Motorcycle industry mourns passing of Don J. Brown

Publish Date: 
Mar 26, 2010

The article below is courtesy of Don Emde, representing Don Brown’s family. Plans have not been finalized for a memorial to be held in the next few weeks in the Los Angeles area. Another release will be sent out with those details, or contact Don Emde at donemde@me.com to receive information via e-mail.

Cards may be sent to: The Don Brown family c/o Don Emde, Inc. 92 Argonaut, Suite 160, Aliso Viejo, CA 92656. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Don’s name to the Clayton Foundation: 3505-M Cadillac Avenue, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Call 714-751-7433 or e-mail: foundation@cyclenews.com.

The motorcycle community was saddened by the news of the passing of legendary industry leader Don Brown on Wednesday, March 24. Brown, 80, passed away at his home in Irvine, Calif., with his family at his side. He is survived by his wife, Teri, sons Scott and Craig, daughter Shari and four grandchildren.

Don spent his entire adult life in the motorcycle sport and business; first as an enthusiast and racer, and later in the management and consulting for some of the biggest and best-known motorcycle brands in the world.

His many experiences earned him numerous industry awards, including induction to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, the Motorcycle Industry Council’s “Chairman Award” and a Trailblazers Lifetime Achievement Award, to name a few.

Brown was born on September 19, 1929, in Wichita, Kansas. His father was an airplane pilot and close friend of famed aviator Jimmy Doolittle. Despite his father’s death in an airplane accident when Don was a teenager, the roar of the engines and thrill of being at the controls appealed greatly to him. He would earn a pilot’s license and go on to clock over 5,000 hours in the air.

Following active duty in Germany for the Army, Don moved to California in 1949. While doing some reservist work while stationed in Northern California he would discover another sport that that he related easily with … motorcycling.

After buying his first motorcycle, Don became an avid enthusiast and was soon out in the Southern California desert racing in some major events such as the Big Bear and Greenhorn Enduros, and the Catalina Grand Prix. In the early 1950s he was one of the founders of the famous Checkers Motorcycle Club.

It wasn’t long before Brown’s racing involvement led to some incidental writing assignments to cover off-road races for Cycle Magazine. This, in turn, eventually landed him the job at Cycle as Editor and Don Brown was now officially a part of the motorcycle industry.

In the years to come, Don became a major force in Southern California promoting the motorcycle sport. His book How to Ride and Win was very popular, as was his radio show “Southern California Motorcycle Sports” on the local CBS radio station. It is believed to be the first ever radio show devoted entirely to motorcycling.

Later in the 1950s, Don was offered the position of General Sales Manager at Johnson Motors, the Western states distributor for Triumph and Ariel motorcycles. His push to promote motorcycling continued in his new position, and he was able to open the door to Hollywood for the sport through support of motorcycling with such noted celebrities as Steve McQueen, Keenan Wynn, Ann Margaret and others. He also was very supportive of those within the sport such as Bud Ekins and legendary TT champion Skip Van Leeuwen. “He lived for Triumph. It was like he had Triumph tattooed on his chest,” Skip reflected. “And he put together a core group of strong people on his sales team. Eldon Wright, Gary Bryson, Everett Brashear and Gene Wilson was the best road crew in the business to work with the dealers.”

Johnson Motors would eventually be consolidated into the Birmingham Small Arms organization and Brown moved on to help the new U.S. Suzuki Motor Corporation get established in America. But not long after, he rejoined the BSA Group and played a key role in the development and launch of a new range of BSA and Triumph motorcycles, including the BSA Rocket III, and Triumph X75 Hurricane, after hiring a young American designer named Craig Vetter to work up a look that would be totally unique and appealing to American riders. The Triumph X75 Hurricane remains today as one of the most collectible motorcycles anywhere.

By 1970, however, the British motorcycle giant fell on hard times on a worldwide basis, and began a slow slide down from the top, and eventually went out of business. By then Don had begun his own consulting business working with Kawasaki and other brands coming into the United States.

Still an active motorcyclist, Don was severely injured in a freak riding accident in 1974, leaving him paraplegic. But after approximately one year, he resumed his business activities with gusto, working with friend and former riding partner Larry Hester in the management of Motorcycle Dealernews Magazine. He served as Vice President/General Manager until 1981 when he formed DJB/Associates LLC to again work with motorcycle manufacturers and publications with market research and consulting projects.

In 1986, Dealernews publisher Don Emde asked Brown to deliver a key-note address at a special emergency meeting of industry members in Palm Springs in an effort to solve an ongoing downward sales trend. Brown not only delivered the needed inspiration for the group to pinpoint the key elements of a recovery program, he stayed on to work with Emde and the MIC’s Keith Van Harte to create an industry funded Promotion campaign eventually called “Discover Today’s Motorcycling.” It continues today after 34 years.

Brown had continued from there to monitor motorcycle sales activities, handle consulting projects and write for Dealernews until only recently when he needed to devote full time to his health issues.

Don’s son Scott reflected on his father’s long life and said, “He was most proud of his motorcycle industry affiliations and all the friends he made through the years.” And to be sure, those in the motorcycle industry cherished their relationships with him.

Godspeed Don.