With the possible exception of members of the Harley and Davidson families, few Americans have brought more people to careers in motorcycling than John Penton. When dealing in the off-road industry, the Ohio native is the clear monarch. This doesn’t even include the thousands of riders who were encouraged to join the ranks of off-road riding and competition. That long list of faithful subjects includes this writer.
Todd Huffman’s movie, The John Penton Story, has now been released in theaters across the country. The documentary, based on Ed Youngblood’s 2000 biography, traces the lineage from John’s grandfather Henry, who emigrated from Canada to Detroit in the 19th century, to become a neighbor and friend of Henry Ford. He helped Ford machine some of the parts for his early cars.
Harold Penton, John’s father, was more interested in horticulture than engineering, and settled his growing family on an 80-acre farm in Amherst, Ohio. The movie alternates between period stills of the family of nine, and current recreations portraying John and his four brothers at play on their father’s 1914 Harley-Davidson. For John, the attraction to motorcycles was permanent.
The film is a little short on his athletic achievements, since John was a high diver (into the quarries), pole vaulter and quarterback in high school. Though inches shorter than his brothers, he was built like a beer barrel and scrappy. As a teenager, his leadership qualities were becoming apparent. His public relations skills were still in the works.
John’s experience in the merchant marines, his confrontation with the FBI, and brief time in the U.S Navy are covered, and coming to roost back in Amherst in partnership with his brothers. The Penton Brothers ran a machine shop and excavation business. John had a Harley Knucklehead, and older brother Bill, the best rider, had a military WLA, a 45-inch flathead. The vintage footage of the early enduros nicely illustrates how they came to be called Mudrunners.
The future took shape in 1953, when the Pentons and some fellow riders formed a club and bought 38 acres west of town and carved out a race track. Their club, the Amherst Meadowlarks M.C., remains active today.
The video unfolds with the evolution of Penton Motorcycles, from the “chicken coop” to representing KTM, Husqvarna, Ariel, Zundapp, Honda and others. John’s 1959 cross-country record sprint on a BMW R69 is chronicled and recreated in amusing fashion. Sprinkled throughout the documentary are comments from family members, friends, competitors and professional riders.
John’s enduro accomplishments are well-documented, including winning the Alligator Enduro on an NSU street bike, then adding the Little Burr, Jackpine, and the Corduroy in Canada. Of course, the meat and potatoes here is the ultimate Penton involvement with the International Six Days’ Trial, the world’s toughest enduro. John first went to the ISDT in 1962 in Germany, riding a BWW 250. Here he learned the value of lightweight motorcycles.
The narrative hews closely to Youngblood’s book, naturally with considerably more graphic support. “I thought I had done exhaustive research into the available photographs from the Penton family, but Todd found so much more,” said Ed.”I was amazed at the quantity and quality of historical stills that appeared in the movie.” Youngblood had been the first editor of Cycle News East, which grew out of Penton’s newsletter State Motorcycle News. When I took that job in 1971, the office in Avon was a few miles from Amherst. Upon first meeting John Penton, I learned what Ed had found before me, that to interview him meant staying on the move. The man was, and is at 89, a perpetual ball of energy.
I was fortunate to join the Penton family and team (same thing, really) for the 1972 ISDT in Czechoslovakia. Having ridden in the Ohio woods with Tom and Jack Penton, and team manager Doug Wilford, I knew how good these guys were. What I learned was how good everyone who gets to the Six Days is, and the demands of the event. The byword was, “If you can get out of bed on day four, and get the bike started, you’ve got it made.”
This was the dawn of Penton’s 175cc Jackpiner, and the beginning of the cracks in Penton’s relationship with KTM and Husqvarna. The video expands on the latter, and the personal vs. business interests of both John Penton and Erich Trunkenpolz (the T in KTM). Many of the story’s highlights are provided by the comments of racers past and present, like Torsten Hallman, Malcolm Smith, Steve Wise, Marty Smith, Danny LaPorte, Brad Lackey, Carl Cranke, Mark Blackwell, Bob Hannah and Ryan Dungey.
Veteran riders will revisit some fond memories here, and learn a few surprising facts that were previously unknown. And the current generation, many of whom who were only vaguely aware of Penton’s accomplishments and impact on the sport, should surely be impressed. The production is also nicely enhanced by the narration and soundtrack, provided by former Penton dealership garage boy, motocross rider and singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett.
The point made in this production, and made well, is that John Penton is a national treasure. He overcame enormous odds in his personal life, competition career and manufacturing/marketing businesses, and he always gave credit to his family. And the other point is, that without him, there would be no KTM as we know it today. Reckon you could call it a success story.
We all get to meet a few remarkable characters in our lives, and John Penton is surely among the top five on many people’s lists. His imprint on off-road riding will last forever, and very few will pass a harsh word on their experience with the man. Except maybe those he bumped out of the way on the trail.
It is altogether proper and fitting that Todd Huffman has produced and directed this documentary, which began, fittingly enough, on Kickstarter. He was also fortunate to have Ed Youngblood’s book as a resource. And you gotta love the final shot in the movie. Hope they make a still poster of it.
The day I met John, more than 40 years ago, he gave me an ashtray. It remains on my desk today as a receptacle for paper clips. The smoked glass has a gold lettering surround: PENTON SPORT MOTORCYCLES on one side and BUILT FOR CHAMPIONS on the other. In between is the ornate English Penton family crest, in which the central image is a lion in a boxing pose. Perfect.
A few weeks ago, Penton celebrated his 89th birthday. God bless John Penton.
The John Penton Story is available for showing at local theaters by subscription from pentonmovie.com