IN THE THREE-YEAR PERIOD THAT BUDDY HOLLY RULED THE MUSIC CHARTS BACK IN THE LATE 1950S, HE STILL HAD TIME TO LET OFF STEAM ON HIS 1958 ARIEL CYCLONE—LIKE HOLLY, IT BECAME ONE OF THE MOST ICONIC MOTORCYCLES OF A GENERATION.
STORY & PHOTOS BY JIM COCKRELL
No one really knows whether or not Charles Hardin Holley ever had any inkling of how iconic he and his music would one day become. It is clear, however, that while he worked different jobs as a young teenager in Lubbock, Texas, Buddy, as his mother had nicknamed him, seldom wavered from his dream of becoming a professional musician. Perhaps one of the most lasting results of his first recording contract, was the misspelling of his last name when the “e” was dropped, forever casting the future rock legend as Buddy Holly.
Holly’s career is well-chronicled… He caught the attention of scouts when in 1955, he opened for Elvis Presley at the Fair Park Coliseum in Lubbock. Holly was so influenced by “The King” that his music began to transition from rockabilly to the newly emerging genre of rock & roll. One evening, Buddy and bandmate Jerry “JI” Allison watched the 1956 John Wayne flick “The Searchers,” loosely based on the true story of the search for Cynthia Ann Parker, a pioneer girl taken captive by the Comanche Indians in 1836. Ethan Edwards, the character played by John Wayne, repeatedly used the phrase, “That’ll be the day” in the movie. Something about that phrase inspired Buddy and JI to write the song, “That’LL Be the Day,” which topped the charts in 1957, and skyrocketed Buddy and his band to almost instant fame.
Amid the tours and television appearances, Buddy and his bandmates still found time to engage in just a little bit of teenage rebellion that was being popularized by the persona of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Brando portrayed a biker in “The Wild One” (1953), wearing long sideburns, a Perfecto-style motorcycle jacket and a tilted cap, and riding a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T. Teenage heartthrob, James Dean subsequently bought a Triumph TR5 Trophy motorcycle to mimic Brando’s own Triumph Thunderbird. So it was no surprise, when Buddy, Crickets bass player, Joe Mauldin, and drummer “JI” Allison decided that as soon as they completed their 11-week tour of the United States, Australia, and England, they would reward themselves by purchasing motorcycles. After all, they were experienced riders, having ridden Buddy’s old Cushman, as well as a Velocette owned by a friend, and a used Triumph that Buddy and JI had once owned together.
On May 13, 1958, the trio landed at Dallas Love Field on the way home from their tour. They immediately jumped into a cab and went straight to a Harley-Davidson dealership in Big D. They were looking to buy three H-D 74s, but the salesman was very skeptical that these three teenagers from West Texas had the wherewithal to purchase one, much less three of his expensive motorcycles. Put off by the borderline rude salesman who bluntly told them that there was no way that they could afford the payments, the boys flagged down another taxi, and went to Miller’s Triumph Shop in the Oak Cliff section of south Dallas. By the time they arrived at Miller’s, the boys had decided that a more proactive approach to the sales staff might be appropriate. So, Buddy introduced himself and his buddies, and produced a large amount of cash to ensure that the Millers crew knew that some serious buyers had just walked in their door. Whether that was necessary or not, no one will ever know, because Betty Miller, co-owner with her husband, Ray, recognized Buddy and the Crickets the moment they came in the shop. After trying out several bikes, Joe picked out a red 1958 6T Triumph Thunderbird; JI went for the Triumph Trophy TR6A, and Buddy bought the new 1958 Arial Cyclone. While the bikes were being serviced, the boys went to JC Penny’s where they bought some Levi jackets and new boots. They topped of their “biker look” with some motorcycle hats and gloves that they purchased at the dealership.
Even though it was dark by the time they left the dealership heading for Lubbock, they made it about 80 miles before they decided to spend the night in Jacksboro. When they woke up the next morning, it was pouring rain. Thinking that they would wait out the rain, Buddy and the Crickets hung around the hotel until around noon when they decided to continue their journey despite the uncooperative Texas weather. Once the rain stopped, so did Buddy, Joe, and JI, in the first town they came to, in order to buy more jeans and shirts, and to dry their wet gear at a laundromat while they changed into their new duds. With everything, and everyone dry again, the rockers turned biker headed out once more toward Lubbock. Between the tours and television appearances, Buddy and his friends would often be seen riding their motorcycles around town. It was the best of times. And then… there was that day… “the day,” as Don McLean’s iconic “American Pie” suggests, “the music died.”
