Here at Chrome Thunder, we encourage our guest riders to “channel your inner James Dean” when they join us for a motorcycle tour. We’re thinking about James Dean as the image of the free spirit, the rebel against routine, the teenager defying daily life in Dean’s classic film “Rebel Without a Cause.” The freedom of the road, the break from routine—that’s what we want everyone to experience on one of our motorcycle tours.
When we say “channel your inner James Dean,” though, we could just as well be talking about James Dean’s “real” life, his life outside acting. From the time he was a teenager in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana, until the day he died at age 24, Dean loved riding motorcycles. And we know everyone who takes a Chrome Thunder motorcycle tour does love riding motorcycles!
Dean’s first real bike was a 1947 ČZ 125cc, a Czech-made motorcycle, which he received from his uncle. The ČZ brand might not be well known today, but at the time, ČZ was the second largest motorcycle manufacturer in Europe, largely because of its racing wins.
Racing—without a competitor—is what James Dean did through and around Fairmount. He was the only kid in town with a motorcycle and people called him “One-Speed Dean.” His one speed, of course, was wide open throttle.
Dean kept his ČZ bike for six years, riding it to southern California in 1949 to join his father after graduating high school. It must have been quite a trip—you might say, a motorcycle tour!–for a farm kid from Indiana to ride across the United States in the days before interstate highways. In 1951, Dean rode the ČZ to New York City, planning to develop the acting career he’d begun in California.
On a trip home to Indiana in 1953, Dean traded in his ČZ for a Royal Enfield 500cc twin motorcycle. This bigger bike didn’t last too long with him. Against the advice of the dealer who’d rebuilt the Royal Enfield’s engine, “One-Speed Dean” rode it top speed returning to New York. He didn’t get out of Pennsylvania before he had to stop for repairs. While he was waiting in the showroom, Dean saw a 1952 Indian Warrior TT and the Royal Enfield was left in Pennsylvania as a trade-in.
We can only imagine what kind of terror “One-Speed Dean” caused on the streets of New York City riding his maroon and gold-striped Indian. When he moved back to California to begin filming “East of Eden,” one of the movies that would make him famous (and rich), he went back to British bikes. This time, his motorcycle manufacturer of choice was Triumph.
For a short time, Dean rode a 1955 Triumph Tiger 110, which he traded in for a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy. Dean customized the TR5 with, among other things, knobby tires, probably to take advantage of the bike’s off-road capabilities. It’s this bike that now stands inside a glass case in the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana. And it’s this bike, fully restored with the actor’s customizations, that was Dean’s last. James Dean died in a car accident at age 24 on his way to an auto race.
If you join us for a Chrome Thunder Five-Star Motorcycle Tour in 2015, and we encourage you to “channel your inner James Dean,” you now know what we mean. Channel that love of riding and the freedom of the open road that you share with James Dean!