Performing death-defying stunts aboard his Harley-Davidson in the 1930s and 1940s, Jimmy ‘Daredevil’ Washburn was the Evel Knievel of his day. Descriptions of his feats appear in dozens of period newspapers, including the San Jose News and Santa Clara’s The Sportsman. Writers in those publications used a touch of purple prose to describe Jimmy and his hair-raising daredevilry – including riding while blindfolded and jumping over his wife, Vi. Here’s an example from a front-page story in the March 3, 1941, edition of The Sportsman. “To Jimmy Washburn, going motorcycle riding is not the breezy pleasurable sensation which comes to the average motorcyclist. You see, Jimmy specializes in riding his high-powered velocipede through plate glass windows, burning walls and into brick walls!”

Jimmy Washburn with his modified 1932 Harley-Davidson VL at the Capitol Speedway in Sacramento, in 1952. [Dan Pereyra]
Newspapers, fair and carnival handbills and many show contracts form part of a significant Jimmy ‘Daredevil’ Washburn archive acquired by California-based motorcycle collector Dan Pereyra. Last summer, he bought a 1932 Harley-Davidson VL with its 74ci sidevalve motor: the first of the Big Twin Flatheads. The VL, Dan says, was Jimmy’s main stunt bike, a machine the daredevil bought used in the mid ‘30s and kept in the Washburn family for decades. According to an interview conducted by Glenn Bator of Bator International and posted to YouTube with Jimmy’s son, Jim Washburn II, the VL started life as a $200 second-hand street bike that was stripped down to become a stunt bike. In photographs, depending on the era, the machine appears painted in different schemes, but triple white diamond flashes over black paint are the predominant motif.

Tough guy, huh? Yep, he sure was. Jimmy Washburn in the 1940s. [Dan Pereyra]
Dan is an antique motorcycle enthusiast of more than 40 years, and lives near Jimmy’s San Jose home base, and is justifiably proud of the Washburn archive, as well as the machine. “There’s all this documentation about the stuff that he did, and it’s the most provenance I’ve ever had for any motorcycle I’ve owned; it really is incredible, all of this memorabilia is proof of his outstanding accomplishments.” During Jimmy’s era, he was friends with some very well-respected people, including AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame members Sam Arena and engine builder and tuner Tom Sifton. They raced together at the Garden City Velodrome, a San Jose track where, 25 years earlier, racing legends including Freddy Ludlow, Ralph Hepburn, Ray Weishar, Otto Walker and Jim Davis proved their mettle on the board track.

Making a spectacle of himself against the canvas of night: Jimmy Washburn. [Dan Pereyra]
A June 12, 1968, feature story in the San Jose News about Jimmy provides some of his background. He’s quoted in it, and says, “I bought an old Harley Davidson (1917) for $75. You know how I paid for it? Picking prunes at 10 cents a box.”  Decades before it was paved over to become Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara Valley was full fruit orchards, with a mild climate and very fertile soil. Jimmy’s quote continued, “A friend of mine, Clinton Wells, taught me to ride. No king was any more proud than myself. We began traveling, riding at carnivals, etc. I learned to ‘ride the wall.’ I really had no trouble getting up. It was getting down. But I managed. I received $2 per day for the act at Coney Island.” According to newspaper stories, that ‘tour’ took place as early as 1925.

Not just motorcycles, Jimmy Washburn also drove stunt cars in traveling shows. [Dan Pereyra]
When Jimmy later returned to the West Coast, he took a job with Tri-Valley Growers, but in the early 1930s was offered an opportunity by promoter Lynn Matthewson, at San Jose Speedway on Alum Rock Avenue. Jimmy is quoted, “Matthewson wanted a daredevil act to supplement his auto racing programs. Was I interested? I sure was. Anything for a buck. We had trouble with the first act, though. I was to crash through a wall six foot by six foot, an inch thick. We made a mistake. We used green wood. The outcome was that everything went down in a pile and the cycle was bent into innumerable shapes and forms.” That story ran three years before his death, in 1971.

