His trusty Harley headed to museum

By Dave Nordstrand

The Californian

May 12, 1990



The old machine and it rider are classics.  The cycle is an elderly Harley-Davidson, the base of which was built in 1926.  Methanol powered the machine.  Benzol cooled its heat.  A hint of blue flame could be seen from it's exhaust.

The rider is Larry Ketzel, known in these parts as "Mr. Motorcycle."  He a rail thin 84 year-old with a gray moustache.  Ketzel climbs aboard his old bike and wraps lean fingers around its black grips.  For a silent instant, the rider is back in the 1930's.  Ketzel is again saddled on 300 eager pounds of machinery.  The rear wheel's double chain bites into the earth.  The bike jumps forward then upward, climbing towards the sky, climbing towards victory.

"It was a good feeling when you'd crack the throttle and take a 400 foot hill with 10,000 people cheering," Ketzel says.  He'd have a 20-foot start and a 30-foot lane.  Breaking the timing string first was what life came down to.  Three times Ketzel qualified for nationals in the hill climb.

As a boy, he lived down the street from the Dayton (Ohio) Motorcycle Co.  He watched company riders test the machines.  That was his inspiration.  He bought his first bike in 1917.  In 1928 Ketzel turned pro.  He rode for Harley-Davidson.  When he got married in 1930, he taught his wife Mildred to ride and she had her own motorcycle.

Winter in Ohio kept Ketzel's sport dormant five months a year.  He heard that, in California, you could ride year round.  So he went west.  In 1931, he was in Hollywood in his first California hill climb.  the event was to benefit an orphanage.  Ketzel didn't win.  Windy Lindstrom did.  Ketzel took two seconds, though, enough for $300.  When he and Windy went to collect their money, they found that the promoter had pocketed the cash and skipped to Mexico.

In 1932, Ketzel bought the Harley dealership on Salinas' John Street.  He moved the shop to 417 Main St. where a Shell station stands today.  For 35 years the Ketzels ran the business.  During World War II, the California Highway patrol escorted troop convoys from Fort Hunter Liggett to Oakland's port of debarkation.  The CHP used 30 motorcycles to do the job.  Ketzel and Mildred maintained the bikes. 

In 1934, Ketzel formed the Salinas Ramblers Motorcycle Club, which still exists.  Seven years later he founded the Monterey County Sheriff Department's Motorcycle Squad.  "I was trying to get motorcycle riders and policemen together as friends," he says.  "It worked pretty well."  Until he was 81, Ketzel rode with the squad, helping police roads at Laguna Seca events.  "You got to find someone else to replace me," he kept telling the group.  In 1985, the squad honored him with a plaque and the title of Captain Emeritus.


In Ketzel's study stand a case filled with trophies.  The best of motorcycling memories are his.  But there is a sadness, too.  Mildred, his riding partner, his partner in life, died last year.  She was 76.  "If I lived over again, I'd do the same kind of thing," Ketzel says.  "Working with motorcycles was what I loved to do and wanted to do and my wife was right along with me.

Ketzel gave his old Harley to a friend, Ted Ponton.  The machine is now bound for glory.  In August, Ponton will give it to the American Motorcycle Association's new museum near Columbus, Ohio.  "It's rare," Ponton says of the elderly  Harley.   "It's one of a kind."  Just like Ketzel, his friends say.

Link to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum write-up on Larry's Hillclimber.