malcolm smith
Julia LaPalme

The Man Who Changed Motorcycling

We sit down with Malcom Smith

H

e needs to sit down. He looks around the little museum with his name on it, on the second floor of the California powersports dealership with his name on it, and he almost sits on a 1950s Lambretta. There is a sign on the seat of the thing asking people not to sit. He gives the sign a funny look and moves to put his weight on the seat, but our photographer, Julia, brings him a chair. His back bothers him lately, he says. Legs are okay though. His walk gives no small hint to this. Hands clasped behind his waist. A left leg that moves in a narrow window while his right swings wide in a semicircle, canting his body with each step, as if his foot were trying to sweep the floor clean. Neither quick nor slow. Walking with him is humbling because it makes him seem fragile and human, and those words do not jibe with his reputation. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a decade ago, but his motions are more tied to years of riding motorcycles off road because bikes aren’t easy on the human body. He has suffered disc herniations and nerve damage. His left knee is essentially bone on bone. He still rides, he says, but admits that it is not easy. Eyeglasses hang from a cord around his neck. He wears a uniform resembling that of his employees: a long-sleeve shirt, gray pants, simple black shoes.

Malcolm Smith
Malcolm SmithJulia LaPalme

In this building, as he weaves between rows of new bikes, the image recalls cliché—a general inspecting troops, an elder statesman making rounds. But mostly, he recalls himself, the picture you carry in your head, one of the most famous faces in motorcycling. He still has the prominent ears and wispy hairline visible in photographs taken in his 20s. He still smiles warmly, eyes like cut glass. Where some people age into a caricature of their younger selves, Malcolm Smith, at 76 years old, simply looks like Malcolm Smith.

It is entirely possible—though unlikely—that you have not heard of Malcolm. In motorbike circles, his name is a mononym, like Prince or Madonna. His museum gives hints to this, though it is ensconced upstairs in his Riverside dealership, away from the main sales floor, where most visitors will not see it. It contains machines like those he made his name upon—spidery old Husqvarnas, that Lambretta, a Baja buggy—but also cases of memorabilia, from early Baja guidebooks to his first pair of Malcolm Smith Racing Alpinestars boots, to his framed set of International Six Day Trials medals (eight golds, one silver). The cases go back to the beginning of his career, to around the time when he first saw the parcel of land that now sits under his dealership. Which was probably during grade school because he's lived here that long. More than half a century ago, he bought his first shop in Riverside, in the '60s. It was a bike dealership, purchased from two guys named Kenny and Norm. They named the shop after their initials, ran it for a bit, sold it to Malcolm, and then went on to run an air-filter company with a similar name. (Yes, that one.)

Malcolm Smiths awards
The first time you climbed on a dirt bike, if you had seen the movie, there was this inevitable, goosebumpy thought of transference: "Like Malcolm."Julia LaPalme

In 1971, shortly after he bought K&N Motorcycles, after years of hustling as a racer and engine builder, Malcolm starred in a motorcycle documentary with Steve McQueen and AMA champion Mert Lawwill. The film, On Any Sunday, was directed by Bruce Brown, who made the landmark surfing doc Endless Summer. It painted a joyous, rosy picture of motorcycling at a time when the sport was on the rise, when it seemed like a cheap ticket to the happiest parts of the American dream. Lawwill and McQueen were important, but Malcolm was the best part of the thing—confident, hypercompetent, a spark. A reminder that motorcycles help you be something like the best version of yourself, if you let them. On Any Sunday turned on thousands, genuinely changing motorcycling, but it also changed Malcolm's life, making him first-name famous. The first time you climbed on a dirt bike, if you had seen the movie, there was this inevitable, goosebumpy thought of transference: "Like Malcolm."

None of which is to diminish the man’s other accomplishments. Among them: six wins in the Baja 1000; four in the Baja 500; two stabs at the Paris Dakar Rally; two wins at the Mint 400; founding a genuinely innovative gear company with his name on it; those ISDT medals; years of podiums in Southern California desert racing; a sponsored career on Husqvarnas so successful that he basically introduced America to the brand; a lifetime on a motorcycle, evangelizing and legitimizing everything it is possible to feel about the thing, without ever being a preacher.

Baja suits
In his museum in California, on the top floor of the bike dealership he’s run for years. The walls are lined with old Baja suits, vintage Huskys, the odd Matchless.Julia LaPalme

This is not a Malcolm biography; if you do not by some chance know of his improbable, deeply American career, go buy a copy of Sunday and watch it and then punch his name into Google as fast as you can type. And if you get that far (and you will get that far because this is Malcolm and everyone gets that far), you will desperately need his ebullient autobiography, Malcolm! It is the size of a coffee-table book but deeper; it is the kind of thing you will crack open one evening, with a drink, and not close until you have read every last word. It is humble and amazing and a font of stories, a torrent of first-person voice. Also a testament to California in the 1950s—when the place really was the promised land, freer, and somehow more raw than the rest of the country. A paradise of dirt riding and undeveloped hills, where desert racing was all but invented. And every so often, in that book, he talks about some part of his career that went weird or disappointing, and he uses that as an example of how he learned to not be an arrogant prick and built something from nothing through little more than hard work. It is a lesson in the possible.

