Don Brown spent a lifetime in motorcycling, first as a desert racer, later as the editor of Cycle magazine, creator and host of one of the first motorcycle radio shows, co-author of a popular off-road motorcycling book, and then as general sales manager for Johnson Motors, the original franchised Triumph importer.
He went on to hold executive positions with U.S. Suzuki and BSA, before becoming one of the best known and most widely respected industry analysts and consultants in the business.
Brown was born in Wichita, Kansas, on September 19, 1929. His father was a noted pilot and sales manager for airplane maker Travel Air. As a child during the Depression, Brown and his family lived for a time with his dad’s best friend, the famous aviator Jimmy Doolittle and his family in St. Louis.
After Don's father, Ray, joined the Navy in 1941, the family moved to Grand Prairie, Texas, in order to be near the Dallas Naval Air Station where his father frequently landed while ferrying bombers to Dakar, Senegal, in Africa.
In Texas, Don worked on a ranch and learned to love horses and the cowboy’s life. When his father returned from military service in the South Pacific and was assigned to California, Don left home at 14 and found work as a ‘wanna-be’ cowboy in Texas. When his father was killed in an airplane crash in 1946, Don joined the Army at 17 and volunteered for special occupation forces in Germany.
Upon returning to California in 1949, Brown finished high school and entered college in Los Angeles. Then, he was recalled as a reservist by the Army for the Korean conflict.
While stationed at Camp Stoneman in Northern California, Brown bought his first motorcycle, a customized 1950 Triumph from Oakland, California dealer Vern Gardner. A friend in Southern California persuaded him to watch motorcycle desert races on the weekends and it was this experience that led him to enter his Triumph first in some local field meets and then later, more seriously, in cross-country desert races.
After his military stint, Brown began racing in earnest. He quickly learned the ropes and won the AMA District 37 amateur cross-country championship in 1952. During this period, Brown was also a key person in founding the famous Checkers Motorcycle Club, which would go on to gain fame as the winningest off-road motorcycle club in the country. Brown raced in all the popular West Coast off-road events of the era, including Big Bear, Greenhorn and the Catalina Grand Prix.
It was at one of these off-road races where Brown’s career took a major turn. Off-road great Bud Ekins returned from a successful European tour and was racing in a local Southern California scrambles event. During the race, Ekins lapped everyone in the field with the exception of Brown, who had led the race for 14 laps. Coverage in Cycle magazine said that Ekins lapped all but one rider, but failed to mention Brown's name. Brown sent a letter to the magazine to complain about the omission. The unexpected result was that Cycle editor Bob Schanz asked Brown to write a monthly column covering the off-road racing scene in Southern California. That eventually led to Brown becoming editor at Cycle.
In the mid-1950s, Brown and Cycle associate editor Evan Aiken wrote a successful off-road instructional book titled “How to Ride and Win” that featured Brown’s racing pals Bud Ekins, Chuck “Feets” Minert, Johnny McLaughlin and Don Pink – all national championship winners. Brown left Cycle and traveled the country in a 1954 Volkswagen promoting the book. Eventually, rights to the book were purchased by Floyd Clymer, Don’s former boss, who then sold it for several years by mail order.
Brown spent many of his long hours on the road listening to radio. The thought came to him that motorcycling should have a radio show of its own. Brown had a friend, Jack Shelton, whose father ran the Los Angeles Fairgrounds in Pomona, and he knew a number of people in radio. Meetings were arranged and popular Los Angeles radio personality Gil Stratton liked the idea. Stratton taught Brown how to write radio scripts and in 1955 the Los Angeles CBS radio affiliate began broadcasting the 15-minute motorcycling show, “Southern California Motorcycle Sports” at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. It is believed to be the first radio show of its kind in the country. Brown traveled the country covering the major races of the day and interviewing the personalities of the sport.
One of the sponsors of Brown's radio show was Bill Johnson of Johnson Motors, the western states distributor of Triumph and Ariel motorcycles. He knew Don from his stint as editor of Cycle and offered him a job as a regional sales rep. In something of a bold move, Brown told Johnson he was only interested in a management position. Within weeks, Brown, at just 26, was hired as General Sales Manager of Johnson Motors Inc. in Pasadena.
“JoMo” was still a retail dealer then with wholesale accounts mainly in the western United States. The Triumph factory wanted Johnson to become strictly a wholesale distributor and concentrate on the promotion of the marque and improve sales in the 19 western states. It was a job with big responsibilities and, as Brown recalls, “There was a lot of on-the-job learning.”