In October 1958, Buddy Holly split from The Crickets and moved to New York City. Legal and financial issues resulting from the band’s breakup caused Buddy to reluctantly tour through the Midwest in 1959 with The Winter Dance Party. Tired of enduring broken-down buses in subfreezing conditions, Holly chartered a private plane to take he and his new band members from a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, to the tour’s next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. Buddy’s new bass player, Waylon Jennings, gave his seat to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from a cold. Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, agreed to flip a coin with Richie Valens for the remaining seat. Valens won. Even though a snowstorm was on its way and he was fatigued from a 17-hour workday, the 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson, had agreed to fly the rock star to his next gig because, after all, he would be flying Buddy Holly. The three musicians boarded the red and white single-engine Beech Bonanza around 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 3. The rest is history. Buddy Holly was 22 years old when he died.
Shortly after Buddy’s death, his rocker/biker buddies, Joe Mauldin, and JI Allison, sold their motorcycles. Buddy’s Ariel Cyclone, however, was destined to continue building a legacy. The motorcycle remained in the possession of Buddy’s father until 1970 when he took it down to the Lubbock Yamaha shop and traded it for two Yamaha 55cc Trailmasters, to Nub Stovall, a local racer. Stovall later sold the Ariel Cyclone to another individual, who, upon deciding to resell the bike, called local Honda dealer, George McMahan. According to McMahan, the bike owner “offered me the bike for a thousand dollars. At the time, my most expensive Honda wasn’t but $995.00, as I recall, so $1,000.00 was a huge amount of money that I did not have. I didn’t even know how I could borrow that much; I figured it out a day or so later, but I had failed to get the guy’s phone number, so I had no way to contact him. For years, I was sick about missing it (the acquisition of Buddy Holly’s Ariel Cyclone) but figured that was just water under the bridge.” Perhaps it was… or, maybe fate had another plan in mind.
Fast forward to 1979, when former Crickets/biker buddies Joe Mauldin and JI Allison decide to do something really special for the 42nd birthday of their old friend, Waylon Jennings. They tracked Buddy’s Ariel Cyclone to the man who owned it in Austin, Texas. They purchased the motorcycle, and surprised Jennings by having it delivered to an empty room at his hotel where he was on tour in North Texas. Waylon immediately jumped on the bike and kick started it in the hotel room… a move likely not appreciated by fellow hotel guests, since it occurred around midnight. Reportedly, Jennings only rode the motorcycle a couple of times before putting it on loan at the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. Upon Jennings’ death in February 2002, of complications from his long-term struggle with diabetes, the bike was part of the Jennings estate that was offered in 2014 by his widow, and country singer in her own right, Jessi Coulter, at a special auction at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
Fate sometimes has a way of circling back around… re-enter George Mc McMahan. McMahan was a big Buddy Holly fan while a student at Smithville High School in south central Texas. “I moved to Lubbock in September of 1962,” says McMahan, “to attend Texas Technological College as it was known then. I dropped out of Tech in the Spring of 1965 to start G and G Honda Sales in Plainview with a partner.” McMahan later dissolved his partnership in favor of starting his own Honda dealership in Lubbock, which he sold in 1996 to devote full time to land development. It was that last move that financially positioned him for the next time that he would encounter Buddy Holly’s Ariel Cyclone Motorcycle. “In 2004,” continues McMahan, “I bought the best piece of undeveloped land in Lubbock. After several years, that investment began paying off for me, so when I heard about Jessie Colter’s plans to sell the Ariel, I signed up to bid. McMahan, bidding by phone, made an opening pre-bid of $100,000.00. According to McMahan: “The auctioneer actually called me prior to the auction, thanked me for the bid, but basically told me ‘little boy, go play in the street’. But come auction night, I did participate in the live auction, over the phone. They opened with my $100,000.00; someone else bid $125,000—I found out later it was the BHC [Buddy Holly Center/Museum in Lubbock]; I increased my bid to $150,000.00, and pretty soon I was up to $300,000.00. From there, it went to $475,000.00 really, really fast, then it was back to me at $500,000. I just couldn’t justify paying that much, even though it was Buddy’s and Waylon’s bike. So, I went to bed that night sick, knowing that I had missed buying the bike… again!”
