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The legacy of Wilson’s Motorcycles

Sep 02, 2015 08:57AM ● Published by Kevin

Photo courtesy of Doug Wilson.

Gallery: The legacy of Wilson’s Motorcycles - Summer 2015 [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

Exhilaration — it’s what all motorcyclists feel when they rev up their bikes’ engines and ride off into the wind. With no smudged window to distort their view, riders see every vehicle, building and tree they pass. They smell every scent intensely, whether it is the sweetness of the Valley’s orange blossoms or the fecal fragrance exuding from its many dairy farms. They feel every shift in the weather, embracing the three-degree drop in temperature in the shade during the summer heat. 

This was how every ride over the course of 60 years felt to Doug Wilson, now 85. 

“It was the most fun you could have,” said Wilson, reminiscing about his many cross-country rides with wife Coleen — rides like one up to Pike’s Peak in Colorado and in and around Mammoth Lakes in California. 

It’s been years since Doug has rode a motorcycle, as old age has taken its toll on his back and a leg which he can hardly move. But he still remembers his riding days fondly. 

When asked if he missed it, his immediate spirited reply “Oh gosh, yeah” said it all. 

Although his love of riding is apparent, Wilson and his family are known in the Valley’s motorcycle industry for so much more than their enthusiasm for motorcycles. For nearly 100 years, spanning four generations, the Wilsons have sold all matter of motorcycles from Harley Davidson, Triumph, Bultaco and BSA to Yamaha, Honda and Kawasaki in shops in Fresno and now Madera. 

Doug himself began working at his father’s Harley Davidson shop in downtown Fresno at the age of 12. World War II had started and many of his father’s workers were overseas serving in the military or across town doing jobs that supported the war industry, so Doug and his younger brother stepped up and learned to repair motorcycles at the shop. 

Little did Doug know that his “fill in” job would transform into a lifelong career and passion, a passion he would eventually pass on to his own son and grandson. 

Humble beginnings

It all started when Wilson’s father, Harry D. “Ott” Wilson purchased his first motorcycle in 1913. 

The tale Doug heard so many times growing up assisting in his father’s shop was this: Ott left his home on O Street one day and paid a visit to the local Harley dealer on Kern. It’s unknown whether he went there to buy a motorcycle or apply for a job, but he came home later that evening with both. Thus, the history of motorcycle riding and selling in the Wilson family began. 

For four years, Ott Wilson worked at Ben Bresee’s Harley Dealership in downtown Fresno. Then, in 1917, the U.S. Army sent Ott to France, where he spent his tour of duty repairing military motorcycles. Once his tour was over, Ott resumed his position at Fresno’s Harley shop. Just a few short months after his return, Bresee died in a motorcycle accident and Ott was tasked with taking over the shop. He and co-worker, Claud Salmon, partnered up and ended up opening a new shop — Salmon and Wilson Motorcycles — at 457 Broadway Street. 

Although Doug is long retired and lives in Clovis, he makes the trek to Madera almost every day to assist his son and be amongst the motorcycles he loves so much.

In 1929, Salmon took a job at a Harley dealership in Oakland, leaving Wilson sole proprietor of the shop, which had its name changed to Wilson’s Motorcycles. The Wilson family continued to operate the business until Doug and his brother Harry “Butch” Wilson sold it 60 years later, in 1989. 

A new era 

Photo courtesy of Doug Wilson.

Selling the famous Wilson’s Motorcycle shop may have signaled the end of an era, but it was far from the end of the family’s legacy in the motorcycle industry. 

The Wilson family couldn’t stay away from its passion for long and, in 2006, Doug’s son Robert purchased Madera Honda Suzuki at 100 E. 6th Street in Madera. One of Robert’s sons recently began working at the Madera shop, introducing a fourth generation of Wilsons to the industry. 

“The love for the industry still burns strong for the Wilson family,” Robert Wilson writes on the Madera Honda Suzuki website. “That is the reason we strive so hard to create a positive buying experience for each customer that walks in the store, whether it’s a $2 bolt or a new motorcycle. We all ride and are ready to share all the great experiences the motorcycle world has to offer.” 

Although Doug is long retired and lives in Clovis, he makes the trek to Madera almost every day to assist his son and be amongst the motorcycles he loves so much. 

“He goes to visit with his friends,” Doug’s wife Coleen said.

“I just enjoy being down there,” Doug said. “It’s Robert’s shop and he has a good grip on it, but I like being able to talk to the customers there and share what I know.”

