John Penton was one of the most influential figures in the development of off-road motorcycle racing in America during the 1960s and ‘70s. A national champion rider, Penton went on to develop a legendary brand of off-road motorcycles that bore his name. Thousands of riders learned to ride on Pentons. He also founded Hi-Point, a boot and apparel company that for a time boasted over half the sales in the U.S. market.
Penton was born on August 19, 1925. He grew up on the family farm in Amherst, Ohio. His older brothers had revived their father’s dilapidated 1914 Harley-Davidson, which had been long forgotten in the corner of a barn, and the Penton boys became motorcyclists. A talented athlete who played high school football and pole vaulted in track and field, he became equally proficient riding motorcycles.
No sooner had Penton started riding than World War II broke out. Penton served in the Merchant Marine and Navy during the war. After he arrived home from the service, one of the first things he wanted to do was buy a motorcycle. Despite putting down deposits at four different dealerships, Penton was unable to buy the new Harley-Davidson he dreamed of due to the scarcity after the war, so he settled for a used 61-cubic-inch Harley-Davidson Knucklehead. His brother, Bill, had bought an Army surplus 45-inch Harley, and the two set off for Lansing, Michigan, to ride in the grueling Jack Pine 500-Mile Enduro in 1948.
Big Harleys and Indians had been the mounts of choice for Jack Pine participants for years, but those days were numbered, as Penton found out when eventual winner Aub Lebard sped past on his BSA. The British machine was a featherweight compared to the big roadster-based American machines. The vision of the lighter and more nimble machine beating the more powerful bikes at the Jack Pine would make a lasting impression on Penton.
In 1949, Penton returned to the Jack Pine, this time on a B-33 BSA. He finished second by a single point to winner Bert Cummings, a Michigan dealer and veteran of the event. That second-place finish stoked the fire in Penton. From that point on, his mission was to find a better performing enduro motorcycle.
In 1950, Penton and his brothers opened a motorcycle dealership in Amherst. He carried BSAs and soon afterwards the German BMW and NSU brands. Ultimately, the dealership would handle an array of brands, including the new bikes from Japan in the early 1960s. Penton’s shop became something of a rider hangout, and in 1954, the guys who hung out at the shop formed the Meadowlark Motorcycle Club, which is still active today.
In 1958, Penton suffered a tragedy when his wife and mother of their three boys, Katherine, died after a prolonged illness. The rest of the closely knit Penton family rallied around John and took care of the boys while he poured himself into traveling and racing, trying to overcome his grief.
He started off the year by winning the Ohio State Enduro Championship. He then set out for an adventure that would prove to be legendary. Taking off for Daytona in the still cold Ohio winter riding a 175cc NSU, Penton stopped off in Atlanta and won the Stone Mountain Enduro. From there he continued on to Florida and won the Alligator Enduro on the same bike he’d ridden from northern Ohio. Later that season, he continued riding the NSU to enduros across the Midwest and continued winning, including earning his first victory at the Jack Pine.
Penton closed out 1958 by taking a road trip to Mexico. Once he hit California on the way up the Pacific Coast, he decided it was time to return home and he did so non-stop. That trip home inspired Penton’s brother Ted to challenge John to break the New York to Los Angeles record. On June 8th, Penton recorded his time and location with Western Union in New York City and set off for California on a BMW R69S outfitted with an oversized gas tank. Fifty-two hours and eleven minutes later, Penton rolled into Los Angeles. His record was heavily advertised by BMW and newspapers all over the world covered the record run. Penton was now a legend in motorcycling.
In 1960, Penton won the AMA’s Most Popular Rider Award (now called Pro Athlete of the Year) in a time when that prestigious award was almost exclusively won by AMA Grand National racers.
After winning the Jack Pine on a Husqvarna in 1966, the Swedish maker invited him to become the distributor of the brand for the eastern United States. In 1967, Penton was a member of the U.S. International Six Day Trial (now called International Six Day Enduro). While in Europe, Penton toured the Husqvarna factory. He had been trying to convince the manufacturer to produce an even lighter off-road machine. After receiving a lukewarm reception to his idea from Husqvarna officials, Penton decided to visit the KTM factory in Austria. At the ISDT, he had met a young engineer for KTM, which produced bicycles and mopeds.
His proposal for a lightweight off-road bike was met with skepticism at KTM, as well. As an incentive, Penton offered to put up $6,000 of his own money if KTM would build prototypes to his specifications. KTM agreed and in early 1968 Penton took delivery of six Penton 100cc prototypes. He promptly entered races and put some of the other top riders on the other bikes. There was an immediate demand for the lightweight and inexpensive Penton (which initially sold for $700). In the first year, more than 400 Pentons were sold. By the time Penton sold the distributorship to KTM, some 10 years later, more than 25,000 Penton motorcycles had been sold in America.
Penton stepped up the level of professionalism in the sport of motocross and enduros. He purchased large trucks from surplus Post Office stock and painted them in Penton colors. There was a lot of excitement at the races when one of the Penton big rigs pulled into a racing facility.
Penton’s innovations were not reserved exclusively for the manufacture of motorcycles. Wanting to improve on the standard work boot that most off-road riders wore, Penton approached Italian ski boot maker Alpinestars about modifying its boots for motorcycling. The result was Hi-Point boots. A young motocross rider named Bob Hannah started wearing the boots and consulted on improvements to the design. By the late-1970s, Hi-Point boots were considered a must-have by many motocross and off-road riders and it became the biggest-selling boot in the country. Hi-Point expanded to include all forms of off-road riding apparel.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998, Penton still lived on the family farm not more than a couple hundred yards from where he was born. One of his sons, Jack, became a renowned rider in his own right and competed in 12 ISDE events and was named to the Hall of Fame a year after his father.