Bob Peterson grew up in Edgewater, New Jersey less than twenty miles from New York City. He remembers as a kid during the early 1960s being intrigued by groups of motorcycle club riders like the Aliens[1] he saw on the highway near his home. The no-frills, chopped-down style of the bikes the Aliens rode was both radical and impressive. They projected a seductive sense of power as they split lanes and blasted through the traffic. He got his motorcycle license and started to learn about the culture of motorcycles.

Bob Peterson with his Coney Island Baby, a heavily modified 1975 Harley-Davidson FLH Electra Glide in ‘Coney Island style’. [Mike McCabe]
Today fifty years later, Bob rides a 1975 FLH Shovelhead that he customized into what is called a Coney Island style bike. He has added stylized, chromed deco-looking front fender add-ons but more importantly behind his bike’s impressive custom seat rail[2], an elaborate tail rig configuration of several dozen small, decorative runner lights. Coney Island style bikes have a history that cuts across different racial and ethnic groups and through different New York City neighborhoods. Some call them ‘Garbage Wagons’ or ‘Garbage Barges’ but they all are known for their elaborate tail rigs and light assemblies that are inspired by the incredible lightbulb displays and romance of the historic 1900s to 1960s Coney Island amusement parks- Dreamland (1904-1911), Luna (1903-1944), Steeplechase (1897-1964).

Luna Park on Coney Island in 1906, with enough Edison lamps to be seen 50 miles at sea. [Mike McCabe Collection]
“Coney Island first became a showcase for the wonders and promise of the machine age. A 300-foot tall observation tower with steam-powered elevators was brought to the Island, as well as an Inexhaustible cow whose mechanical udders dispensed limitless drafts of milk. In 1876 the hot dog was invented there, and five years later, the rollercoaster. At night there was “electric sea-bathing beneath the hiss of primitive arc lamps.”[3]

In 1902, Scientific American documented the latest craze of motorcycle-paced bicycle races on small banked tracks, the forerunners of the Wall of Death. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Electric Tower at Coney Island’s Luna Park was a 200 foot tall orgy of bright light created by more than 20,000 incandescent lightbulbs. The entire Luna Park amusement park had more than 1,300,000 lightbulbs that could be seen 50 miles at sea. Thomas Edison patented his first game changer light bulb near his home in Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1880, but it was the carnivalesque entrepreneurs of Coney Island’s amusement showcases Dreamland, Luna and Steeplechase Parks who used it to push back against the darkness, lengthen the day and create a new entrepreneurial dimension. 300,000 people visited the parks well into the evening on Saturdays during the 1930s. After WWII in 1947 that number swelled to more than 2.6 million people.

1914: the first vertical ‘Cylinder of Death’ was built by board track racer Red Armstrong, who was looking for earning potential during the off-season. It was set up in San Francisco, and a larger version was built at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in 1915. [The Vintagent Archive]
The glowing lightbulb above someone’s head came to symbolize an ‘aha moment’ of ingenuity and contextualized other late 19th to early 20th innovations, the internal combustion engine, the automobile and the motorcycle. The crowds at Coney Island were having fun but they were also being educated about the risk-reward of working 5 and 6 days a week at rough and often dangerous manufacturing jobs── if you survived, the weekend was yours. The novel notion of consumerism was gestating at places like Coney Island. You could save and then spend your hard earned money to buy some happiness on the expanding assortment of mass-produced merchandise.[4]

