In 1937, two momentous events took place that would forever change the motorcycling world. On January 24, acclaimed racer Ed “Iron Man” Kretz won the inaugural Daytona 200. And in October, racer Ernest “Tex” Bryant enlisted Ed and 11 other top-seated American Motorcycle Association (AMA) racers from Southern California to form the 13 Rebels Motorcycle Club. This year, 2012, the 13 Rebels marked their 75th anniversary, and I was privileged to attend one of the club’s celebrations.
In early April, PegLeg, a friend of mine who is the president of the 13 Rebels MC New Jersey charter, called to invite me to a barbecue that was planned later in the month. Every year, various 13 Rebels charters gather at Outer Banks Bike Week, and this year’s traditional midweek party promised to kick it up a notch in honor of their 75th year as a club.
When I pulled up to the appointed location, PegLeg greeted me and promptly introduced me to Top, the national president, and Poppy, the national sergeant-at-arms, along with the other club members and their significant others in attendance. I felt quite welcome, and it was fun being around the club, taking part in the easy camaraderie they shared. I’d arrived just in time for a veritable feast of grilled chicken and meats, salads and other homemade treats. While we dined at picnic tables near the beach, club members regaled me with tales of the early days. And I was given a crash course on the 13 Rebels MC’s long and distinguished history as an AMA-chartered club.
The 13 founding members, Tex Bryant, Ray Bryant, Ed Kretz, Shell Thuet, Ray Thuet, Hill Wagner, Ed “Rip” Henley, Ted Evans, Jack Horn, Jimmy Kelly, Kenny Hylander, Ardin M. Van Syckle and Ardin A. Van Syckle wanted to come up with a logo for their jerseys when they were off the track. While racing, Tex had been wearing a logo consisting of a black cat sitting in a motorcycle boot, and one of the guys suggested a variation—a design based on Black Tom, the cat used in recruiting posters for General Patton’s WWI Army Tank Corps. The logo appealed to the men, many of whom served in the military, and it eventually worked its way onto a back patch, which has evolved over the years into its present form now worn by club members.
Soon after the 13 Rebels MC got its start, more members joined including Elmo Looper, Johnnie Roccio, Ernie Roccio, John Cameron, Louie Lista, Floyd Emde, Delmar Burkam, “Fearless” Fuller, Jimmy Wright, Les Mills, Dode Burdick, Johnny Enchando and the infamous “Wino” Willie Forkner. A second chapter was formed, giving the club a presence in both Los Angeles and San Diego. The club was grounded in TT, flat track and other forms of racing, and even had its own racetrack in Southern California. In those days, racing was as popular and well attended as Nascar and football are today. The 13 Rebels MC members earned a huge amount of notoriety in the racing world, achieving racing hall of fame inductions and the like, with many going on to become prominent and influential members of motorcycling society.
Brothers and racing partners Johnnie and Ernie Roccio competed internationally with the U.S. Racing Team. On one fateful day in 1952, Ernie crashed and died on the track, and Johnnie hung up his helmet. After that tragic incident, he was heard to say, “It just wasn’t fun anymore.” With many other members, racing was also a family affair. Floyd Emde owned a dealership in California and his son Don grew up around motorcycles and racing. Floyd won the Daytona 200 motorcycle race in 1948, and Don went on to win the same race in 1972, making them the first (and possibly only) father and son to win the Daytona 200. Founding member and hall of famer Ed Kretz won many races over the course of nearly 30 years, and his son Ed followed in his racing footsteps. Ed Sr. passed away in 1996 and, now and then, his son still rides the ’38 Indian Scout that Sr. rode to win the 1937 Daytona 200. In the works is a movie about Ed, who was one of the most popular and accomplished AMA racers in motorcycling history.
Founding member Ted Evans was given the first Triumph dealership in California based on his racing accomplishments. Founder Tex Bryant had his own Indian Motocycle shop. Member Elmo Looper purchased Crocker Motorcycle Company when the firm went bankrupt. Shell Thuet, another hall of famer, was known as a top-notch race tuner and builder. Sadly, with Shell’s passing in 2011 at the age of 98, the last of the founding members is gone.
In 1946, “Wino” Willie Forkner showed up drunk to one of the races and crashed through a fence. That act of rebellion did not sit well with the 13 Rebels MC, whose members were serious about racing and followed the rules the AMA set forth, saving their partying for after the races. Wino Willie did not want to follow rules, so by mutual decision he left the club and started the Boozefighters MC shortly after. The 13 Rebels and the Boozefighters were present at the infamous 1947 Hollister incident that spawned a media frenzy and inspired the movie The Wild One. Marlon Brando played Johnny Strabler of the Black Rebels, meant to portray the 13 Rebels’ Shell Thuet, and Lee Marvin played Chino of The Beetles whose character was based on Wino Willie of the Boozefighters. Although the movie depicted a rivalry between the clubs, in reality, the members of both clubs got along well, even hanging out together at the All American Café in South Central Los Angeles.
As the decades passed, other pastimes grabbed the attention of the American public, 13 Rebels MC members grew older and focused their attention on their families and their businesses, and the club became less active. In 1992, a bunch of younger guys whose values were the same as those who formed the 13 Rebels contacted some of the original members and received their blessing to form new charters that would continue the heritage of the club.
The 13 Rebels MC is now a national club with charters in the East and the Midwest. PegLeg tells me that he met some 13 Rebels MC members at the Smokeout in North Carolina a number of years ago, and was impressed with the men’s character and demeanor. PegLeg and the club members kept in touch, with visits and discussions taking place over the next several years, and eventually the New Jersey charter was formed with PegLeg at the helm.
The club today is still sanctioned by the AMA, having been awarded the organization’s historical status signifying that 13 Rebels MC is over 50 years old. The values are the same as those of the founders, and according to the club’s website, its mission is “to carry on the brotherhood, camaraderie, enjoyment and fun of belonging to one of the oldest and most historic Motorcycle Clubs in existence.” Occasionally, during vintage race days, members still run the two Ironhead Sportster drag bikes constructed by legendary builder and racer Bonnie Truett. Each charter conducts its own activities, and the charters get together several times a year. The history and legacy of the club are sacred, and each new member is given a history book that was researched and written by Jackpot, national vice president and club historian. And one of the charters is bringing back The Rebelette, the club newsletter published in the ’30s and ’40s.
The club’s big anniversary celebration took place in Ohio in late October, and included a visit to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum. Members were shown a new CD that links the club’s past to its present. After all, some of the members from the ’40s and ’50s are still around. The 13 Rebels MC remains an independent club, respectful of, but not associated with, any other clubs. Defending and protecting the Constitution of the U.S., supporting the military, following laws and contributing to the community is just as important to the club as carrying on its motorcycling heritage. Congratulations to the 13 Rebels MC on their longevity and accomplishments, and here’s to another 75 years!