Despite Brown's lack of experience, Johnson Motors implemented policies under his guidance that made the company much more efficient. He put together a program for just-in-time shipping from the British factory that saved Johnson hundreds of thousands of dollars in warehousing costs. With the loyal assistance of Elden Wright, JoMo's assistant sales manager, he also enacted policies that dramatically increased sales. The eastern distributor often utilized Brown’s ideas as well. The western states division actually matched, and on a few occasions beat, the much larger eastern factory subsidiary in sales during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Once, while working late in the office with Bill Johnson, a call came in from a young Hollywood actor who insisted a Triumph be delivered to him free of charge, in exchange for some photo rights. After listening patiently to the young actor, Brown went down a who’s who list of Hollywood actors who already did promotional work for Triumph and unceremoniously told the actor that JoMo had enough “Hollywood types” riding and promoting the Triumph marque.
Later, the actor’s agent called and it was agreed that the actor would pay a special price for the motorcycle under one stipulation: that Brown himself deliver the motorcycle. He agreed, and the actor turned out to be a young Steve McQueen, then the TV star of Wanted Dead or Alive. Brown told McQueen to get his parts and service from Bud Ekins, then a top Triumph dealer in Southern California. These two became fast friends and Ekins helped McQueen learn the ropes in desert and scrambles racing in Southern California and later in ISDT events in Europe.
In 1965, at the request of American Honda, Brown helped form the Southern California Motorcycle Safety Council. Eventually, a merger between that organization and the older Motorcycle, Scooter & Allied Trades Association, resulted in the formation of the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC).
Brown worked with Johnson Motors from 1956 to 1965. The Johnson family had pegged Brown to take over and run the company after Johnson’s death in 1962, but politics related to the buyout of Johnson Motors by the BSA Group resulted in Brown being forced out in 1965. He then joined his former employee and friend, Jack McCormack, to help Suzuki improve its U.S. operations. He served as national director of operations for Suzuki.
But shortly after joining Suzuki, Brown was asked to return to the BSA Group as chief operating officer, replacing Ted Hodgdon upon his retirement in 1967. Unfortunately, despite assurances otherwise, Brown found BSA operations to be in a shambles. New-unit quality control was quite poor and the new triples then on the drawing boards were complex from a manufacturing viewpoint. When the Rocket III was introduced in 1969, its MSRP was $1,775 while the Honda CB750 initially retailed for $1,250 (later increased when its popularity quickly became evident in the marketplace).
Brown tried to inject new ideas at BSA. One move was to secretly hire the young American designer Craig Vetter to create new styling for the BSA Rocket III.
“I just wanted headquarters to see there was more than one way to think about design,” Brown recalls. “I wanted to show BSA engineers what could be done by a team that knew what motorcyclists in America wanted.”
The bike was eventually introduced in the American market in 1973, but not as a BSA. Vetter's design became the Triumph Hurricane X75 and influenced designs by other manufacturers over the years.
In spite of Brown’s efforts to rally BSA sales in America, the U.K. BSA Group was in such serious financial trouble that it was doubtful it could survive under any circumstances.
Brown left BSA in early 1970 and started his own consulting firm in California. Brown did the first long-range market study for Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA, in 1971 when the company was being organized under central management. This assignment led to many others in the industry with major motorcycle manufacturers and distributors in the United States.
In addition to motorcycling, Brown also earned his private pilot's license, with both instrument and multi-engine ratings. He clocked about 5,000 hours in the air and owned a Piper Comanche D, a Mooney Executive and a Luscombe 125. But Brown's flying and motorcycle riding were about to end due to an unkind twist of fate.
In 1974, Brown was hurt in a freak dirt bike accident that left him paraplegic. After 11 months in rehabilitation, and with the support of his family, Brown was able to overcome his disability enough to be able to continue his career.
In 1975, Brown joined Kawasaki Motors Corp. as general manager of its accessories division. Following that assignment – his first after leaving the hospital – he joined Hester Communications as vice president and general manager. Then, in 1981, he formed DJB/Associates LLC to specialize in analytical forecasting of motorcycle industry trends and related project consulting.
In 1986, Don Emde, then publisher of Dealernews magazine, asked Brown to assist in organizing a meeting of industry leaders in Palm Springs to discuss the plummeting motorcycle and aftermarket sales. The group decided that a major problem the industry faced was the poor image of motorcycling in the eyes of the general public.
After the two-day event, a small group was formed to find a way to fund an industry public awareness program. Don Emde, Keith Van Harte (an employee of the MIC) and Brown then visited the top executives of the four Japanese companies and came away with initial funding of $400,000. Today, the program is professionally managed under the auspices of the MIC and has a budget of more than $1 million.
In addition to long-range forecasting, Brown wrote monthly industry reports for Dealernews magazine and another published exclusively for MIC members. At the time of his induction into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001, Brown lived in Irvine, California, with his wife of fifty years, Teri. Don and Teri had two sons, Scott and Craig, one daughter, Shari, and four grandchildren.
Don Brown passed away on March 24, 2010.