But fate still wasn’t through with McMahan. “The next morning the auctioneer called me,” he recalls, “saying the motorcycle hadn’t sold, because it did not reach the seller’s minimum and that Jessie would be ‘evaluating offers’ based on price, and intended usage. So, I made an offer specifying the usage, which would be riding the bike one time, then loaning it to the Buddy Holly Center. They countered a little higher, I agreed, and Buddy’s and Waylon’s Ariel Cyclone motorcycle was finally mine. I called the Buddy Holly Center. I asked Brooke Witcher, the Managing Director, if she knew of the legend of Buddy’s motorcycle, and would she be interested in having it on display? Her answer was ‘Yes, in fact we were bidding on it, but it went way over our budget.’ When I told her I also had been bidding, she said she could hear a Texas accent over the phone for the other bidder, but didn’t know it was me!”
So, after almost six decades of bouncing from owner to owner, the 1958 Ariel Cyclone 650cc motorcycle—one of only about 200 that were ever built—and with just over 4,000 miles on the odometer, had finally come home to reside alongside the many other mementos that once belonged to its legendary original owner, at the Buddy Holly Center and Museum in Lubbock Texas. And there it has remained until this past fall, when George McMahon and the Buddy Holly Center agreed to allow me to take pictures of the iconic machine in front of the statue of its original owner, across the street from the center… a gesture sincerely appreciated considering the center’s strict no photographs policy inside the museum.
Watching McMahan and the curators from the BHC carefully handle the nearly 60-year-old machine as they removed it from the display case, was a testament to their genuine respect for the hands that have held it, and the roads that it has traveled. When we rolled the Ariel across Crickets Avenue to Buddy’s statue, McMahan sat on the machine that had eluded him for the better part of five decades. His quest to obtain the bike was a monumental gift to not only the Buddy Holly Center and the citizens of Buddy’s hometown, but to six generations of Buddy Holly fans around the world whose adoration for his talent, and respect for his impact on the music scene during the infancy of rock & roll continues to grow. Clearly, Buddy’s 1958 Ariel Cyclone is where it should be now and forever.
While much gratitude is due George McMahan for his philanthropy, his gratification comes from knowing that he helped preserve an iconic symbol of a simpler age… a time when a west Texas teenager with horn-rimmed glasses could lay his talent out there, and influence generations well into the future. Today, McMahan remains active in his real estate development business, but he still finds time to ride. He proudly admits that he owns and rides “a 2015 Aprilia Caponord, several KTM dirt bikes, several Polaris Ranger ATV’s, and one bad-ass Razor!”
The Buddy Holly Center is a “must see” for anyone who appreciates music, but especially for those who hold a special affection for the genre of rock & roll. The BHC houses a vast collection of items that belonged to Buddy, or that related to his life. Right next door is the house that once belonged to the family of JI Allison. Having been moved from its original location to where it currently sits, visitors can walk through the house, into the room where the boys took their inspiration for the phrase, “That’ll Be the Day,” and turned it into a best-selling hit. A document that is made available upon request to visitors of the BHC is a list of “Places of Interest” for those who might wish to re-trace the steps and turf of Buddy and the boys before and during their journey to fame. We went to some of the locations on the list, and while some were interesting, almost to the point that one could envision teenagers in the 1950’s pursuing a good time, others were simply vacant lots where structures once stood, making such reflection a bit more difficult.
Time moves on. Things changes. The house Buddy grew up in is still there, but it is occupied, and it hardly resembles the way it must have looked in 1955. We did, however, enjoy our visit to the South Plains Fair Grounds, where Buddy opened for Elvis at the Fair Park Coliseum; to Lubbock High School, where Buddy graduated in May of 1955; to KRFE (formerly KDAV) Radio, where the “Buddy and Jack Show” was a regular feature on “The Sunday Party,” and, finally, to the Lubbock City Cemetery, where Buddy is buried. His grave is easily located with a surprisingly unpretentious marker. But it was clear that I am not alone in my desire to pay my respects: Generations of his fans have been doing that since… well… since the day the music died.