In an age in which it is possible to continuously scroll through countless, colorful digital social media images from the motorcycling community, it is refreshing to sit down to enjoy printed books whose pages are filled with black and white photographs that deserve to be carefully studied and understood. Two such examples are Iron Horse Cowgirls and Superbike, both of which were published in 2023. These recent titles share their origins in rich archival collections of photographs placed in historical context, their connections to the American Motorcyclist Association, the friendships between their co-authors, and the numerous fascinating moments of transition in the history of motorcycling they recount.

Louise Scherbyn ready to lead the Apple Blossom Parade, May 6 1939. [Louise Scherbyn/Courtesy of Leslie Mason and the late William F. Mason]
Iron Horse Cowgirls got its start when motorcycle writer Bill Mason handed over a collection of photos that had belonged to Louise Scherbyn to his friend Linda Back McKay, who had been interviewing women riders for decades.[1] When McKay became too ill with cancer to continue the project, she entrusted it to her former mentee Kate St. Vincent Vogl who completed the research and manuscript. The result is a lively, engaging account of the life and times of Scherbyn, best known for founding the Women’s International Motorcycle Association in 1952 but whose impressive motorcycling biography is linked to early adventure riders.  Superbike emerged instead from a long-term friendship between motor sports photographer John Owens and motorcycle journalist Kevin Cameron who paired up to share images and memories from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s when the first motorcycles to be called “superbikes” started to transform racing.[2]

From Second All Girls Show 3 Aug 1941 at parade start – From left – Louise Scherbyn, Genevieve Hopkins a.k.a. Duchess, Dot Robinson kickstarting, Peppy Day, Jane Heath, Helen Kiss, Marie Dennis, and Violet Irwin [Louise Scherbyn/Courtesy of Leslie Mason and the late William F. Mason]
McKay and Vogl do a remarkable job of explaining Scherbyn’s journey from passenger to pilot and from casual enthusiast to efficient organizer within the broader history of the Great Depression, regional developments in central New York and the Northeast, relationships with other women and men who rode, the role of the AMA in building the motorcycle community, and women’s history.  Scherbyn was a young, married woman who worked for Kodak in Rochester, New York. During a ride one day with her husband George she had to move from the sidecar to the rear seat of their Indian Chief to traverse a rough stretch of road in the Adirondacks. She loved being on the bike so much her husband George surprised her with her own machine by Hendee; he even sold the Chief to buy it for her and got a Harley-Davidson for himself so they could ride together. Scherbyn first hid the new Indian, afraid of what the neighbors might think at a time when even wearing pants was a radical act, but soon began to ride it everywhere, including to Florida from New York in the winter and to visit family in the Midwest, often on her own.

The cover of Iron Horse Cowgirls, which is available here.

McKay and Vogl successfully explain the freedoms and constraints of women motorcyclists during the first half of the twentieth century. They tell the stories of Scherbyn and other prominent riders, such as Helen Kiss and Dot Robinson, who put thousands of miles on their bikes and participated in a community filled with events from weekend hill climbs to the first rallies at Daytona and Laconia. All the while, the young women riders tried to earn a few lines in the AMA’s magazine and form clubs, which they eventually did, starting with women’s auxiliaries to men’s clubs and later creating the Motor Maids and WIMA. It was not a simple path, however, and it was one marked by personal hardships. Men known to Scherbyn, for example, sexually assaulted her after blocking her passage with a tree trunk; they were convicted but afterwards she spent far less time at home and far more time on her bike. Women and men competed in “best dressed” competitions with their motorcycles and were expected to maintain a neat appearance and proper decorum at AMA events, which was even more important for the women.

The images in the book offer a visual representation of this history and allow the reader to reflect on a time in America characterized by big smiles on the faces of riders experiencing times of joy amid economic strife. The iconic photo of Louise Scherbyn dressed in white astride her white Indian is but just one moment captured on film worth knowing much more about through this well-researched book.

The cover of Superbike, which is available here.

Whereas Iron Horse Cowgirls is a historical biography informed by a rich collection of images, Superbike is predominantly a book of photography informed by introductory texts and often detailed photo captions.  Like Scherbyn, photographer John Owens shot on [mostly] Kodak film. His eye is that of a professional photographer, however, and his objective was to artfully capture the people, places and machines of AMA racing beginning in the mid-1970s. Owens’ photos are nicely complemented by the words of Kevin Cameron, known for his technical motorcycle journalism.  The two men reconnected about a decade ago at a MotoGP race at the Circuit of the Americas. Struck by the secrecy and lack of access to the world inside the paddock that now surrounds a sport that was once relatively open, they decided to develop the book together.

Freddie Spencer at rest. [John Owens]
In his introduction, Cameron offers some background to explain the shift from a growing enthusiasm for the new two-stroke Japanese motorcycles taking to the tracks that gained a following in the US market in the early 1970s to the “sportbike revolution, which in 1985 replaced the two-strokes…and brought much more capable, responsive, and emissions-legal bikes to American riders (p. 16).”  The photo plates then begin with Reno Leoni on a Moto Guzzi in Loudon, New Hampshire in 1977 and conclude with a 1982 podium image of Mike Baldwin, Eddie Lawson, and Wes Cooley in Laguna Seca, California with two unnamed women, one a “Miss Laguna Seca,” and a motorcycle with the number 21 completing the frame.  The photographs mix traditional leaned racing shots of leading pilots, skillful mechanics wrenching on bikes, contemplative moments of racers and teams, closeups of motorcycle details, and a few wider images with spectators catching a glimpse of their favorite riders. Some of the most striking photos, to my eyes, include: a pensive Cook Neilson, who won the Superbike race on his 750 Ducati Super Sport in 1972 in Daytona (pp. 38-39); AMA referee Charlie Watson in Loudon in 1979, explaining the rules, which made me think of Scherbyn’s dealings with AMA officials; Freddie Spencer sitting alone and looking distraught in Loudon in 1979; the Honda team techs in a Daytona garage in 1982 (pp. 98-99); an artistic shot of spark plugs in Pocono in 1981 (p. 123); a smiling Mike Velasco pushing Freddie Spencer on his Honda in 1982 (p. 138); and Wes Cooley stretched across the tank of a Suzuki GSX1000S at Loudon in 1982.  There are too many more worthy of mention. Enthusiasts of mechanical engineering and design will appreciate Cameron’s explanations of changes to everything from carburetors to calipers to cams and valve-to-piston clearance, all details that enrich the narrative told through Owens’ photos.

Charlie Watson laying down the rules to the racers. [John Owens]
Anyone who values motorcycle history and black and white photography will want to add both books to their shelves. Highly recommended!

Where to find them:

McKay, Linda Back and Kate St. Vincent Vogl. Iron Horse Cowgirls: Louise Scherbyn and the Women Motorcyclists of the 1930s and 1940s. McFarland, 2023. pISBN: 978-1-4766-6946-5 322 pages. $49.95

Cameron, Kevin and John Owens. Superbike. An Illustrated Early History. MotoRacing Books, 2023. ISBN: 979-8-218-25250-2191 pages. $75 unsigned. $90 signed.

[1] Photos from Iron Horse Cowgirls are from the private collection of Louise Scherbyn/Courtesy of Leslie Mason and the late William F. Mason.

[2] Photographs by John Owens.



Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book ‘Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy’ was published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann’s current project is ‘Connected by the Street: The Myths and Realities of Motorcyclists in the US and Italy.’ She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.
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