Riding the Wall of Death is a hard business. It’s a particular brand of vertiginous motorcycle daredevilry requiring long hours of backbreaking labor and little pay. Moving, setting up and riding the Wall takes dedication and commitment, with danger as a constant passenger. Once a part of almost every traveling carnival, the Wall of Death has almost disappeared from modern culture — as few as four remain in the U.S., with 11 or 12 still operating in Europe. It’s a hard life, but the Wall of Death and other mechanized daredevil shows have captivated Corinna Mantlo. The New Yorker, with a background in history, film, fashion and upholstery, is riding in the tracks of women and men who, over the past century, have ridden the Wall and entertained hundreds of thousands at carnivals and country fairs. She’s learning the art of getting horizontal at speed – and 2020 was to be her year to finally get higher up the boards. Coronavirus cancelled those plans, but Corinna remains a champion of the lifestyle.

Corinna Mantlo setting up a Wall of Death: hard work for little pay, but a unique lifestyle. [Corinna Mantlo]
“My parents were artists and activists,” Corinna says, “and I never learned anything about cars or motorcycles in my younger years. I didn’t even get a driver’s license until I was 21.” Corinna’s dad, Bill Mantlo, was a prolific Marvel comic book writer during the 1970s and 80s. He wrote a 1976 issue of Ghost Rider, and Rocket Racoon is just one of his many creations. Bill brought his political intelligence to a medium aimed at young minds, and was an agent of change who later became a public defender. Tragically, when Corinna was just 12 years old in 1992, her father was hit by a car while he was rollerblading. In a coma for two weeks, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and now lives in permanent care. Comics may be considered lowbrow, but Bill came from a fine art background. That’s the environment in which Corinna was raised, and she’s become adept at moving back and forth between multiple disciplines that, eventually, have melded together in a unique way – and it all started with fashion and film. “My mother was a seamstress, and that’s a job that helped put her through Cooper Union [a prestigious New York art school that Bill also attended]. She never taught me to sew, but because I was wearing vintage clothing from the 1930s when I was 13, I bought myself a 1930s-era Singer Featherweight sewing machine.”

Corinna’s day job is making custom seats and accessories under her Via Meccanica brand. [Corinna Mantlo]
She set up the machine to fix her vintage threads, and quickly began sewing her own designs. Enrolled in an alternative high school, Corinna took on an internship at a couture fashion house, essentially factory sewing high-end garments. Here, she learned pattern making and eventually found herself working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The Met has a 70,000-piece collection of clothing, and I sat in The Met’s basement sketching patterns from some of those items,” she says. All the while, she was also immersed in the art of film, working in that industry to help others bring their stories to the screen. “Film is accessible and affordable to everybody and I’d watch anything and everything from the obscure to the mainstream. How do you watch something like ‘The Wild One’ and not fall in love with it?”

It takes a lot of miles to follow the carny life, and Corinna uses a Triumph for most of them, but sometimes a Dodge or even a Sportster. [Corinna Mantlo]
‘The Wild One’, perhaps, informed Corinna’s impulse to ride. She took a motorcycle riding safety course and bought a crappy 1982 Honda Rebel – a 250cc twin-cylinder machine that, on her way home after handing over the cash, blew up and left her stranded. Impressed by the aesthetic of British motorcycles, she then got a 1976 Triumph Bonneville and met legendary Brit-bike mechanic Hugh Mackie. She showed up at Hugh’s shop, Sixth Street Specials, with her Triumph and he took a minute to explain how to kickstart the Triumph and coax the machine down the road. She says she’s not a competent mechanic, and this attention was a special moment for her as she knew you don’t get very far on a broken vintage bike, and adds, “But you learn a lot, and establish some really good friendships in the process.”

