 1950 — A Photographic History of Early Women Motorcyclists.

Another of her accomplishments includes her entry and finish of the 2010 inaugural Motorcycle Cannonball from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, riding a 1915 Harley-Davidson named Effie in honor of Effie and Ava Hotchkiss.

In later versions of the Motorcycle Cannonball, Cris rode Effie from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Carlsbad, California in 2016, and once again in 2018, riding from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.  Those are impressive accomplishments for anyone, male or female.  Particularly considering Cris’ mount of choice.

You can find the Early Women Motorcyclists exhibit in the Departure Terminal Level 2 now through October 3, 2021.






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