Is Johnny Davis Based on a Real Biker? Who Killed Him?

Jeff Nichols’ crime drama film ‘The Bikeriders’ revolves around the exploits of the Vandals in Chicago with a focus on one of its members, Benny Cross, as he finds himself at a crossroads between his loyalty toward the club and his love for his wife, Kathy. The club’s leader, Johnny Davis, continues to expand its operations by approving new chapters across the country while also managing the “unwanted elements” who creep into the ranks. As the organization’s founder, he is the figurehead of a place where men who love to ride motorcycles can gather and share their passion. Like the engrossing narrative, Johnny’s roots can be traced back to reality as well!

Johnny Davis’ Origins

Although Jeff Nichols considers ‘The Bikeriders’ to be a fictional film, Johnny Davis is based on the real founder of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in Chicago, Illinois. Based on Danny Lyon’s photo book of the same name, the filmmaker created Johnny’s Vandals based on the day-to-day happenings of the real gang with whom Lyon stayed for a period of time. According to the source material, Johnny was a married man who had a job as a transit truck driver, which aligns with the film’s take. He was aware of his responsibilities as the leader of the clan, and his job as a mediator was essential in feuds that would break out within the group, albeit he was less prone to violence than depicted in the film.

In a press statement, director Jeff Nichols said, “When you look at Johnny, you see a man who gets outpaced by the times. He has the classic greased-back biker hair, but the younger members no longer look like that.” Johnny creates the Vandals after he gets inspired by the movie ‘The Wild Ones.’ He aspires to have a clubhouse where people who are committed to the outlaw lifestyle and bike riding can enjoy their discussions with one another. The real Johnny was also a fan of the film. However, the Outlaws MC was founded way back in 1935 in McCook, Illinois, before World War II, with the truck driver serving as the head. The club was then disbanded due to the war as most men enlisted in the army, following which it was re-established again.

The real-life Johnny was compassionate to all the members of the club. Due to the lack of safety standards followed by the bikers, including wearing helmets, there were several accidents that led to the death of club members. He would arrange for flowers to be sent to their funerals as well as show up personally to honor the fallen men. “The idea is I want the flowers sent. So, the guys chipped in for a big floral piece. I guess about four feet in diameter, a great huge floral piece like we buy for all the club members that do get killed or die, even if they’re not in the club, if they were in good standing when they quit. The club did the same thing for him like we did for Ted or Hap’s wife. And neither one of these were in the club any longer, see, but we still bought the floral pieces for ’em,” he told Lyon.

Things took a turn in the 1970s when the club’s original foundations were twisted into something much more sinister. This became an issue for Johnny, who was adamant about adhering to the primary goal of allowing the club to be a safe haven for men who wished to indulge in their biking passion. When Jeff Nichols read the 2003 edition of Lyon’s eponymous photo book, he got the inspiration for the story from a line within the preface. “There is just one line about the leader of the club, this guy named Johnny, who had been challenged for leadership,” he told TIME. “Many people say that incident was the end of the golden age of motorcycles. Just that sentence started giving me the shape of the film and the narrative,” he added.

The Growing Violence Within the Club Led to Johnny’s Downfall

As the years passed, the Outlaws Motorcycle Club moved forward from Johnny Davis’ principles and became a birthing ground for aggressive individuals who rose to prominent ranks in the 1970s. Due to an influx of ex-veterans from the Vietnam War who were disillusioned with the government, violence swelled within the group. Many became interested in turning the club into a serious criminal outfit. This led to tensions within the leadership, which is portrayed in the film as well. Reportedly, Johnny became a victim of this struggle, as his persistence led to him being thrown out of the club and killed.

In ‘The Bikeriders,’ Johnny is killed by an unnamed kid who joins the Milwaukee chapter of the Vandals and incites a rebellion from inside. This isn’t far-fetched from the truth, as internal politics and shifting balances of power resulted in his murder and the club’s new direction in a sketchy and sinister path. After his removal, the club allegedly got involved in drug trades as well as putting out cold-blooded hits on people. Feuds even began with other rival groups like the Hells Angels. Despite Johnny’s foundational goals, as seen in the film, the Outlaws became a full-fledged criminal organization.

The killer of Johnny remains unidentified. For his acclaimed book ‘Biker Gangs and Organized Crime,’ Thomas Barker relied on Lyon regarding the murder of the Outlaws’ founder, but all the latter could reveal was that the murderer was a “pot smoker.” “Lyon reports that in the early 1970s, the Outlaws split between the beer drinkers and the pot smokers and the founder of the Outlaws, John Davis, was killed by a ‘pot smoker’ in a fight for club leadership,” reads Barker’s book.

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