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AMCA Pioneer - Lee Cowie, Member #22

Greg Harrison | Published on 4/1/2013

The Man who Literally Wrote a Whole New Chapter in AMCA History

   On page 96 of each issue of The Antique Motorcycle, you’ll find a list of the AMCA’s 57 Chapters that now stretch across the country and to Canada and Europe.

   What you won’t find, though, is the name of the AMCA member most responsible for the creation of those Chapters—Lee Cowie.

   Back in 1969, Lee, then in his 20s, was running a motorcycle shop in St. Louis that sold brands like AJS, Bultaco, Norton, Cotton, Francis-Barnett and Ducati. And that brought him into contact with other antique-motorcycle enthusiasts in the St. Louis area. 

   Lee was an AMCA member, but at the time, the AMCA’s activities were heavily focused on the East. The Club had six annual meets, and the furthest west was located in Cleveland. 

   The AMCA Board had talked about dividing the country into regions to promote activity in other areas. Lee Cowie had a different idea, though. Instead of carving out regions on a map, he suggested that the Club allow local groups to form that would be affiliates of the AMCA in their own area. 

   “I just thought we should start at the bottom and build up,” he says now, more than 40 years later. “We had a group of us who liked old motorbikes and we were just looking for an excuse to ride together.”

Cowie’s idea didn’t emerge fully formed. In fact, President Art Sigal’s column in the Fall 1969 issue of the AMCA magazine notes: “We are delighted to inform you that a new region is being set up in St. Louis, under the leadership of member Lee Cowie, and their first meet will be held this fall. Those of you who live in the area, please get behind Lee, bring your machine, ask Lee what you can do to help, tell your friends and have fun.”

   By the beginning of 1970, Cowie’s creation was officially known as the St. Louis Chapter, and the group had held its first event, a 30-mile rally for antique bikes won by Bill Heggarty. 

Cowie admits that he got the idea for a chapter organization from other groups, both here and abroad. 

   “A lot of us belonged to the AACA (Antique Automobile Club of America) and the VMCCA (Veteran Motor Car Club of America),” he says. “I was also a member of the British club (the Vintage Motor Cycle Club), and in fact, that’s how I became a member of the AMCA. 

Cowie admits that he got the idea for a chapter organization from other groups, both here and abroad. 

   “I would see stories about AMCA events in Motorcyclist magazine occasionally, so I wrote to the editor, Bill Bagnall, and asked him how to get in touch with them. He said he wasn’t sure, that the stories just appeared from time to time. It was somebody in Britain who finally told me how to contact the Club.” 

Father of Chapters: Lee Cowie’s motorcycle shop
in St. Louis served as the springboard to the international
network of Chapters the AMCA has today.

Photo by Dan Bockmier

   It’s no surprise that the AMCA was hard to find back then, since the Club had only about 500 members. But Cowie’s idea of local Chapters helped fuel the Club’s growth. 

   By late 1970, Cowie had been appointed as the AMCA’s first “Secretary of Regions,” a post that would eventually become Director of Chapters, responsible for the development and growth of the AMCA Chapter program.

   “They decided I had the formula,” Cowie says, “so I got the job to organize other Chapters.”

For 1971, Cowie was able to announce the formation of a new group in Eastern Pennsylvania, the Perkiomen Chapter. This new Chapter grew out of a group of members, including Doug Strange, Bill Algeo and Doc and Bill Patt, who traveled together to AMCA meets. Doc Patt’s property near Boyertown, Pennsylvania, had served as the setting for yearly AMCA meets, and in ’71, it became the first event of the new Perkiomen Chapter.

   The next spring, the President’s column in the AMCA magazine was able to note, “We begin 1972 with renewed interest through our increased membership and through the new chapters springing up all over the country.”

   Art Sigal stepped down as president in 1973, and in his farewell column, he pointed to growth in a number of areas during his 11 years leading the AMCA.

   “From one national club,” he wrote, “ we now have one national plus five very active chapters (St. Louis, Perkiomen, Yankee, Florida and Chief Blackhawk) and more on the boards for inclusion in the coming year.”

   The era of AMCA Chapters had truly arrived. 

Meanwhile, Ben Chesney, who would go on to become an AMCA Honorary Member, became the president of the St. Louis Chapter, and the group’s annual rally grew into a whole calendar of events, including the Gateway National Meet. 

   By 1974, the St. Louis Gateway Chapter, as it came to be known, was given the honor of running the first National Road Run in AMCA history.

   Cowie served as the Club’s Director of Chapters through 1977, when his growing business, which had transitioned from a motorcycle shop to a national book publishing and magazine-distribution company, demanded more of his attention.

   But to this day, AMCA members from the Yankee Chapter in New England to the Los Angeles Chapter in Southern California, and everywhere in between, can thank Lee Cowie for the local organizations that help keep them involved in antique bikes. 

   For his part, though, Cowie, who’s now retired and living in rural Jonesburg, Missouri, says that he’s the one who’s thankful.

   “I owe the AMCA a debt of gratitude for giving me a place to have fun with old bikes,” he says.

“Motorcycle shops back then weren’t like shops today,”
Cowie says of the store he ran four decades ago. “Basically,
I’d sell my bike and then a friend’s bike. If I ever had 20 bikes
at a time, I wouldn’t have had room in the store.”

Photo by Dan Bockmier

P.O. Box 663, HUNTSVILLE, AL 35804