A more substantial version of Red Armstrong’s vertical wall was built in late 1914, and re-named the ‘Whirl of Death’, seen here with Red Armstrong riding an Excelsior board track racer on the banked portion of the track.  Note the Edwardian attire of the crowd. [The Vintagent Archive]
The motorcycle worked its way easily into Coney Island thrill culture and the psyche of spectators bent on risqué entertainment. Banked cycle racing tracks had been around since the late 1880s in Europe and the USA, and it was natural that motorcycles – originally as pacers – were included in the fun.  According to the New York Times, banked cycle tracks appeared at Luna Park on Coney Island by 1911, with motorcycle pacers, motorcycles, and cars included in thrill shows on the 65degree banking.  The era of board track racing began in earnest in 1909 under entrepreneur Jack Prince, and banked tracks soon appeared all over the country, including Brooklyn’s Brighton Motordrome (1912) and the Sheepshead Bay Speedway (1919).  There were arguments for years about ‘who built the first Wall of Death’, but research by The Vintagent has produced the earliest photos of a vertical Wall, in San Francisco in 1914, the ‘Cylinder of Death’, built by board track racer Red Armstrong as vaudeville entertainment and employment during racing’s off season.  The ‘Wall of Death’ gained immediate popularity, and soon smaller, portable carnival motordromes were moving from fairground to fairground, all over the USA. While the earliest motorcycles used of the Walls were ex-board track racing Indians and Excelsiors, by 1928 the motorcycle of choice for the Wall of Death was the Indian 101 Scout with its 37ci (750cc) motor.[7]

The front end of Bob Petersen’s Coney Island Baby, a 1975 Harley-Davidson FLH Electra Glide with ‘bat wing’ fairing and lots of accessories. Note the -stock- enormous eagle sticker on the fairing. [Mike McCabe]
Brand, date and style, motorcycles take on the patina of the time they exist in. Bob Peterson’s ’75 FLH Shovelhead with its elaborate, hand fabricated tail-end light assembly and other bikes in the Coney Island style like Ernie Barkman’s ‘Black Swan’ 1950 Panhead are personalized statements that play creatively with an interpretation of history── some real, some mythological. Things made by humans are cultural and historical footprints- A history and time line to the creative decisions of the making. Motorcycle variety is a part of this process; from established brand families to the idiosyncratic, vernacular styles of particular people and places.[8]

The saddle of Bob Peterson’s Harley-Davidson. [Mike McCabe]
“I was born in 1951 in Edgewater, New Jersey,” Bob Peterson said. “During my teen-years I’d watch the guys from New York City who would come over on their motorcycles, and they would ride around and all that… they were riding on FLH’s but they were probably Panheads back then. You’re talking late ‘50s or early ‘60s. I was ten or eleven and I used to love the way they decorated the bikes up with all the lights and chrome… I loved it so much I’d take my bicycles and do stuff to my bicycles- Put big white mud flaps on them… put a couple lights on them even though they didn’t work… decorate it with some lights. Soon as I was old enough to ride a motorcycle, I said, “I gotta get one of these”. I started out with a 1971 Sportster. Of course my parents were against it, gradually as I got older they were into it. As time went on and I got the money, I went in for bigger bikes like the 1200 FLHs. I started decorating them and that’s my thing. I noticed how some of the clubs dressed up their bikes. That’s where I got the inspiration from. And I tried to keep it going because it’s a dying thing now.  I love it. A lot of people don’t like it but that’s my thing.

The tail end of the Coney Island Baby. This chrome just might get you home. [Mike McCabe]
Choppers came in during the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Before that, they all had big bikes like this. Then the late ‘60s came along and during the ‘70s they chopped them. They took big bikes like this and they chopped them all up. This style bike went on the back burner. All this extra stuff on the bikes was hung up in garages or it was thrown out. I went to flea markets all over the country. If I didn’t take this stuff, it would have been thrown in the garbage. I made a lot of it but the trays for the lights were made by some after-market guys back in the ‘60s. There was a company in New York City called Bosco Brothers and they started making off this stuff… but they passed on. They made a lot of the custom parts. The special exhaust trumpets, that’s all made. The rest of it I made. The seat rail is custom made[9]. Thank God I saved a lot of this from the junk yard. It would have been all thrown out.

