Hazel Kolb (pronounced ‘cob’) was a touring ambassador for motorcycling. Dubbed the "Motorcyclin' Grandma," Kolb was famous for her perimeter ride around the United States. Her 1979 tour around the continental United States on a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide caught the attention of the media and she gave numerous interviews, made national television appearances and eventually co-authored a book about the ride and her life. Kolb’s tireless promotion of motorcycling struck a chord with the American public and helped break down the stereotypical image many had about motorcyclists. She contributed to ushering in an era when motorcycling not only became acceptable, but fashionable among aging Baby Boomers.
Kolb also became the first female member of the AMA Board of Trustees, a post to which she was reelected several times. She helped guide the Association’s focus during a period of rapid growth. The AMA Brighter Image Award, created in February 1987, was renamed in August of 1990 as the AMA Hazel Kolb Brighter Image Award to honor her public relations accomplishments. It is the Association's highest award for activities that generate good publicity for motorcycling.
Kolb was born and raised near Hannibal, Missouri, in 1926. She grew up in a poor family during the Depression and wrote in her autobiography that she had few happy memories of childhood. Her older brother, Tom, who had moved to California, bought a motorcycle, and Hazel’s first ride was on the back of Tom’s bike. She was so taken by the experience that she vowed to someday buy a bike and ride to California to visit her brother.
Before Kolb could fulfill her dream, life took over. She married and had four children by the time she was 22. Kolb’s husband worked on the railroad and she ran a small store and restaurant single-handedly while raising her children. Her marriage to an oppressive husband soured and they divorced.
Eventually, Hazel met and married Jack Kolb, a local farmer. Jack acquired a Harley-Davidson in a business deal and soon the couple became avid riders. Hazel rode as passenger with her husband, but eventually she got her own bike. Some of her most cherished memories with Jack were riding passenger on long trips they made on the bike – once to the Redwoods of California and later to Alaska.
In 1972, Jack suffered a heart attack. He recovered, but less than two years later he began experiencing heart problems again. In October of 1975, he died of heart failure. The idea of the perimeter rider came as a way to give back to motorcycling and to honor Jack’s memory. In April of 1979, Hazel, then 53, headed to Maine alone on her Harley, determined to ride the entire perimeter of the United States.
Harley-Davidson stepped up to help Hazel with her ride and the company’s public relations department arranged newspaper and television interviews along the route. Harley set up a hotline for reporters to request interviews and that became part of her daily routine. The TV appearances and newspaper features garnered enough publicity that Hazel was asked to appear on national television shows such as “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and “Good Morning America.” Millions of television viewers got to hear Hazel’s story and became fans of the down-to-earth country gal riding her motorcycle around the country.
One of the highlights of her odyssey was when she crossed into California and fulfilled the promise she’d made to her brother many years earlier to ride her own motorcycle to the Golden State. By the time the ride was complete, she’d covered nearly 15,000 miles and had been interviewed more than 300 times, giving motorcycling’s image a tremendous boost in the process.
A book on the ride titled “On the Perimeter” was published in 1983.
Kolb passed away from cancer in 1990, but she left a tremendous legacy to all of motorcycling.
“To those of us who knew her, Hazel was a pioneer,” said AMA Senior Vice President Greg Harrison. “She generated an amazing amount of goodwill for motorcycling.”
Hazel’s memory was further honored when a display featuring her Harley-Davidson and her story was an integral part of the Heroes of Harley-Davidson exhibition that was displayed at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in 2003.