Earl Bowlby became a leading AMA Hillclimb competitor during the 1970s and '80s. During his 25-year career, Bowlby earned 10 national hillclimbing titles. He was loyal to the British BSA motorcycle brand, using a highly modified 650cc machine throughout his career.
Bowlby was born in Hocking County, Ohio, on October 27, 1933. He rode a Whizzer motorbike on his paper route as a teenager in the 1940s. In 1952, Bowlby purchased a 1949 Indian vertical twin that he rode for pleasure. Motorcycles took a back seat for a while after Bowlby married his wife, Shirley, in 1953. In the late 1950s, Bowlby purchased a used BSA, a purchase that would prove to be pivotal in his life.
Drag racing was the first form of competition that attracted Bowlby in the late '50s. He recalls that his little BSA Golden Flash was not very fast, so he didn't do too well at the drag races. Bowlby attended a few local hillclimbs in Ohio and was shocked at the abuse that riders were putting their motorcycles through.
"I looked at the pieces flying off those bikes when they tumbled down the hill," Bowlby recalled. "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"
In 1960, Bowlby sent BSA a letter requesting a BSA dealership for Logan, Ohio. The primary reason Bowlby wanted to become a dealer was so he wouldn't have to make the long drive into Groveport, Ohio, first to order parts, then another drive to pick them up. To Bowlby's surprise, BSA sent a reply approving him for a dealership.
"I had to buy two new motorcycles, a package of parts, which at that time I think was $100, and a franchise and we were in business. We set up shop in a little two-car garage," he recalled.
After establishing his dealership, Bowlby became more involved in racing. He tried his hand at enduro races, then scrambles and later hillclimbing, all on the same 250cc BSA.
In amateur hillclimbing, Bowlby rode the 250 for a year before moving up to a BSA Gold Star and, finally, a 650cc BSA twin. On the twin, Bowlby dominated the amateur ranks in 1965. He earned his pro license in 1966 at the age of 32 and rode his first national in East Palestine, Ohio. He earned second place in his very first pro climb using his amateur bike, which was shod with rubber tires (instead of chained or paddled tires) and running on regular gasoline.
In 1968, Bowlby earned his first national victory at Muskegon, Michigan. That day he went out and had a good run on his first climb and waited the rest of the day to see if someone would beat his time. No one did. Bowlby's time that year up the Muskegon hill was 7.87 seconds. 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 in his 25 years of professional racing. The 1984 season was the one that stands out. That year, Bowlby won the national invitational at Muskegon, setting a new hill record, won the AMA national championship on the points he had accumulated during the season, and polished off the year by winning the Canadian National Hillclimb title -- at that time the triple crown of hillclimb. It was the only time that feat was ever accomplished.
During his career, Bowlby was known for immaculately prepared BSAs. Bowlby recalled being a big fan of hillclimber Red Bryan, who always had such neat and clean equipment, and he tried to emulate Bryan. Another hillclimber from the era just prior to Bowlby's that he admired was Joe Hemmis.
"Hemmis was such a tough rider," Bowlby remembered. "Nothing would stop him from winning a hillclimb. If there was a tree on the hill he would go through it."
Bowlby called Lou Gerencer his toughest competition during his career. It was a friendly rivalry between the two, with Bowlby on the British bikes and Gerencer on the Harley-Davidson. "Our careers spanned almost the exact same era. He started about a year after I did and retired a year after me."
Bowlby retired from hillclimbing after the 1990 season. In all, he won more than 80 AMA national hillclimbs and six national titles in Canada. He continued to run his dealership in Logan, specializing in used British bikes and parts. One of his BSA hillclimbers is on permanent loan to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum and is often displayed in the museum or AMA offices. When inducted in 1999, Bowlby was still a regular on the hillclimb circuit as a spectator.