Archives | Earl Bowlby
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #37, September 22, 2004. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
Hillclimbers are a special breed, and as hillclimbers go, they don’t come any more special than multi-time hillclimb champion and AMA Hall of Famer Earl Bowlby, the Ohio native whose brilliant career spanned three decades.
A fiercely loyal BSA dealer, Bowlby won all 10 of his titles on hot-rodded incarnations of the BSA 650cc twin in hillclimb form, complete with its stretched swingarm, chain-paddle rear tire and nitromethane fuel in the tank.
Born in 1933, Bowlby began riding motorcycles as a teenager. He purchased his first BSA in the late ’50s and fell in love with the performance and simplicity of the British-built twins. His competitive career actually began in the drag racing discipline, though he hardly made a mark there. But after attending a few hillclimbs in his area, Bowlby decided to give it a try despite his disbelief at the way riders would punish their machines every time they crashed.
“I looked at the pieces flying off those bikes when they tumbled down the hill,” Bowlby once said. “I thought to myself that I would never do anything like that to my bike. And wouldn’t you know it, two years later I was right out there with them.”
After a solid amateur career, Bowlby made his professional debut in 1966 at age 32-not exactly a green age for a rookie pro. A runner-up finish in his first pro hillclimb gave way to his first career AMA National win in 1968, Bowlby putting in a winning run of 7.87 seconds. His AMA Hall of Fame bio states, “To illustrate how quickly hillclimbing changed during Bowlby’s era, 16 years after setting that time at Muskegon, Bowlby came back to set a new hill record in 1984 at 4.71 seconds.”
Bowlby would go on to win 10 AMA national titles, including a record-setting four consecutive titles from 1976-1979, during his 25 years of professional racing.
That 1984 season was clearly his greatest, as he set the Michigan record and won the AMA and Canadian National hillclimb titles in the same season.
During his career, Bowlby, who was not only a BSA fan but also a dealer for the brand, became well respected by the competition for his immaculately prepared machinery. He rarely suffered a failure and continued to put in consistent points-gathering performances even in the face of the new-fangled, high-revving Japanese inline fours that began to invade the hills as his career reached its twilight.
“These high-tech machines…there’s no question that when they’re running right, they are the fastest thing on the hill today,” Bowlby said during a late ’80s television interview. “But my motorcycle is set up in such a way that it is more likely to run every week.”
True enough, as the sport was well into that four-cylinder era when Bowlby scored the last of his 10 AMA National titles at the Devil’s Staircase in Oregonia, Ohio, October 14, 1990. Bowlby finished fourth in the event to lock down the crown. He then retired with more than 80 national wins and also six Canadian national titles.
After hanging up his helmet, Bowlby continued to help other riders, including fellow Ohioan Tim Frasier, who went on to win the AMA 540cc National Hillclimb title aboard a Bowlby-backed BSA. Bowlby continues to run his own dealership, Bowlby Motorcycles, in Ohio today.CN