The History of Gary Littlejohn Bicycles
BMX Icons: Gary Littlejohn
I did this interview back in the early 2000's when I owned VintageBMX.com
Gary Littlejohn was a pioneer in the early days of BMX. Inventor of the monoshock BMX frame, the first BMX specific rigid frame, the Sidehack, the Girder fork, and early versions of mountain bikes. Everything that was built by Littlejohn bikes was for the most part an innovation for BMX. Littlejohn frames are some of the most sought after frames by Old School BMX collectors today! His bikes were a major influence to many of the early frame builders.
Gary had one of the first racing teams on the early BMX scene with guys like Bill Wouda, an early member of PRO, Bill McIntyre, Jimmy Kitchen, Dwight Lowell, and in later years Eric Shimp, Scott Barrette, and gOrk. Gary helped out a lot of riders with product support. He was inducted into the 1992 Stuntman Hall of Fame and in 1998 was inducted into the American Bicycle Association's BMX Hall of Fame for his contribution to the sport of BMX. Gary strongly believed in American made products and his bicycles were proudly made in the USA.
Gary built motorcycles and bicycles that had been seen in feature films and on television. His credentials include: Bat 21; stunt coordinator and a stand in for Gene Hackman, Heat; with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, Stunt coordinator and actor in Bird of Prey with Richard Chamberlain and Jennifer Tilly which he was very proud of being involved in, and over 150 other features. He built all the bicycles seen in Pee Wee's Big Adventure and some of the bicycles in Karate Kid. today, Gary has retired and lives in Vermont.
BMX Products: Where was your shop located when you started?
GL: It was in North Hollywood, I changed buildings a couple of times but basically in North Hollywood. I was manufacturing motorcycle accessories, gas tanks and oil tanks.
BMX Products: Was that your profession at the time?
GL: Actually, I was working in the picture business, doing stunt work and I just started doing odds and ends of things to fill in downtime and it turned into manufacturing things. The motorcycle thing got me in the picture business because I was on the covers and making all kinds of custom motorcycles and stuff and I was on the cover of "Motorcycles" all the time. The motion picture studios called me up to help them do a motorcycle movie with Peter Fonda and the next one with John Cassavetes. And then from there it went into the bicycles, which is the most fun.
BMX Products: How many people did you have working for you then?
GL: In the beginning about 10 people worked for me. We went to two shifts and went to 25 people towards the mid 1970's.
BMX Products: When and how did you get into the bicycle business?
GL: It was kind of by accident. Kids were bringing in broken bicycles, old Schwinns and stuff like that for me to repair. I figured I could make a better one than that, so I made one up and then it just went from there.
BMX Products: What year did you make your first frame?
GL: Oh, gosh that had to be, 1969 or 1970.
BMX Products: Was that a 20 inch?
GL: Yes, a 20 inch.
BMX Products: Was that was the monoshock?
GL: Yes. They started downhill racing so I developed the monoshock, and the monoshock was my big seller from the first.
BMX Products: When did you stop making the monoshock frames?
GL: I never really did. Its just the market never was real heavy after a while. They stopped using the downhill and started using just the flat tracks, so there wasn't really a big market for them. But I never really did stop making them. The sales weren't that good on them. I got into the big time on just the regular BMX frames.
BMX Products: Building the rigid frames?
BMX Products: How did the frame design originate? Did it just sort of evolve as you went along or did you pick something to model it from?
GL: No, actually I just put one together and tried to make it where I felt it was going to be strong and tried to engineer it so it wouldn't break, and make a frame that would stand up. I tried to eliminate all the bad spots on the other frames that I'd been welding up.
BMX Products: So basically you improved upon a design that you saw break.
GL: Yeah, what can you do that that design? Not really much, just try to take and make it better.
BMX Products: Do you know how many frames you built?
GL: Gosh, we were making 1,500 to 2,500 a week, so its in the thousands.
BMX Products: What were the different models that you made from the beginning? You started with the monoshock.
GL: I started with the monoshock, then went with the 20,then the 16, and then I went to the 24 inch racing frame, the cruiser, and then I went to the tandems, sidehacks, you know, forks, I had two different style forks, I had the girder forks and I had the regular style tubular forks.
BMX Products: When did you start making the Girder fork?
GL: I started making that right from the beginning.
BMX Products: Now you offered that in a 20- and a 26 inch?
BMX Products: When did you start making the sidehacks?
GL: Probably, oh a couple of years later, 1972, 1973,somewhere around there.
