Motor Maids: More Like the Mild Ones Than the Wild Ones

Times Staff Writer

Linda Dugeau's boyfriend hoarded pennies during the summer of 1930 so he could purchase a $15 motorcycle. "The minute I saw it I wanted to ride," said Dugeau, now a 73-year-old Escondido, Calif., resident.

Girl riders, as the motorcycle magazines called them, were scarce in those days. As motorcycling became an obsession for Dugeau, she and her friend Dot Robinson sought to unite female motorcyclists in a club modeled after Amelia Earhart's sorority for women pilots called the 99ers.

Biker Ladies

Dugeau, Robinson and 39 other women met for the first time in 1940. They settled on the name Motor Maids of America, and established two rules: A Motor Maid must own her own motorcycle, and she must at all times conduct herself like a lady.

Last week, women from 22 states piloted their Harleys and Hondas to Yakima for the Motor Maids' 46th annual convention.

A few things have changed. You can't get a bike for $15 anymore; the large touring models favored by Motor Maids cost anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000. The white gloves and ties that once distinguished club members are now donned only for parades. The organization's name has been updated to Motor Maids Inc.

But the Motor Maids are still out to prove that "women who ride motorcycles can be above reproach." Their four-page constitution and bylaws, revised in 1985, stipulate that members must be of good character and "at no time shall a member of the Motor Maids appear on her motorcycle in shorts or abbreviated costume."

Dot Robinson, now 74 and a resident of Lake Suzy, Fla., is the Motor Maids' oldest active member and perhaps the most famous woman in the history of motorcycling. She's remembered particularly for competing successfully against male riders in side car races in the '30s. The petite Robinson had ridden in from Florida on her pink Harley with her husband, Earl.

Linda Dugeau sold her motorcycle last year after she broke a wrist in a spill and decided her bones were getting too brittle to risk another fall. Dugeau did not attend the convention this year because club rules say Motor Maids have to arrive at meetings on two wheels, and Dugeau now drives a VW bug.

"I hate to give it up (motorcycling)," she said, "because that was the most fun I've had in my life."

When they weren't out riding bikes, the conventioneers congregated in Room 148 at the Holiday Inn, which had been designated as the hospitality suite. The women nibbled cookies decorated in green icing with the Motor Maids shield-shaped emblem. They told tales of the day's bike tours to local wineries or to pick apricots.

Annual Road Run

Dorothy Etherton, a marriage, family and child counselor from Escondido, recounted how she had taken a spill when her Honda Silverwing hit a rock on the road to Mt. St. Helens. Her bruised shoulder would keep her out of the annual Dot Robinson Road Run the following day.

Thumbing through a cracked and broken photo album, club historian Kathy Davis, 62, of Sandy, Utah, recalled the early days of the Motor Maids when their helmets were made of leather or cloth; the bikes spewed oil and didn't have windshields. "You were always eating bugs and the wind would wear you out," said Davis, who joined the organization in 1947.

"We used to have the darlingest uniforms," Davis said. "It was an Eisenhower jacket with gray slacks and blue stripes down the sides and a little cap. It was adorable." The current uniform is simpler, consisting of gray slacks and a blue jacket with Motor Maids From California (or another state) embroidered on the back.

Among the mementos Davis oversees are old newspaper clippings. Some tell of Motor Maids working as motorcycle couriers, convoy escorts and dispatch riders during World War II. There is story after story about Motor Maids who toured the country alone on their motorcycles in the days when such an act required much daring; as well as articles about women motorcyclists in unconventional occupations. Linda Dugeau, for instance, dashed around congested L.A. streets delivering blueprints on her red Harley-Davidson from 1950 to 1975 when she retired.

"I've fallen off every kind of way," Dugeau said about accidents on that job. To make herself more visible to motorists, Dugeau wore a red jacket and a long red scarf in her ponytail.

Most of the old-timers at the convention took up motorcycle riding at a time when their determination to ride a bike was regarded as rebellious. Many tell of outraged parents or acquaintances.

Some of the Motor Maids attribute their love of motorcycling to childhood experiences that gave them the notion that freedom and excitement might be found on a bike.

Unfettered in an Open Field

Alice Ryan, a 71-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., said that when she was in high school she once observed a woman riding a Harley unfettered in an open field. "She handled that big Harley so easy; that decided me I wanted to ride a bike."

Seventy-two-year-old Vera Griffin, who lives in Columbus, Ind., and is one of the club's original members, said she was walking home from school one day as a youngster when a motorcycle zoomed by. Something fell off the bike. Griffin picked up the fallen horn from the roadside. When the motorcyclist came back to retrieve it, Griffin said, "He let me ride with him to the turn in the road and I said, 'When I grow up I'm going to have a motorcycle.' "

Griffin doesn't ride her 750 Triumph much anymore in winter because of arthritis in her hands. Her bike is painted blue and silver, Motor Maid colors, and sports a Motor Maid license plate holder. This is her 50th year riding motorcycles.

"It's a wonderful sport," Griffin said. "You see so much more from a motorcycle than a car. You lean with the motorcycle; you sort of flow along."

Some motorcyclists think of the Motor Maids as a quaint organization left over from the olden days of motorcycling, a group with little place in the sport as it is today.

It's true that most of club's 500 members (104 attended the convention) are older women who joined the club in the '40s or '50s.

But wherever the Motor Maids gather, local newspaper and television coverage invariably inspires a few younger women to join the club. The youngest Motor Maid is 21.

Wide Range of Options

Women who ride bikes have the option of joining co-ed touring clubs, local biking organizations for women, or the informally organized Women on Wheels motorcycle club. But some prefer the order and tradition Motor Maids represent.

Don Behnke, a 49-year-old associate engineer at Hughes Aircraft, was waiting in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn for his wife, Donna, to return from the Dot Robinson Road Run, a timed competition in which the bikers must find their way to various checkpoints, maintaining a constant speed of about 30 m.p.h.

The couple, who live in Torrance, Calif., each own a bike designed for long-distance touring. Don Behnke had his camera ready to record Donna's return. He wore a cap that said Motor Maid Auxililary.

"I think this is one of the best clubs around," he said. "A bunch of clean-cut people." Husbands, brothers and male companions are welcome at Motor Maid gatherings so long as they abide by club rules.

Donna pulled into the rain-wet parking lot on a Honda Goldwing. She was wearing a blue rain suit, a Shoei helmet and white cowboy boots, which conform to Motor Maid footwear specifications. The pocket of Donna Behnke's rain suit was stuffed with scraps of paper indicating the time she arrived at the various checkpoints. "I put you four minutes late," Don Behnke said, consulting his watch.

Convention Highlight

Donna Behnke is state director of the California Motor Maids, a group that numbers about 40. Ten California Motor Maids attended the convention.

Winners of the Dot Robinson Road Run, which is considered by most to be the highlight of the convention, would be awarded trophies at that evening's banquet. The woman who rode the greatest distance to attend the convention (3,600 miles) would also receive a trophy.

Linda Dugeau said she hopes that--old-fashioned or not--the Motor Maids will persevere even after the older members have garaged their bikes for the last time.

"It is still select," she said of the club membership. "You still have to behave yourself to be a Motor Maid."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°