The heart of the Coney Island Baby remains a fairly stock FLH 74ci ‘cone’ Shovelhead motor, with an original stock paint job in Sparkling Burgundy. [Mike McCabe]
“Now, motorcycle tastes are changing again, that chopper theme is changing and these motorcycles are coming back. And we want to try to find all this stuff that is still hanging in people’s garages and whatever is left, and whatever wasn’t thrown out.  Oh ya, as a kid I would see these bikes dressed up with custom exhaust systems on them… Take the seats and a welder would make different seat rails… Guys would put their girlfriend’s name or their bike’s name in there. And then the handle bars had custom handle bars with curly-cues in it… I would watch them and that’s where I got the inspiration from. I eventually did my own when I got older and more knowledgeable. But it was very nice to see them take a regular stock motorcycle and make their own theme… their own custom, what each person wanted. Like mine… this is what I wanted. Not what everyone else wants… but that’s what I wanted… That’s where I got the inspiration. You customize… You use your hands, you use your brain. You customize your own motorcycle. I want my own thoughts, my own ideas… what I want to do. I put all these lights, the seat, the exhaust system, the radio, all of that I put in there myself… to what I like. It’s not what a lot of people like, it’s what I like.

Other Coney Island style bikes: this is the Black Swan built by Ernie Barkman around a 1960 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead. [Mike McCabe]
“This style was Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, those were the guys that started it. Different clubs in Harlem like the Mercury Riders (1950s), Bronx Aliens (1960s), they had all them motorcycles back then. Like my exhausts… They used to be called Bronx Trumpets. I go to swap-meets all over the country and try to find this stuff. It’s very, very hard to find it. And now it’s getting very expensive because the style is coming back around again. Back in the ‘50s none of this stuff was made for this customizing purpose… You had to make your own stuff. Like the curved light mount on my bike, I had to go to a welder, heat that metal up and bend that piece of metal around a propane tank. Then I went to a chrome guy and had it chromed. Chroming is very expensive. All of this customizing comes from a feeling to push back about being anonymous… To make something the way you like it.

The dramatic and very illuminated rear end of the Black Swan. ‘The sun shines out of our behinds!’ [Mike McCabe]
“The whole Coney Island theme… Ya, they call it that because when Edison invented the lightbulb, it was displayed and realized at Coney Island. And that’s why they call it a Coney Island bike, because of all the lights. This style started in the ‘50s after the War (WWII). In the ‘40s after the War nobody had any money back then. As they worked and got money I guess they started decorating ‘em and dressin’ them out nice- put different do-dads all over them, custom exhaust systems. That’s why I call my FLH my Coney Island Baby. As a kid I never went to Coney Island. It was too far away for a kid from my area to get there. The Palisades Amusement Park was my version of Coney Island. And don’t forget these bikes were big in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, Fordham Avenue in the Bronx, the guys used to hang out there with these bikes back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The Coney Island style was popular with all races: here’s a Black rider on a heavily decorated Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide FLH Panhead in the late 1950s. Likely he was part of an all-Black ‘dress club’ riding highly modified cruisers. [The Vintagent Archive]
“My bike is definitely not an outlaw bike. Back when bikes like mine were popular, the whole outlaw bike thing was still taking shape. In 1947 there was the Hollister Riot in California and then the movie The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando. This changed motorcycle culture. Back then some guys went for the outlaw thing and others went for what people called a ‘Turnpike Cruiser’, they called them. A ‘Tavern to Tavern’ bike. You’d ride to another town and meet with another group. They would all have these bikes. You don’t go 90 miles an hour on a bike like this… You go nice and easy… nice and easy with them. They weren’t geared to go that fast.

‘Willie’s Latin Thing’, formerly seen in the National Motorcycle Museum. Clearly, Latinos liked Coney Island style too. [Mecum Auctions]
“Back when these bikes were popular, you didn’t have the super highways they have today where everybody’s doing 70 and 80 miles an hour. 65 miles an hour… that’s cruisin’ on this thing. Especially with all of this on the back… the wind gets back in there and the back starts shimmying… This bike is about 1000 pounds… At some point as you get older you drop it and can’t pick it up. I’m fine with it now. So you take it nice and easy… 45-50… No hurry. Slow down.

Precursors of the Coney Island style include Black ‘dress clubs’ of the 1940s and ’50s…that were not always limited to Harley-Davidsons! This Ohio club photo from 1954 includes two Vincent Series C Black Shadows and a BSA A10 Golden Flash, all heavily accessorized. Even two-up, those laden Vincents would blow off a Panhead in a street race. [The Vintagent Archive]
“Ever since I was a kid, it was the whole thing about these bikes… Dressing them up… Cleaning them… the roar of the motor. It’s something in your blood… Only thing I can say- as far back as I can remember, six, seven, eight years old, watchin’ guys go around on the street… It’s just something you like. It’s in your blood.”