BMX Products: How many sidehacks did you build?
GL: Sidehacks, probably we did about 25 to 50 a week, I was making right-hands and left-hands, you know. So when I first started making them, I was making them in different colors. Then I got to the point where I just started making them in black only.
BMX Products: How long did you make the sidehacks?
GL: I made them right up until the end.
BMX Products: How did you start making cruiser frames?
GL: Same thing happened there. They were bringing in frames that were broken and I just said, you know, I can make a better mousetrap than that, so I just started making those, and they turned out really good. They were strong. So they started using those for downhill races, and at the time they were calling them Bonzai runs. And the guys from Colorado started buying a bunch from me and they started putting gears on them and using them for mountain bikes.
(Editors note: The August 1977 BMXA has an ad for the Littlejohn 26" Fire Road BMX bike, a 26" cruiser with Girder forks.)
BMX Products: How did the serial numbers run on the bikes?
GL: They were numerical, they started at one.
BMX Products: So if I have a 26 inch cruiser frame with a 4700 serial number, that would have been the 4700th frame built?
BMX Products: When did you start making your 16 inch pit bikes.
GL: I started making those, gosh, I don't remember the year, but I had a bunch of little kids who couldn't fit the 20 inch, so I started making them for that, and the big kids started buying them for pit bikes, so that's how that came about.
GL: That was probably 3 or 4 years after I'd been in it.
BMX Products: So probably the early 1970s.
GL: Yes, somewhere around there.
BMX Products: Did you made the pit bikes right up until the end?
GL: Yes. That was a big seller. I made the pit bikes in tandem too.
BMX Products: I remember the tandem 20 inch.
GL: Yes. I made a tandem 16, a tandem 20 and a tandem26.
BMX Products: Did you make many of them?
GL: Not a lot. They were basically special order.
GL: All my frames are powder painted. The stickers and stuff like that I designed myself.
BMX Products: Did you make anything else other than the frame &forks? Did you make handlebars?
GL: No. I didn't get into handlebars because there was too many people into that.
BMX Products: What did you use for tubing on the frames?
GL: The racing frames were made out of 4130 chromoly, and the other ones were just 1010 mild steel.
BMX Products: Were the beach cruisers made from mild steel?
GL: Yes. I made some of the beach cruisers out of chromoly also. I also made a Ladies frame in the beach cruiser style.
BMX Products: Were there many that were made in chromoly.
GL: Yes, there was, actually I sold quite a few because they were racing them.
BMX Products: Did you save any of the bikes that you built?
GL: I have a monoshock, I have a 20 inch racing frame, and then I have a 16 inch pit bike. I have 2 cruisers and I have 2 mountain bikes.
BMX Products: How did you get involved in the BMX racing, was that just sort of an offshoot of building the frames?
GL: Well, Ernie Alexander had a thing going on the downhill tracks so I got together with him and he kind of organized the BMX stuff and I just built the frames for it.
BMX Products: Did Ernie Alexander contact you about sponsorship?
GL: No, I just got together with him and helped him out. I gave frames away to inspire people to come and stuff like that, so he'd have prizes to give away and stuff, so I did that. The first bicycle show I ever went to, I was the only BMX there, and they almost shunned me out of the thing because it was just 10-speed bikes and stuff, so they weren't really happy with what I was trying to do. So it was kind of funny because when I went down there, here I am by myself and the Japanese come over and saw what I was doing and started taking pictures. And I brought a prototype that I just threw together just to take to the show to show that we had something coming up and they copied it exactly and it was really junk it wasn't tested or anything and they made thousands of them. They brought them over here and they all busted. That's what they get for copying. So as soon as I got back to the shop I perfected it and got it going and then I had my riders ride it for a while and test it. I never put anything on the track that wasn't tested. Tested hard.
BMX Products: What year was the trade show?
GL: Gosh, that would have been in 1969.
BMX Products: That was the beginning.
BMX Products: Was that one of the mono shocks?
GL: No, actually it was a rigid frame that I took down there. I didn't bring the monoshock down there because I hadn't had it perfected yet. That's how new it was.
BMX Products: How did you come up with the idea for the monoshock frame.
GL: I thought I invented it, but I didn't. They came in and they said they were going down hill and getting thrown all over the place and I thought, I ride motorcycles, so let me see if I can put shocks and two shocks on the back would have been too heavy so I took and got it in there and I finally got the geometry right so it would work and got it working good and I thought, you know, here I am the inventor of it. Then somebody brought me in a book on antique motorcycles. They wanted me to take and build a front set of forks for them, and I think it was Vincent had a monoshock in the early 1920's.
