Harold Loyd remembered sharing a LIFE Magazine with his cousin Elvis Presley in the late 1940s that featured a story about a “famous motorcycle rally in California that turned into a near riot during a Fourth of July with wild stunt drivers drinking and caring on in front of the crowds.”
“We got excited, I guess, and decided to stop playing cowboys riding our horses–because we were teenagers–and should be riding our motorcycles now,” laughed Loyd, as he told the story to this writer in the front guard house at the Graceland gates where he worked as a security guard in 1976. “And then later, Billy (Smith, another cousin), Elvis and I went to see ‘The Wild One,’ when we went to visit them (the Presley family had moved to Memphis, Tennessee from Tupelo, Mississippi by this time). It had Marlon Brando who was the leader of this motorcycle gang. Elvis was hooked on motorcycles from then on out.”
Two years later, after ‘The Wild One’ appeared on the screen in 1953, Presley earned some significant money from his new recording contract with Sun Records and decided it was time to learn how to ride a real motorcycle. Twenty year old Elvis bought his first Harley-Davidson (HD) ST165 in 1955 while the Presley’s were living at 462 Alabama Street in Memphis. In between show tours with Scotty Moore, Bill Black and sometimes, D.J. Fontana, Elvis would ride this Harley every chance he could.
Just six days after his birthday, on January 14, 1956, Elvis decided his 165cc engine was not enough power. He had signed his contract to RCA-Victor in November and was a weekend regular on the Louisiana Hayride radio program. The family moved to 1414 Getwell Road by this point. After recording a new song called “Heartbreak Hotel” only four days earlier, Elvis was excited and went with his father, Vernon, and cousin Billy to Memphis Harley-Davidson dealership. Salesman Tommy Taylor sold Elvis a Pepper Red Harley KH known for its 883cc Flathead engine. It was the final “K-bike” produced and would be replaced the following year by the OHV Ironhead Sportster.
Elvis traded his first Harley 165 for a down payment value of $436.70. The $1,339.89, including insurance and tax, went down to a balance of 903.18. Knowing revenue checks would be coming in, the grinning Elvis signed a contract for monthly payments of $50.15, except the first month of $50.64, to begin on Feb. 15, 1956. The contract was witnessed by William Bagwell and K.M. Alexander.
By November of 1956, “Heartbreak Hotel” had become a million seller. Elvis purchased a new 1957 Harley-Davidson FLH. Later he sold it to his riding pal, Fleming Horne, who in time sold the bike back to Harley-Davidson in 1995. This bike is now the flagship attraction of the Harley-Davidson Museum’s Pop Culture exhibit since it opened in 2008. The next year Elvis purchased Graceland and continued a lifelong passion of buying and riding motorcycles.
Later, after his stint in the Army and return to Hollywood movies, Elvis was seen in various 1960’s films riding motorcycles. Most particularly “Roustabout” (1964), had Elvis playing the role of Charlie Roger, a motorcyclists who earned his living by singing at shopping mall openings and small venues.
“Elvis was excited to be riding a motorcycle in that movie,” remarked Loyd. “But I don’t think he was too happy when they told him he’d be on a little Honda. He wanted a big Harley like he was used to driving.”
In “Roustabout” he takes a spill and is forced to work part-time at a carnival to make to pay for the repairs of the motorcycle, a Honda CB77 Dream. Motorcycle legend has it that the studio decided on a Honda, because of the “outlaw reputation” of Harley riders in the 60s. At the time of this movie, Honda’s motto was “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” Elvis also appeared on a Harley in “Viva Las Vegas” (1964), “Clambake” (1967) and Stay Away Joe (1968).