The glory of a Wall of Death on the plains in the predawn light. [Corinna Mantlo]
That’s also how she got started in the upholstery business. During a conversation at a bar with some biker friends, one asked where they could have a seat made. Corinna said she could sew and would take on the task. A motorcycle saddle requires a three-dimensional pattern, something Corinna handles with ease. “I’m a shitty mechanic, but I can make seats.  That made me feel like I had something to offer and helped make me feel like a part of the community – one that was very vibrant in New York.” Working under the moniker Via Meccanica, Corinna has stitched together custom seats and repaired saddles and saddle bags for the likes of Billy Joel and his 20th Century Cycles collection, the new Tarform E-bike [as seen in our exhibit ‘Electric Revolution’ at the Petersen Museum], and hundreds of builders and museums around the globe.

Down time with the American Wall of Death. [Corinna Mantlo]
Her love of film inspired Corinna to establish Cine Meccanica in 2008, where she showcased biker and hot rod films of the 1960s and 70s, and newer productions featuring mechanized conveyances. She reached out to filmmakers, inviting them to speak at screenings. “I’d put ads up on Craigslist, and every Wednesday night showed an obscure film. It turned into a real underground happening that aired a number of premieres so niche they would easily have become lost in a regular film festival. In 2013, Cine Meccanica rolled into the Motorcycle Film Festival.”

[Corinna’s film career included the only documentary on NYC’s Fulton Fish Market, ‘Up at Lou’s’]

She continues, “By 2013, to take these films to a much larger audience, I cold-called Paul d’Orleans (founder of The Vintagent), and said, ‘I’ve got this project I could use your help with.’ Within 10 minutes, we were together on the idea.”  The ‘idea’ was to create the first international Motorcycle Film Festival, riding the wave of energy building around the new custom bike scene.  The Motorcycle Film Festival was incredibly popular with filmmakers, with over 100 new films submitted every year, and had the support of the motorcycle industry too, with support from Honda, BMW, and Cycle World, among many others.  Paul came on board as a mentor and Chief Judge, using his industry and media connections to build an amazing international judging panel, including the likes of Ultan Guilfoyle (curator of the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit), Mark Hoyer (Editor of Cycle World), Melissa Holbrook Pierson (The Perfect Vehicle), customizer Paul Cox, and many other heavy hitters in the world of motorcycles and their related culture.  The MFF premiered many features, like ‘Why We Ride’ and ‘On Any Sunday: the Next Chapter’, and had satellite screenings at Wheels&Waves in France and at EICMA in Milan (via Deus ex Machina).  The arts festival scene is every bit as difficult as riding the Wall of Death, and the MFF was knocked down in 2016.  But when the front door shuts, there’s always a window, and when The Vintagent was rebooted in 2016, film became an integral part of its architecture, and Corinna came on board as the Editor for Film.  She brings new films every week to this site, which has become the world’s largest collection of curated online motorcycle films.

Corinna at the Punks Peak Hillclimb during Wheels&Waves 2017, where the Motorcycle Film Festival screened films. [Paul d’Orleans]
After riding in New York City for a decade, in 2013 Corinna wondered why she didn’t know more female motorcyclists. Wanting to support other women in the sport, she sent an invite to meet for dinner followed by a ride to four female motorcyclists. Those ladies invited their own friends, and soon the gatherings became a group called The Miss-Fires, growing from a handful of women to a group of 250 riders. “I wanted girls to feel like they had a community, a place where they could quietly connect and ask as many questions about motorcycling as they wanted to,” Corinna says.

The Miss-Fires as featured in the New York Times. [Todd Heisler/The New York Times]
Her expertise in film and motorcycles had Corinna on the road, often speaking on the subject at organized events. “I wasn’t making a dime, just having my airfare and hotels covered,” she says. “But that’s how I wound up in Germany, and that was my introduction to the Original Motordrome, built in 1928, that’s 32-feet across. The outfit needed someone to drive a truck and help them out. I was with them only two days, but I started dreaming about the Wall of Death, and could not get it out of my head – it blew my mind.” In the airport on her way home, Corinna began Googling the Wall of Death, and wrote emails to those few still operating in the U.S., offering to come out and help – nothing else. She soon learned that in the world of ‘carnys’, it’s hard to trust a stranger, as it takes a rare individual to truly commit to this difficult, dangerous, and underpaid world. Undeterred, while attending a motorcycle event in Austin, Texas she found the American Motor Drome Company Wall of Death was set up and operating. Corinna simply arrived with hot cups of coffee and offered to help, whether to take tickets or dismantle and load the wall on the trailer when the event was over.

