Tom Heininger was co-founder of Webco, one of the most popular motorcycle aftermarket and accessories companies in the 1960 and '70s. Webco was an innovative company, not only in motorcycle performance parts, but also in marketing safety equipment. Webco distributed the first full-coverage helmets. The company was also a major sponsor of motorcycle racing.
Heininger worked tirelessly to promote motorcycling, even beyond his duties at Webco. He served as president of the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) beginning in 1972. During his tenure, Heininger was influential in encouraging motorcycle dealerships to get more involved in local and state politics to protect motorcyclists' rights. He also was prominent in the formation of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF).
Heininger was born in Los Angeles on September 28, 1926. His father worked in the auto parts business. Tom served as a submariner in the Navy during World War II and followed in his father's footsteps, going into the auto industry after the war. In the early 1950s, he went to work for Offenhauser, one of the biggest names in automobile racing parts during that era. Fellow Offenhauser employee Bob Hughes was a motorcycle enthusiast and one day rode a new AJS single into work. As Heininger and Hughes stood and admired the new machine, the idea came up of starting a motorcycle performance company to do in the two-wheeled world what Offenhauser had done in automobile racing.
In 1954, Heininger and Hughes, along with Harry Weber, formed Webco. Early on, the company focused on producing high-performance racing engine parts for motorcycles. Later, it expanded into all forms of aftermarket accessories and apparel. Heininger remembers the early years as lean ones for the company.
"We'd go out to the desert races on the weekends and sell what we could," Heininger said. "Then we'd head to the bank on Monday morning to deposit money to keep the company going."
Heininger said the turnaround for Webco started in 1959. "That's when Honda came into the American market," Heininger said. "The number of motorcyclists soared during that era, and Webco went from a mom-and-pop operation to a major business."
It was during this time that Webco began to sponsor local racers from Southern California. Through racing, the Webco name went around the world, and before long the company began selling products in Europe and Australia. Perhaps the best-known rider to be sponsored by Webco was Harley-Davidson factory ace Mark Brelsford.
For a time in the early 1960s, Heininger and Hughes took a temporary leave from Webco to open and run two Honda dealerships in the Los Angeles area. Heininger said running the dealerships proved to be an invaluable experience that served him well in working with dealers in future ventures.
In the 1960s, Heininger and Hughes initiated the idea of a nightly radio show during Daytona Bike Week with AMA national announcer Roxy Rockwood. With Webco's backing, Rockwood's show became a staple for motorcycle fans during the annual Bike Week festivities. At its height, the show was broadcast on radio stations across the country and a live audience of nearly a thousand fans packed into the Hawaiian Inn on the beach for the nightly program.
Heininger fondly remembers the trips to Daytona each year. He and Hughes would drive to Florida from California for Bike Week and they would stop and make dealer calls all along the way. "We'd do the southern route on the way there and the northern route on the way back," he said.
Heininger always looked for ways to promote Webco. Perhaps one of the most serendipitous opportunities came when the company producing the movie "Big Fauss and Little Halsy," starring Robert Redford, needed a motorcycle shop set to be built. Heininger jumped at the opportunity, and with the extensive Webco catalogue was able to quickly set up a realistic shop.
"One of the great things about that was the studio used promotional photos of Redford wearing a Webco sweatshirt," said Heininger.
During the 1960s, Heininger began serving on the board of the Motorcycle, Scooter and Allied Trades Association — the association from which the AMA was spun off in 1924. Late in 1969, that organization merged with the California Motorcycle Safety Council to form the Motorcycle Industry Council. The MIC became an important voice in Washington for motorcycling issues. Heininger was elected president of the MIC in 1972. During his one-year stint, Heininger used his close relationship with dealers across the nation to help them better understand how to get involved in local politics to influence policies pertaining to motorcycling.
While at the MIC, Heininger was instrumental in working toward the establishment of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Honda got the ball rolling with a major financial commitment to the new association, which concentrated on rider education. Other manufacturers followed suit and the MSF had a solid foundation to be able to make major contributions to rider education and training.
One of the proudest moments for Heininger was when he served as a volunteer during the ISDE held in Massachusetts in 1973. In was the first time the U.S. hosted the prestigious international off-road event. Heininger said at first the local residents were petrified to have a bunch of so called "bikers" descend on their community, but after they saw what the event was all about, their attitudes quickly turned around.
"We came out on the second day to find American flags being flown in nearly every home," Heininger remembers. "It was a special moment in motorcycling."
In 1976, business differences caused Heininger to sell out his portion of Webco. For a short time he ran a T-shirt company and then retired to Maui, Hawaii.
Heininger's first wife, Genie, died in 1988. He married Fran in 1990 and split time between homes in Hawaii and California. Heininger raised three children. When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2003, Heininger continued to be involved in motorcycling. He still attends races and special motorcycling get-togethers. One of his favorite gatherings is the fall reunion event in Del Mar, California.
Fellow Hall of Famer JR Kelley perhaps summed up Heininger's career best.
"Tom brought a tremendous amount of spirit, enthusiasm, and value to the motorcycle industry as it was evolving in the 1960s and '70s. He added greatly to the business for the benefit of all. Tom loved motorcycling. He made money from it and put a lot of that back into the industry."