Motorcycles Dreamboat: Tyree Smith’s 1952 Harley-Davidson PanheadThe man who helped a generation of Black Americans claim their position as equals.
- Words Matt Best
- Images Prism Motorcycle Supply Co.
“These days, most people wouldn’t think twice if a Black man were to ride a brand new Harley-Davidson past them on the street, but back in the 1940s and ’50s, when Tyree ‘Tye’ Smith helped start The Mohawk Delegation, that wasn’t the case,” explains Mark Smith, Tye’s son, as he shares his dad’s story.
Tye grew up in Nashville but as a young man moved to Indianapolis, where he made a living as an automotive mechanic. While wrenching on cars was his day job, his passion was undoubtedly motorcycles. “Dad grew up riding motorcycles with his father and brother, my uncle Claude,” Mark says. “In fact, most of his brothers were involved with motorcycles in some way, and, for them, the ultimate motorcycle to own was a Harley-Davidson.”
It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and there’s no question our country was working through serious racial conflict. As Black men in mid-century America, it wasn’t culturally acceptable for Tye or his brothers to walk into a Harley-Davidson dealership and ride away with a new motorcycle. Mark describes his dad as very loving, and as someone who always had friends around. People traveled from all over the Midwest to spend time with Tye as they attended motorcycle field meets and various other events. So, thanks in part to his warm personality, Tye was able to forge a friendship with the owner of Southside Harley-Davidson in Indianapolis, who dismissed the cultural standard of the time and decided to sell Tye a brand-new 1952 Harley-Davidson Panhead.
Like most things he owned, Tye immediately started to add his own flair to the bike. Two weeks into owning the motorcycle, Tye stripped the bike down and sent everything out to have it chromed. “It was one of the only completely chrome motorcycles in that area,” Mark says. The Panhead was soon named Dreamboat, and Tye continued to make it his own by way of a custom seat with his name on it and a fully custom continental kit on the rear. Another addition was a set of exhaust flame throwers, which worked by activating a solenoid that dumped propane into the exhaust pipe and ignited, thanks to an extra coil and spark plugs that were mounted in the exhaust tips.
One of the most unique features on the bike was a little Native American figure on the front fender, which signified that Tye was a member of The Mohawk Delegation, an Indianapolis-based African American motorcycle club that he helped start. Alongside members of the delegation, Tye proudly rode around town and throughout the country, enjoying the motorcycles with like-minded individuals — although one can imagine the sort of racial tension that more than 50 African American motorcycle riders faced when they passed through small towns or pulled into gas stations, many of which refused to serve them because of their skin color.
Nevertheless, they persisted and fought against the cultural standard by simply enjoying their life. Frequent family cookouts at the house and motorcycle events filled their weekends. Looking back, Mark explains, the more often The Mohawk Delegation and other groups like them were seen around town and throughout the country on their bikes, the more it helped normalize the perception. Over time, the sight of a Black man riding a motorcycle down the street became more and more common.
“People expected to see that bike; Tye and Dreamboat were fixtures in the community.”
In the ’70s, Tye’s health started to decline and he slowly stopped riding his motorcycle to gatherings. “He would still trailer the motorcycle to the events even if he couldn’t ride it,” Mark remembers. “People expected to see that bike; Tye and Dreamboat were fixtures in the community.” In 1980, Allen Tyree Smith passed away, leaving a lasting mark on the motorcycle community and the world around him, and leaving Dreamboat to his family. His son brought the bike to his mother’s house, where it sat covered and untouched for over 40 years, until 2020 when Mark’s mother passed.
The motorcycle is a time capsule from 1952 and represents an era when Black motorcycle enthusiasts were publicly shunned and chastised for owning and riding motorcycles. More importantly, Dreamboat represents a man, Tye Smith, who decided not to conform to his culture’s rules, went full-speed against the grain of what was generally accepted, and helped a generation of Black Americans claim their position as equals during a time when many of their neighbors didn’t believe they had the right.
Instead of parking Dreamboat under a cover in his garage, Mark decided it was time for the world to hear the story of his father and his motorcycle in hopes that today’s society would benefit from knowing about Tye Smith and his Dreamboat. Mark contacted Prism Supply Co. after learning about their recent mechanical restoration of Bronco Bronze, a 1952 Panhead found in Charlotte with a storied past of its own. From there, he trusted Prism’s owner, Jake Hindes, to be the next custodian of the motorcycle.
The Prism team got Dreamboat running and riding again after all those years of sitting. In addition to ensuring the engine would fire up again, the Prism team also got many of the original accessories working, including the exhaust flame throwers. Not long after the bike was rideable again, Mark and his cousin, Earl — a former Rough Riders president for over 30 years — visited Charlotte, where Mark got to ride his dad’s bike for the first time since his father’s passing in 1980.
Although parting with that bike was one of the hardest decisions of Mark’s life, he says, “I think Dad would be proud. What’s coming out of this is more important than the sport of motorcycle riding itself. The fact that he was one of the first Black men to stand up against what was culturally unacceptable at the time … other people can learn from his story. If you believe in something and stand up for yourself, you can help right a wrong, whether that be because of sex, race, or whatever. Believe in yourself.”