Orie Steele was the leading AMA Hillclimb Champion of the 1920s and early ‘30s, at a time when the sport was at its zenith of popularity. Steele rode as a factory Indian rider for much of his career and was one of the best known riders of his era. Such was Steele’s popularity that Indian produced an “Orie Steele Special” hillclimb machine in the late 1920s, which it allowed factory riders to race in special hillclimb events.
Orie Steele was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey, on March 20, 1887. His father, John Steele, was a motorcycle dealer in Paterson, New Jersey. The first records of Orie participating in sanctioned competition came in 1913 where he won the prestigious endurance race held annually by the Crotona (N.Y.) Motorcycle Club. He came back and won the event again in 1918. Steele earned victories in several major endurance runs in and around New York and New Jersey in the 1910s and early 1920s, including a 500-mile endurance run out of Yonkers, New York.
Steele, who lived in Paterson, began contesting hillclimb events in the mid-1910s, and by the early 1920s he became a hillclimb specialist and rapidly became one of the burgeoning sport’s first national stars.
In 1922, Steele won his first M&ATA (the predecessor to the AMA) National Hillclimb Championships at the national meet in a burg on the outskirts of Rochester called Egypt, New York. The hillclimb was the biggest of its day and featured racers from across the country, including well known stars such as Denver, Colorado’s Floyd Clymer, Harley-Davidson’s Oscar Lenz from Michigan, Reggie Pink on a Reading-Standard and Excelsior’s ace, Paul Anderson, from Chicago. That victory thrust Steele into the national limelight. Indian heavily advertised Steele’s accomplishments and he became a factory rider for the Springfield, Massachusetts manufacturer.
A newspaper account of the 1922 meet said that Indian enthusiasts surrounded their hero, Steele, and carried him to the pits where partisans and fellow competitors alike offered him hearty congratulations.
While other forms of motorcycle competition declined generally, due to the lack of factory support, hillclimb events became more popular during the 1920s. As the sport grew and the hillclimbing bikes became more powerful, the hills the competitors tackled became larger and steeper. Slopes of 45 degrees or more were often selected, sometimes being unclimbable even with specialized machines powered by racing engines and fueled with blended mixtures.
Steele’s aggressive style required a great deal of courage. He would rev his motor at full throttle and drop the clutch, at the same time throwing himself well forward over the handlebars. Hillclimb machines carried kill buttons on the throttle grip, being held open by a small peg jammed into place against a small spring. The peg was tied to the rider's wrist with a piece of cord. If the rider had to come off his machine, or bail out for a backwards somersault, the peg would come free and stop the engine. This not only made matters safer for the rider, but also prevented the riderless machine from charging into the spectators.
During the mid-1920s and early 1930s, hillclimbing’s popularity reached a peak when many of the movie house newsreels of the day featured a film of motorcycle hillclimbs, often showing the spectacular flip crashes that occurred. Steele, being the top climber of the time, benefited greatly from these movie newsreels, and became one of the most popular motorcycle racers in the country.
Indian made an engine especially designed for Steele and his famous hillclimb V-Twin machine was said to have developed over 70 horsepower at 9,000 rpm, burning blended fuels – a remarkable power rating for the 1920s.
Steele’s riding style developed over the years and was later copied by many other riders of the era. He said it was in 1919 at a climb in Port Jervis, New York, that he learned to ride the hill with the front wheel in the air much of the way. He would lean his body as far forward as possible, holding onto the bike tightly with clenched knees around the gas tank to help keep control of the bike on the steep grades. It was not uncommon for Steele to negotiate nearly the entire hill with the front wheel not touching the ground.
Steele was also an expert at setting up his hillclimber for varying conditions of a hill. Gearing, rear tire choice, engine tuning and wheelbase length were all part of the formula Steele took into consideration when readying his machine for a climb.
While Steele did most of his racing in the East, he did venture to the classic San Juan Capistrano Hillclimb in Southern California in 1923, where his talent for bike setup paid off. In his debut at the famous hill (where no practice runs were allowed), Steele beat all the best West Coast climbers in the 61-inch (1,000cc) Expert class by using a skid chain on a normal rear tire versus the tractor-type tire the other competitors used that day.
Steele followed up his 1922 national championship success with a national title in 1923 in the 37-inch class. In 1926, he swept all three national championship classes. He also won the Eastern National Hillclimb Championship in 1927.
In the 1930s, Excelsior made a big push into hillclimb competition with it star Joe Petrali. Petrali was coming into hillclimb while Steele was at the tail end of his career, but Steele did beat Petrali, considered one of the best all around motorcycle racers of all time, on several occasions in the late 1920s in classic matchups.
Steele earned the admiration of his fellow riders. The famous Class A racer Jim Davis called Steele one of the best hillclimbers ever. Notable was the fact that Steele won all his national titles while he was in his 30s and 40s.
Steele retired from competition in the mid-1930s. He was nearly 50 years old at the time. He later supported the war effort in World War II by building planes in Pennsylvania.
Steele died in 1960.
Orie Steele’s name will always be synonymous with 1920s hillclimbing and Indian motorcycle competition. His championship-winning feats on hills across America made him a true pioneer in that sport.