The MotoBall made by Firestone Tire and Rubber. [Dan Pereyra]
In many of the handbills, Jimmy’s outfit is called ‘Dare Devil Washburn’s Mystery Squadron’; ‘Mystery Squadron’; ‘Hollywood Death Defiers’; ‘Hell Riders’ and the ‘Circus of Death’. Depending on the venue, showgoers were promised excitement with ‘Two Hours of Breathless Thrills’, featuring stunts including, ‘A Thousand to One Ride! Up a 60-ft Incline, Hurtling Through Mid-air at 70 miles per hr, Over a Sedan Car’, and the ‘Human Wall Crash in Flames!’. Jimmy was perhaps best known for his flaming tunnel crash; it’s described in the December 7, 1948, edition of The Sportsman like this, “The Flaming Tunnel which Jimmy originated is the nearest thing to ‘hades’ on earth a stunt man can think up, with a 50-50 chance of shaking the cold hand of an undertaker every time! The tunnel is a 25-foot long box-like structure composed of highly flammable materials and boarded up solid at one end with one inch thick planks. Twenty gallons of high-octane Ethyl gasoline is poured over the structure and fired.”

Riding through the Tunnel of Death, which sometimes came close for Jimmy Washburn. [Dan Pereyra]
“The heat is terrific, flames billowing high into the air. Washburn, wearing only a crash helmet and leathers for protection, hurtles down the track at terrific speed to plunge into the flaming inferno. For several long seconds rider and motor are swallowed in that awful maw of flame and your heart stands still, then with shocking suddenness and a shattering roar motor and rider come crashing through the boarded-up section amid a shower of splintering timbers and a billowing ball of flaming gasoline.” Jimmy called trick riding ‘sissy stuff,’ and the story concluded, “He prefers the wild hair-raising, crashing, smashing stunts with a punch!”

Washburn broke records and won plenty of races, too, as seen in his trophy room. [Dan Pereyra]
Another of Jimmy’s stunts was Motorcycle Speedball. According to Jim Washburn II in Bator’s YouTube interview, an 8-foot diameter rubber ball, made specifically for Jimmy by Firestone Tire & Rubber, was, “Like motorcycle soccer.” Riders would hit the giant ball with their machine, with the orb rolling along to hit another ‘cyclist. “There are pictures of riders eating the dirt because of being hit by that ball!” Jimmy toured the world with his stunt riding, with reports of him having performed in Canada at the Calgary Stampede, in Europe, Australia and Mexico. According to The Sportsman, he rode at the “Chicago and New York World’s Fairs,” and, “He won the championship of the International Congress of Daredevils at St. Louis, Mo., in 1933 and 1934 by hurtling through mid-air on his motorcycle over eight sedan cars, a stupendous leap of 65 feet through space, being 15 feet above ground as the highest point.” Jimmy also made stunt riding appearances in Hollywood films, including the 1936 Universal Picture release Crash Donovan.

Jimmy Washburn with his buddy, the legendary racer Sam Arena, with a Harley-Davidson Sprint. [Dan Pereyra]
Jim II says his father was deaf from the age of nine, and newspaper reports list some of his more significant scars, including a “silver plate in his head, several missing toes on a foot, and burns over three-quarters of his body.” Although he tried his hand at automobile and motorcycle racing and promoted speed events at velodromes, he essentially quit the stunts after an accident in the mid 1950s at the San Jose Speedway. It went awry when he drove a burning car with a bomb in the trunk down the track. Some of the fuel used in the conflagration had found its way onto Jimmy – the bomb never went off — but he was in hospital for months dealing with skin grafts to second- and third-degree burns.

A poster for the Hell Riders show in Santa Cruz CA, a ‘Congress of Dare Devils in Motorcycle Rodeo.’ [Dan Pereyra]
Dan says Jimmy’s VL, with its special stunt aids including the fork mounted boardwall crash bars and screen, braced right side rider pedal and bobbed and skirted rear fender had been previously restored when he bought it. “In some areas it just had hardware store bolts with the stamped heads, so I took all that stuff off and replaced it with original hardware from my stock and blacked out the megaphone, which you can see it was like that in the original photos. I just tidied up a few things and made it look more like it did in the period pictures, the way Jimmy used it.” Riding since the age of 13, Dan’s had more than 100 interesting motorcycles through his hands but only has room, realistically, to keep 10 machines in his own collection. With that, he’s decided that he’d part with the Washburn Harley-Davidson stunt bike. He concludes, “I really think this VL belongs in a big collector’s museum, and the Washburn story to me is cooler than the bike.”

Jimmy Washburn’s stunt bike today, appropriately refurbished by Dan Pereyra. A 1932 Harley-Davidson VL 74ci Big Twin flathead.




Greg Williams is Profiles Editor for The Vintagent. He’s 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
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