‘May the Style be with you’. Thank you Bob Peterson for sharing your story of Coney Island style modified motorcycles! [Mike McCabe]
[1] The Aliens MC was an early motorcycle club located in the Bronx, NYC. The club later ‘patched over’ to a club located on East 3rd street in the East Village. A key Alien member, Mardo Bennett is credited with his design innovations of early chopper motorcycle styles as well as the ‘Axed’ Alien style gas tank.

The 1%er club Aliens MC in the 1960s, before they ‘patched over’ the Hells Angels. [Austin Johnson Archive]
[2] Bob Peterson’s seat rail was custom fabricated by Ernie Barkman.


[4] Burton Benedict, The Anthropology of World’s Fairs: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. 1983

[5] Joe McKennon, ‘The Pictorial History of the American Carnival’, 1977.

[6] At the time (1911) the New York Times described the new Wall of Death attraction as, ‘the biggest single sensation at Luna Park’.

The 1911 New York Times report on the banked wooden motordrome at Luna Park. [NY Times]
[7] ibid.

[8] Ernie Barkman, owner/fabricator of ‘Black Swan’, 1950 Panhead Coney Island style build commenting about the style: “Coney Island MC style- History of an Accessory Expression to Full Dress Harley Davidson motorcycles”:

“Guess you could say it started with adding 2 or 4 extra marker lights for blinkers on your Panhead. That seemed satisfying and you added 4 more hooked for extra brake lights.
Now Joe says that looks great, I’m adding a light bar over my rear license plate, and an extra set of horns. And so it started, more lights, more bling, more chrome, bigger horns, added spot lights. There was no stopping the trend to get more stuff. People made money customizing bikes and trying to out- do the next person. The 57 car style influenced the tail fins seen chrome plated on the rear of these bikes. Rear chrome decks were next making a place for rows of lights, and chrome shift knobs for show. I once seen a guy with rows of motorcycle trophies bolted to the rear of these type shelves on his Panhead. Extended exhausts with tips that resemble rocket ship tail fins. Guys would have over 100 added taillights and AM radios, in fact, I knew a guy with a small portable TV between the handlebars. Speaking of handlebars 18” high with chrome scroll work or a name of the bike in Chrome letters. Seat rails became mounting points for added rails and owners names welded in the seat back, or hearts and other scroll work. Chrome hub caps, some with little lights in the spokes, not to mention wide white wall tires. Custom paint jobs turned into an acid trip of colors and sweet design. Pinstripe went from simple to extravagant with some pretty outlandish shows of the painters talents. You had so many lights you needed a special generator from a police bike with extra amperage. Some guys ran an extra car battery in the saddlebag for the added juice. If two rear view mirrors was good… why not 4 mirrors. Sometimes you would see fox tails off the rear for style. There was no end to the creativity a proud motorcycle owner could muster up! I remember in the 60’s going to hill climbs, and scrambler tracks and looking thru the motorcycles for the big Coney Island Style dressers with my Dad.
So why call them Coney Island Style?”

Ernie Barkman’s extraordinary Black Swan. [Mike McCabe]
“At the turn of the last century the invention of electric lights was displayed in a place called Luna Park in Coney Island NY. There were large displays of electric lights for visitors to see. And as people looked amazed by this wonderful invention they were heard to say…. Oh! Look at the Coney Island display of lights! Hence the Coney Island saying stuck when old folks kids seen the light displays on the rear of these bikes. Today only a limited number of these are left because so many were stripped for choppers and bobbers that came shortly after this style. Visiting motorcycle museums and personal collections of these can be viewed in limited numbers. A style that needs to be continued and enjoyed for the next generation so they too can understand…. If they put down their phones long enough. LOL
May the style be with you.

[9] Custom seat rail fabricated by Ernie Barkman.


Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.


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