You will buy this book and inhale its text in a couple of days, as I did. You may even feel slightly ashamed, as I did, years ago, when I discovered Malcolm, having no prior idea who he was. Because on some level, he represents a version of the guy you want to be—even if only for a minute—when you discover motorcycles.

Malcolm the Museum
Malcolm! The MuseumJulia LaPalme

"I have a sickness. It's a Range Rover Problem."

We go to Malcolm’s house. Lunch first, at a local Thai restaurant called Sam’s. He warns me, over noodles: “I have a sickness. It’s a Range Rover problem.” And then we talk about them for a bit because Malcolm apparently loves old Range Rovers. He drove a Rover-badged truck in Paris-Dakar, in the ’80s, and they gave him one of the street models. His house, nestled in the hills above Riverside, backs up to a small orchard. He can ride out of his driveway and be on dirt in minutes, but he also has room, in the orchard, for four of the trucks, in various states of disrepair. They huddle by a stand of trees, up the hill from the house. He admits to doing something like hoarding them.

After which he admits to hoarding everything else. There are various motorcycles scattered across the property but also the ejection seat from an F-104 (he is making a chair out of it), a pile of used brass instruments (he is making lamps), and countless boxes of hardware, relentlessly organized. Enough hardware to build a store. A brass propeller the size of a coffee table (to be made into, naturally, a coffee table). Titanium bolts, salvaged from aircraft.

Malcolm in the shop
Old made new again: The dealership’s small but tidy restoration center, and a vintage Greeves.Julia LaPalme

He becomes more animated at home, scurrying through the orchard or organizing things in the garage. Every few minutes, we turn around and he is gone, bounding around the orchard, pulling fruit for us to take home, showing us footage of the family riding whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez, on vacation. I say: “If you ride less, now, is there anything else that gives you a similar feeling?” He tells a deadpan story about learning to hang on the fin of a whale shark and have the shark tow you around Gonzaga Bay.

I am 36 and reasonably fit, and he sparks around the property so quickly that I am occasionally left behind. Until we pause, for a few moments, in his garage, for photography.

“I wish,” he says, smiling softly at the camera, “I could stand up straighter.”

Malcolm Smith Baja champion
Malcolm Smith would have been a legend without Baja, but winning the first 1000 in 1967 didn’t hurt.Julia LaPalme

Back in the museum, he had told me about how people give him things. Pictures of his races, souvenirs, parts, entire motorcycles. The first bike he owned, a 1949 Matchless, lives in the lobby outside his office. It just showed up a few years ago, he says. “The guy found me. They’ve come for years. They’ll pull up in the parking lot. ‘I know you like old Huskys… And here it is.’”

And then there’s a bike rolling or being lifted off a truck. He is smiling as he tells me this, shaking his head a little, shrugging. Like, “Who knew?”

At the dealership, two men in their 40s come through the museum after us. They wear jeans and T-shirts. The chair we gave Malcolm is wheeled, borrowed from the office of his son, Alexander, and Malcolm pushes it, rolling it like a kind of walker. But I don’t want to call it a walker because if Malcolm can be reduced to a walker, then the rest of us are made of tissue paper and we’ll all blow away in a light breeze, and that’s just too much to think about. Malcolm is supposed to be one of those guys who does what we cannot, and part of that should including never having to touch a damn walker.

Orange grove
The orange orchard behind Malcolm's house.Julia LaPalme

So let’s call it a Malcolm Chair. For when you’re not the kind of person who fits a walker, but you need a little help, now and then.

One of the men casts a quick glance at the Malcolm Chair and the quiet, unassuming elderly gentleman leaning on its arms. The younger man turns his head respectfully, not wanting to stare. He looks at his companion, pointing at an old Husky, and recites the joke about how, in the old days, everything flexed, and your body was suspension. They chuckle.

Range Rover
In the orchard behind his house, in the hills above Riverside. An orchard that contains, among other things, a handful of vintage Range Rovers, resting quietly.Julia LaPalme

It was an old line, but Malcolm smiles politely. Later, once the two men had gone, Julia looked at me, astonished, with a whisper: “I don’t think they knew who he was.”

I’m not sure he noticed. But when Malcolm told me that people give him stuff, I had nodded. It made sense. I can’t explain why, but I also wanted to give him things. A motorcycle, a handshake, a free lunch, anything. Or maybe just a few words, maybe in print, after all this time, saying what he means to the rest of us. What a difference it makes, and has always made, if you know who he is.