BMX Products: Nobody else at the time was doing a monoshock bicycle?
BMX Products: So you built the first. Was the rigid frame the first one out there?
GL: Oh, absolutely. There's no doubt about it.
BMX Products: Were there any companies that were influenced by Litttlejohn Bicycles?
GL: Webco used to buy from me and were going on hard times with their motorcycle stuff and they weren't doing well. They were buying frames from Littlejohn for a couple of years They hired a guy to design a frame who came over to me and talked to me and they screwed the poor guy after he designed the frame.
BMX Products: Webco was buying Littlejohn frames from you to resell?
GL: Absolutely. They weren't even into bicycles. They were into motorcycles. They were a motorcycle company.
BMX Products: What was Littlejohn Murphy Inc.?
GL: Shortly after I started building the BMX frames I went into a partnership with Bill Murphy. He owned a shop that manufactured motorcycle handlebars. He owned a computerized tubing bender which would help in building the BMX frames. He did not have much interest in the BMX business and the partnership was ended after a short time.
BMX Products: What was the story about Mongoose?
GL: I started sending my frame and fork sets along with Skip Hess who was sending his Motomags to a company up in San Francisco to be built into complete bikes. The venture ended up not working out and after that Skip went and took one of my frames to a fabrication shop and had my design copied. And you look at the first Mongoose frames; you'll see a copy of a Littlejohn. Skips a nice guy. He had a good head on his shoulders for motoring, and he knew how to promote stuff and put stuff together. He did a good job.
BMX Products: Were there any other companies that you can think of that borrowed a lot from your original design?
GL: Well, basically, when you've got the only game in town and somebody else is copying you, where are they going to get it?
GL: Yeah. I had a nice compliment paid to me at a show one time. They were down there and they were asking some other distributor, "What's new?" and he said, "Go over to Littlejohn. He's always a couple of years ahead of everybody else." So I thought that was kind of a nice compliment.
BMX Products: When did you start your team?
GL: Oh, gosh, we had a uniformed team probably the second year. I was one of the first companies to have a uniformed team.
BMX Products: Did you have any riders that you can think of from back in the day that stand out?
GL: Gosh, I had a guy named Bill Wouda, one of my first good guys. I can't remember the other guys names. I've got magazines. They were on the covers of magazines and stuff, with my bikes and stuff where they were doing tests with them.
BMX Products: Bill Wouda is a name that comes to mind. I've heard that name mentioned. So he was one of the standouts that you had.
BMX Products: What do you remember of the Barrette brothers?
GL: They were pretty good guys. All the kids were, really. A nice bunch of guys.
GL: They (Scott & gOrk Barrette) keep in touch with me all the time. I sold them the jigs for the side hacks. They're really nice guys.
GL: Scott (Barrette) probably knows more about me than I do.
BMX Products: So the racing took off at that point. Did you make custom bikes for any of the team members or were they riding stock bikes?
GL: No, they rode the stock bikes. I didn't make anything special for them. I did make a lot of different variations of bikes. I prototyped several bikes for different companies.
BMX Products: Do you remember some of the companies that you did work for?
GL: No, not really, but I developed that lay-down bike where you kind of sit back on it and you've got handlebars between your legs and you pedal way out.
BMX Products: The recumbent?
GL: Yes. I got that started. And I made a lot of adapters where they pedaled for wheelchair people so they could develop their upper body. So I had the pedals up there with a wheel on it and stuff so they could steer and pedal at the same time. Chain driven.
BMX Products: What was your reason for winding the company down in the mid-1980's?
GL: Everybody wanted to go to Taiwan and have them made over there and I didn't want to. I wanted an American made product by Americans. So, I held off and the Japanese put me out of business.
BMX Products: That seemed to happen to a lot of companies.
GL: Yeah. 1986 or something like that was when I stopped making them. Somewhere around there.
BMX Products: What are you doing with your life now?
GL: Still doing stunt work.
BMX Products: Working in motion pictures and television?
BMX Products: Any projects that you're currently involved with?
GL: Nothing right now. As soon as the weather breaks, I'm sure there's going to be some stuff coming up. The picture business is going to start back up in a couple of weeks. Pretty bad weather out here so things kind of shut down right now.
BMX Products: I want to thank you very much. I really appreciate your giving us your time and your stories.
GL: Well, you're quite welcome.