Originally from Grand Rapids, ND, Johnny Aikens was the manager at Gus Castle’s Southern Motorcycle Company in Atlanta, Georgia and an avid racer. Aikens had quickly established a reputation as a successful competitor, often claiming perfect scores and first place finishes in regional endurance runs and road races. However, his skills in the saddle were equally matched by his understanding of successful business strategy as he often attributed his accomplishments to the superiority of his machines, the same machines that he just so happened to have for sale at Castle’s Harley-Davidson Southern Branch, where he was the manager. As such, Aikens was one of the most reputable salesmen in the southeast throughout the teens, a success built on the solid foundation of his abilities on the track.
It was in the back of Castle’s dealership where famed motordrome magnate Jack Prince set up his office when he came to Atlanta to build a new saucer in the spring of 1913. Aikens was already a well known racer in the region so it seems odd that given his daily friendliness with the famed track builder and race promoter that Johnny wouldn’t have given the motordrome game a go. Though it is only speculation at this point, this may have been a deliberate restriction handed down from the brothers in Milwaukee, as they had a notorious and outspoken aversion to motordrome racing in those days. Whatever the case there is not yet any evidence that Aikens ever took as much as a practice lap on the Atlanta ‘Drome, though he was quite outspoken against the idea of the track allowing African-American racers have a night on the track in late 1913, an event that resulted in the tracks management losing their FAM sanctioning rights. Aikens was however a staple in regional endurance runs, city-to-city records, and road races. Never one to shy away from a publicity stunt either, it was Aikens who first ran a motorcycle up the smooth, steep incline of Stone Mountain in April of 1914, barefoot no less.
This photograph comes from the 1914 FAM Southern Championship Endurance Race, also known as the Birmingham Ledger Cup which took place July 4, 5, and 6, 1914. The 862 mile route wound east from Birmingham, AL and turn north towards Tennessee before hitting my hometown of Rome, GA and redirecting south to Atlanta. The competitors would then lock their machines away in the garage of the Piedmont Hotel in downtown Atlanta for the night before beginning their return run early the next morning. Aikens had cut through the terrain and poor weather on the first leg to Atlanta, rolling into the garage at the Piedmont Hotel with a perfect score. However, upon arriving back in Birmingham after the stage two return trip, members of the Harley-Davidson team filled a protest claiming that the Indian team had a chase vehicle full of spares and mechanics which they were receiving help from throughout the second day, an egregious violation. Despite being one of six Harley team members to complete the first two days of the competition with perfect scores, the Milwaukee team withdrew from the race following the decision by referee Arthur Mitchell to not penalize the Indian squad. Indian then was the only team to make the final run back to Atlanta, completing the race and winning outright, however the fiasco resulted in a slew of local newspaper advertisements with both camps claiming victory.
Undeterred Aikens continued racing Harley-Davidson’s, and had he decided to overcome his anxieties after a bad crash during the big Savannah road race the previous year, he would have no doubt been an obvious selection for the Motor Co.’s first officially backed factory racing team which debut at the same Savannah race in December of 1914. Aikens would later enlist in the US Army, serving in Europe as a First Lieutenant motorcycle dispatch in the Motor Transport Corps during WWI. Upon his return Aikens became increasingly active in sprint car racing and redirected his passion for motorcycle racing into automobile competition. He was married to Caroline Mann in the 1920’s and the two lived out their remaining days together in Atlanta, Aikens running a successful auto garage until his death on February 11, 1973.
Here, surrounded by a young, enthusiastic crowd, John D. Aikens poses onboard his new 1914 Harley-Davidson 49.48ci Model 10F. Muddy and satisfied, Aikens had just returned to downtown Birmingham having maintained his perfect score for the second day in a row during the July 4th FAM Southern Championship Endurance Race of 1914. Race official and pioneer American motorcycle racer Arthur Mitchell stands just behind Aikens, his troubled gaze the possible result of the tough decision required given the accusations against the Indian squad that day.
Read more on Johnny as well as dozens of other me and women from the early days of American motorcycle culture in the pages of Georgia Motorcycle History, available now HERE