A.F. Van Order was an early motorcycle racing historian and photographer. His classic body of racing photographs, spanning the 1910s to the 1930s, are some of the few that survived from that era. His photography was used to illustrate several of the seminal books on American motorcycle racing during the first half of the 20th century. Van Order was also a columnist for Motorcyclist magazine from the 1930s to the 1950s. His column, "30 Years Ago with Van," kept an excellent record of motorcycling racing at a time when the history of the sport was not considered by many in the industry to be very important.
Ashley Franklin Van Order was born in 1886 in Sandwich, Illinois. He grew up on a farm and his family was also involved in the livery service. That’s how Van Order first became interested in early motorized vehicles, including motorcycles. Van Order married in 1906 and shortly afterwards he purchased his first motorcycle, a 1907 Wagner. The motorcycle bug bit Van Order hard, so much so that he moved his family from Illinois to Southern California in 1911 so that he could ride year round.
Once in California, Van Order dove headlong into the sport. He got a job as a salesman at a Los Angeles Harley-Davidson dealership and raced for a time as an amateur, but after suffering an injury he decided it was better to report on the sport than be a participant. Van order proved to be a very successful salesman with Harley-Davidson and won many awards, including a motorcycle and sidecar.
During the early 1910s, Van Order got involved in helping officiate and promote Southern California motorcycle races and cross-country events. As the sport continued in its second decade, Van Order saw a need to document racing. He bought an old large-format camera that recorded images on glass plates and started photographing races. Legend has it that his early results were somewhat lacking, but Van Order persisted and eventually became an excellent racing photographer.
In the early 1920s, Van Order briefly owned an Indian dealership. Meanwhile, he continued to travel the country, photographing and reporting on the big national events of the day. He covered the rise and fall of the infamous board tracks and wrote stories about the brave riders who raced, and too often lost their lives, on incredibly dangerous circuits of the day. He covered the great on-track battles between the big three American makers, Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior.
In the 1930s, Van Order began to write his regular monthly column for Motorcyclist magazine. His vivid accounts of racing’s early years kept the history of the sport alive for a new generation of readers. In the late 1930s, Van Order helped organize the annual Trailblazers banquets, which honored racers from the past. The tradition of the banquet continues today.
Van Order continued to attend races and write his column through the early 1950s, when his health began to deteriorate. He died in 1954.
Many of Van Order’s original film images, converted from glass plates, sat in a shoebox for more than 40 years, passed down to his daughter. The box of film was eventually passed down to Van Order’s great-grandson, Jim Bolingmo, and under his care the precious images are being restored and preserved. Several of Van Order’s images were displayed as part of the Guggenheim Museum’s "The Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit. It’s safe to say that if it were not for A.F. Van Order, much of the rich history of the early days of motorcycle racing in America would be lost to time.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.