A.B. Coffman is considered the father of the American Motorcycle Association (later renamed the American Motorcyclist Association). He served as the first secretary general of the AMA upon its inception in 1924. It was Coffman who proposed the new riders’ body of the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association and he who largely wrote the constitution and bylaws of the AMA. Coffman’s vision of how the AMA could serve American motorcyclists is largely what the association became in decades to follow. Coffman also ran the day-to-day operations of the AMA from 1924 to 1928.
Albert Benton Coffman was born in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1879. He came from a prominent family of scholars, educators and politicians. His mother’s great uncle was the famous pre-Civil War U.S. statesman Thomas Hart Benton. As a young man, Coffman enjoyed bicycling and motorcycling in the latter’s earliest days.
Coffman came to prominence in the motorcycling industry during the early 1910s as a sales manager and later vice president of the Consolidated Manufacturing Company, makers of the Yale motorcycle. Coffman traveled the country securing dealers for Yale and he became one of the most respected figures in the industry.
In 1913, the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM), at that time America’s national motorcycling organization, was having great difficulty keeping up with the nation’s rapidly growing motorcycling community. With backing from Arthur Davidson (co-founder of Harley-Davidson), Coffman was elected president of the FAM to help shore up nationwide support for the organization.
While Coffman was able to stabilize the teetering FAM, he was not able to secure the support from the industry needed to help the FAM grow, so he resigned his position after less than two years as president. His frustration with not being able to secure sufficient funding for the FAM would play an important part a decade later in the formation of the AMA.
After leaving Yale motorcycles, Coffman became a motorcycle trade show coordinator. He was a key member in the organization of the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association (M&ATA) in 1918. The M&ATA was just what the name implied – a group of motorcycle-related businesses that organized to improve the business of motorcycling. It took over the role of the FAM, which had been largely dormant since the onset of World War I in 1916. Riders’ needs were also within the realm of the M&ATA, but took a back seat to the needs of the manufacturers.
One of the first recorded government-relations activities on behalf of motorcyclists came from Coffman as general manager of the M&ATA in 1921. Coffman sent a letter of protest to Senator Thomas Watson of Georgia, who called motorcycles "devilish" in a speech promoting greater highway regulation. Coffman’s letter, which pointed out numerous positives of the motorcycle as a practical mode of transportation and its significant role in World War I, was published in the motorcycle magazines of the day. The letter served notice to politicians that motorcyclists were indeed a large contingent of citizens demanding fair treatment. In turn, the highly publicized letter served as an example to motorcyclists across the nation on how to deal with political threats in a respectful and effective manner.
In 1924, the AMA emerged from within the M&ATA via a proposal from Coffman. He saw the need for an association that would work primarily for the needs of motorcyclists. He also envisioned the organization being funded largely by motorcyclists instead of primarily by the manufacturers. The AMA became the riders’ body of the M&ATA and its purpose was to protect and promote the interests of riders in legislative matters as well as oversee the competition end of the sport. Dues for AMA membership in 1924 were $1 per year.
Coffman was named secretary of the AMA and was to oversee its operation, which was based in Chicago. The job was not a full-time position in those days, but Coffman dedicated much of his time and effort to promoting the AMA.
Coffman’s ideas were often ahead of their time. One, in particular, did not meet with favor from U.S. motorcycle makers. Coffman favored, and attempted to promote, affiliation with the world sanctioning body of motorcycling, the FIM, as early as the 1920s. But the U.S. manufacturers at the time were not in favor of aligning American competition rules (which featured much larger displacement engines) with those in Europe. Additionally, the U.S. makers were not eager to open the domestic market to European-made motorcycles. Even though Hoffman’s proposal to bring America into the worldwide realm of motorcycling did not go forward, it showed the forward thinking of the man. The AMA eventually did affiliate with the FIM, nearly 50 years after Hoffman first promoted the idea.
Coffman served as secretary of the AMA for five years. In 1928, he resigned from the AMA to pursue an interest in business fairs. Even though he was no longer directly involved in motorcycling, he carried on many of the relationships he had in the industry.
Coffman died in 1955. He will be remembered as a man of vision who cared dearly about motorcycling and its future. He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.