60-plus years of motorcycles

Over the years, Doug Wilson has witnessed drastic changes in the motorcycle industry. The appearance of motorcycles, their functionality and the image held by their riders have all shifted, he said. 

When Ott first opened up his shop, Doug said, motorcycles still very much-resembled bicycles with motors, unlike today’s “hot rod” custom-made Harley’s with big bodies and shiny sleek paint jobs and the sports models designed for aerodynamics and speed. 

Coleen and Doug Wilson Photo by Dan Minkler.

While fun, those older motorcycles were created out of necessity, Doug explained. That need was short-lived as cars became more affordable. To cope, Doug said, his father and other dealers had to find new uses for motorcycles. 

“Motorcycles were created about the same time as cars, but they were much cheaper,” Doug said. “But, when Henry Ford invented the production line, the mass production just killed the motorcycle industry. You could buy a Model T Ford for the same price as a motorcycle, so why buy the motorcycle? We had to create new uses for it.

“I remember hearing that one of the Harley founders, Walter Davidson, even visited my dad’s shop sometime in the 1920s and told him he had to create activity for guys buying motorcycles.” 

According to Doug, Ott took the advice from Davidson to heart, doing all he could to interest Fresnans in riding. One way he garnered interest was by hosting races Thursday nights at the Fresno State College stadium’s speedway track. The races were held from 1934-36. 

“That was the biggest thing there was,” Doug said. “Every Thursday night as a kid I remember being at that stadium watching these big time racers. Those were world champion-caliber guys. My dad’s friend Sprouts [Lloyd “Sprouts” Elder] became a world champion and he drew all the crowds.” 

Supplying commercial fleets

Aside from riders who raced, motorcycles also served a purpose in the commercial market. 

Fresno Bee carriers, for example, would purchase their motorcycles from Wilson’s. 

“The newspaper boys used to go all around the county delivering the paper and they each had a huge carrier route — 50 miles a day or more,” Doug said. “One guy went clear to Bakersfield and back each day and those were dirt roads then. They were pretty tough guys and they would have these saddlebags full of newspapers. 

“They took good care of their motorcycles and knew about repairs and everything. At one point, my dad even hired a couple of them to work at the shop.” 

Delivery boys from local pharmacies also rode bikes from Wilson’s, though they preferred three-wheelers. Local garages also used three-wheelers to tow cars. 

“Those three-wheelers were pretty amazing,” Doug said. “They had a tow bar and cars back then all had the same type of bumper that you could put a clamp on to tow. Most of the major garages had those and that is one of the main commercial businesses the Harley dealership lived on.”

The Wilson family has sold motorcycles for nearly 100 years, spanning four generations. Three of those generations are pictured here, including Lisa Wilson, Robert Wilson, Kyle Wilson, Doug Wilson and Coleen Wilson Photo by Dan Minkler.

The law enforcement industry also kept motorcycles alive. The Fresno Police Department purchased its fleet of motorcycles from Wilson’s and so did the County Cops, who later became the California Highway Patrol. 

A “good” motorcycle guy

Photo courtesy of
Doug Wilson.

The prestige that officers brought to the image of motorcycles is something Doug always strove to maintain, as the image of riders became tainted when he was in his teens. 

“Motorcycles have a more positive image now, but when I was a kid there were a lot of bad guys out there driving motorcycles,” Doug said. “When I was 16, my friend and I rode down to the San Joaquin River and hung out near the sand dunes. On the way back, we pulled into this restaurant on Herndon and Highway 99 and they wouldn’t wait on us because we rode motorcycles. 

“I understood why. A couple days before, some group of motorcycle guys came in there roughhousing, swearing and raising heck. That day I made up my mind that I wouldn’t be a bad guy and ride a motorcycle. To this day, I have never had a beer or smoked a cigarette.” 

Now, as Wilson sits in his living room surrounded by dozens of black and white photographs and motorcycle memories, he smiles, proud of the decisions he made as a “good motorcycle guy.” 

“I’ll never forget those days,” he said. “I loved riding and working at the shop. Motorcycles may not be for everyone. Riding can be tiring. The weather can be adverse sometimes. 

“But, every ride is an adventure and you see and smell things differently. That was fun for me.” 

Written by Valerie Shelton, who has worked as a reporter and editor for several Central Valley publications. Currently, she is the editor of the Clovis Roundup, a community newspaper covering news and events in the growing city of Clovis.

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