Monday, July 11, 2016

The untold story behind one of the most iconic moto-photos

I can think of only two motorcycle photos that are permanently etched in the imaginations of non-motorcyclists: Rollie Free, setting a land-speed record in a borrowed bathing suit; and 'Wild Bill' Gelbke, astride 'Roadog' -- his home-made 17'-long, 3,280 pound motorcycle.

The photo of Bill Gelbke was taken in 1970, by a small-town newspaperman named Ralph Goldsmith. He was the editor and proprietor of the Bascobel (Wisconsin) Dial.

I'm currently writing a second edition of my Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia, and I decided to include a little section of four of five days'-worth of trivia about Gelbke and Roadog. On the spur of the moment I wondered what ever happened to the photographer, and whether he'd ever been compensated for the countless times his image was reproduced on posters, bar mirrors, in books and magazines, on t-shirts and God-knows-where-else. 

I did a web search for 'Ralph Goldsmith'. And while I was a few years too late to reach him, I did reach his son and namesake, who is himself already 60.

Ralph Jr. told me quite a story about the image, which is definitely a part of Goldsmith family lore.

"My dad got a call from a bartender, who worked on the edge of town," he told me. "He said, 'You've gotta' come and see this bike'."

Presumably Gelbke was on one of his many relatively aimless rides. (According to legend, he rode 20,000 miles in the first year after building Roadog. He'd grown up in Green Bay and had a shop on Cicero Avenue in Chicago, so I suppose Roadog was seen quite a bit on the roads of Wisconsin. And judging from what I've read about him, Wild Bill probably stopped at pretty much ever roadhouse.)

Anyway the newsman, Goldsmith Sr., hopped in his car, carrying his trusty 120 roll-film camera. Like all newspapermen of the period it was loaded with black and white film. Since the Bascobel Dial reproduced photos with an 85-line halftone screen, the 2 1/4 inch wide negative was already overkill; it was probably loaded with something like 400 ASA-rated Kodak Tri-X.

He got to the bar in time, and snapped a picture of Wild Bill Gelbke astride his monstrous bike. The photo ran in the next weekly edition of the 'Dial'.

Ralph Jr. told that some time later, his dad got a call about the photo. I didn't think to ask whether someone had seen it in the Dial, or whether (more likely) it went out on a wire service. Whatever the case might've been, Mr. Goldsmith thought that his image, having run in the Dial, had outlived any immediate utility. So without thinking anything of it, he put the only negative he had in an envelope and mailed it to the caller. He didn't ask for payment, specify one-time rights, or even bother to keep track of who he was sending to. 

His son told me that it was years before he realized that it had been reproduced and re-reproduced as a poster and in countless other ways. By then, it seemed impossible to track his negative back down. To make matters worse, the newspaper used a very impermanent printing process, so Goldsmith's print had faded and discolored.

Ralph Jr. told me that his dad had been an excellent photographer and that he remembered that the negative was pin-sharp; poster quality. I could tell from talking to him that the family had long realized that if only dad had kept that negative, they could have made a pretty penny from licensing fees.

Oh well. In everyone's life there has to be one great lost opportunity. Ralph Goldsmith's was the time he mailed off that useless negative to some faceless stranger.


  1. Enjoy this update on the wild and true story of wild bill! I remember seeing this bike in Chicago at a bike show many years ago and let me say it is impressive, pictures do not do it justice!

  2. I rode with my old friend Wild Bill on occasion and have to say he was one of the nicest people you would ever meet... he saved my life on one occasion when we went into a outlaw bar and i was wearing my colors that were rivals of this clubs...I was threatened to leave or die and when Bill saw what was going on he came to my rescue and told the guy to leave me the fuck alone or he would have to deal with Wild Bill was so respected in biker circles that if you were a friend of his you were a friend period and safe from reprisal of any kind and he would back you up with his life if it came to that. But he was NOT a violent person and is missed by so many. Shot down by the cops........

  3. Little Cisco Band (outta Green Bay) had our original tune: Cisco’s Boogie in a film documentary about the Gelbke Auto 4!!!! Also Randy, guitarist, did a lot of background music for the film too!!! Louie from Mad Dawg hideaway had inherited one somehow and had a documentary made w his gang on a ride!!! It was cool to be included. �� I will have to try to dig the video out...

  4. Wild Bill was my uncle and I would love to see this video if you can find it.

  5. Don't know if you ever found a copy of the movie?? I'm one of the speakers/interviewed in it, I was good Friend's with Bill until his death. Rode the 'Road Dog' once (scarey) and the smaller 'Sporty' size a few. Got my copy still on VHS tape. (should transfer to DVD). LOL. Anyway, if I can help, give me a shout. Later! 'FROG' 435 M.C.

  6. Shame about the lost negative, without a doubt it's a very iconic photo and I'd love to see what it looks like full frame. Could it be possible that Buzz Walneck (who acquired one of the bikes) was the mystery caller? After all, posters of the image are available for purchase on his website.