The Hells Angels are the biggest motorcycle club in the world with approximately 3,500 members and hundreds of charters across the globe. But separating reality from hearsay can be problematic for an organisation with such a controversial reputation.
Therefore let’s try and address that with a few, lesser-known, facts about the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC).
1. The early days
The Hells Angels were founded in Fontana, California on 17th March 1948, not by the late Ralph ‘Sonny’ Berger as is often believed. The inception is usually credited to motorcycle enthusiast Otto Friedli though this has been disputed and denied by Friedli himself. Supposedly, Otto borrowed the name from Arvid Olsen, a former vet who’d flown with a squadron nicknamed the Hell’s Angels, itself named after the eponymously titled Howard Hughes film of 1930. And yes, the motorcycle club is aware of the missing apostrophe.
2. The four phases of membership
If you want to become a member of the Hells Angels, there are three things you need to have. These are the right personality, a Harley Davidson, and a contact with the club to get your face known by other members. If you like what you see, and vice versa, you can become a 'Hang-Around' to begin with, which is pretty self-explanatory. If you’re still up for it, you’ll progress to being an 'Associate', then a 'Prospect'.
By now you’ll be known to the group and attend more events, but it’s not until you’re a 'Full-Patched Member' that you’re truly a part of the HAMC. The process from the start to the finish will take years, far longer than it takes to be a policeman or even a doctor.
3. Club mottos
In many respects, the Hells Angels' mottos say more about the principles of the organisation than much of the stuff written about them. Their official motto, ‘Angels Forever; Forever Angels’, is abrupt and to the point, but ‘three can keep a secret if two are dead’ has a far more taciturn ring to it.
However, contained within ‘When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets’ is an almost endearing sense of aggrievement, and the powerful sentiment of ‘them and us’ is very much in evidence as well.
4. How inclusive are the Hells Angels?
Sonny Berger said in 2000: "If you're a motorcycle rider and you're white, you want to join the Hells Angels. If you're black, you want to join the [East Bay] Dragons. That's how it is whether anyone likes it or not. We don't have no blacks and they don't have no whites."
While this rings true for the vast majority of US charters (in more recent years Hispanics and Native Americans are becoming more accepted), some European charters are a little more diverse. On the whole, the Hells Angels are largely an organisation comprised of white men. And no women, period.
5. Harley Davidson
Hells Angels ride Harley Davidson motorcycles, most of the time anyway. The reason for this lies somewhere between patriotism and availability. There was a significant surplus stock of cheaper, ex-WW2 motorcycles that were picked up by bike clubs in the mid to late 1940s.
In the UK, before 30th July 1969 when two London Charters were issued for the south and east of the city, the fledgling Angels rode British bikes. Marques such as Triumph and BSA were the norm before Harley’s became the standard.
6. Other motorcycles
Buell was founded in 1983 by an ex-Harley Davidson engineer named Erik Buell. Five years later Harley Davidson bought a majority stake in the business and took it over. Therefore, Buell bikes are sanctioned for use by HAMC members. However, it’s little known that other, non-Harley-powered bikes are tolerated as well, so long as they’re American.
Before he passed away on 29th June 2022, Sonny Berger was riding a US-built Victory. This may come as surprise to some but, controversially, Sonny wasn’t a fan of Harley's. To quote: “For 53 years I rode something I didn’t like, but it was the only American bike.”
7. Brothers in arms
Be under no illusion, the HAMC is first and foremost a collection of brothers bonded by a shared passion for hard partying and, above all, motorcycles. This isn’t a fair-weather Sunday ride-out organisation. Your average Angel will ride at least 20,000 km a year, often in strict formation.
Usually, the President of the club will lead the way, followed by his Vice President, the Road Captain, and the Sergeant at Arms. The Prospects always ride last and the rest grab whatever space they can get in the middle. Once established, the formation usually holds firm until they’ve arrived at their destination. If one Angel in the formation gets pulled over by the police, they all pull over.
8. The HAMC sued Disney
And they won! Disney was accused of a trademark infringement in 2007’s poorly received Wild Hogs, a US biker comedy/road movie starring John Travolta and Tim Allen. Less we forget, the HAMC has a strong intellectual property portfolio. For example, the death head logo and Hells Angels wordmark are both owned by the group. It is known formally/legally as The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corp (note the return of the apostrophe, punctuation fans). The HAMC has also sued Alexander McQueen, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Toys“R”Us among others.
9. Sons of Anarchy must have raised a few eyebrows, then?
The fictitious Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals (SAMCRO) created by Kurt Sutter for FX between 2008 to 2014 is populated with more-than-just passing Hells Angles-inspired ephemera. It’s even been alleged that some aspects of the plot were inspired by related, real-life events. But if anything, Sons of Anarchy had the support of the Hells Angels.
Real Angels were cast in the series, including Rusty Coones, Chuck Zito, and even Sonny Berger himself. Member David Labrava didn’t just appear on the show, he acted as Sutter’s technical advisor as well.
10. So, after all that, how do I leave the HAMC?
It’d be remiss not to note that David Labrava did leave the club in April 2019 ‘in good standing, honourably’. However, unless they kick you out -and you really don’t want that to happen- the short answer is 'you don’t leave'. If it’s not already clear, being a part of the HAMC isn’t like being in the Hampshire Pony Club, and if you thought joining the club was challenging, good luck trying to leave.
It’s worth remembering that the HAMC is a decentralised organisation. Clubs follow the same, basic (strict) code of honour, but when it comes to making day-to-day decisions, such as members leaving, that’s down to the individual club. For example, in some clubs, there may be exceptions extended to long-standing members wishing to leave or in the case of specific, personal circumstances. But really, even musing on that is to completely miss the point.