Hands-off riding on the bally is training for a ride inside the wall: balance under pressure is a must. [Corinna Mantlo]
“I think I thought I was going to do a film or write a story about the wall, and you can’t do that without doing the work. The real story isn’t about the glory shot, where the daredevil is speeding around at the top of the wall, hands off the bars. It’s about the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. There can be no complaints – if you hurt yourself, you get back on. I’ve seen alcoholism and I’ve seen anger issues, but then you see the dedication and the hard work, and I’ve fallen in love with it.”

Fire! The Lucky Hell Drivers recreated the stunt driver shows plying every country fair and carnival across the USA from the 1920s – 60s. [Corinna Mantlo]
Dating back to approximately 1914, the Wall of Death, Corinna says, likely comes from a vaudeville background. “Anybody who got into this was coming from a theatrical background – and like anything theatrical, you put a girl in it to make it more exciting.” That’s why there have always been female daredevils riding the Wall, and it’s something Corinna is committed to mastering. “I’m not a natural daredevil,” she admits, and adds, “I really have to work at it, and you think you know about the Wall, but nobody just watching can really understand the forces at play when you’re horizontal on the boards.” It takes about a year of training to go horizontal, and most everybody trains first in a go-kart. Starting with two wheels on the floor, and two on the wall’s starting track, the spinning begins. There is no speedometer fitted to the stunt karts or bikes, and one has to gauge when they’re moving between 25 and 30 mph, a speed where centrifugal force will hold the vehicle to the wall. Her teacher is Jay Lightnin’ of the American Motor Drome Company, and by February she was just getting up on the wall in the kart. Then, the COVID pandemic put the brakes on her training.

Riding the Wall starts with a kart, which is more forgiving than a motorcycle as a rider learns the tricks of the trade. [Corinna Mantlo]
During her time working with the Wall of Death, Corinna was invited by a group of Pennsylvania hot rod friends with a hell-driving troupe to be their ‘fire girl’ – essentially, she would ignite the wooden boardwall in preparation for a flaming stunt. Corinna agreed, with the proviso they also train her to perform stunts. The Lucky Devil Hell Drivers, as they called themselves, had two 1940s Fords with flathead V-8 engines and two Harley-Davidson 45s. “Hell-driving troupes were around from since the 19-teens,” Corinna says. “Daredevils would jump cars over ramps, and through a wall of fire. These shows were tied to the heyday of local tracks and racing events. They started to disappear in the 1960s, when sponsorship began to drop off.” Corinna got bookings for the Lucky Devil Hell Drivers at local tracks and, coming full circle to her days in the film and fashion industry, ensured the ‘set’ was dressed and all the daredevils wore period-correct 1940s clothing. “There was lots of stuff to drag around and literally no budget to do it and after a couple of years the troupe began to fall apart. I really enjoyed that time, because those events connected the past to the present, and I got to meet several old timers who recalled their days of daredevilry.”

Assembling a Wall of Death from a kit of parts carried on a flatbed to remote locations. [Corinna Mantlo]
Traveling America’s roads to work the modern carny lifestyle had Corinna putting 20,000 miles a year on her 2006 Triumph Thruxton motorcycle or 1986 Dodge Ram pickup truck with its 1964 Shasta trailer. When not on the road, she was left looking for a place to live beyond the typical rental arrangement. She set up Bonestown, a unique space with shipping containers and plenty of space to park travel trailers. Bonestown became an artists’ collective and traveling performers’ haven in New York. For her own space, Corinna set up in a 40-foot sea can. Divided in half, the front is her Via Meccanica shop and the rear her residence — follow her on Instagram @miss1932. She continues to twist several different throttles, keeping all of her interests engaged simultaneously. Ultimately, she says, “I chose this daredevil lifestyle, because it’s something I believe in. This isn’t all about me,” she adds, and concludes. “I just consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to follow in the footsteps of some really hardworking men and women.”


Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics