Why Motorcycles have Bells: The History and the Legends

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A few years back, I purchased an old Honda CB motorcycle to repair and discovered a small bell attached to the exhaust.  I thought it was strange but it didn’t cross my mind again until recently when I heard about the legend of the guardian bell.

Why do motorcycles have bells, you ask? Bells on motorcycles are used as luck charms or signs to warn of bad spirits and gremlins.  A tradition has developed in which motorcycle riders give a bell to their fellow riders as a gift. This is to protect them from road hazards.  They cannot be bought or given.

Every motorcycle rider should know what the bell means.  We’ll get into more detail below.

Names of the Bell

These bells are called:

  • Guardian Bells
  • Gremlin Bells
  • Spirit Bells
  • Luck Bells
  • Road Bells
  • Ride Bells
  • Jingle Bells (just kidding)
  • Motorcycle bells

They all refer the same thing, but are called differently in different parts of the world.

Uses for the Bell

Many tales are about lost and tormented souls that wander the streets in search of a friend to harass or make miserable.  The motorcycle bell, a traditional gift given by one rider to the other, should be hung at the lowest point of the motorcycle. This is usually the exhaust or frame.

The idea is that, when a motorcycle rider passes one these gremlins on a road, the gremlin grabs onto the motorcycles and tries to grab them. However, the bell traps the gremlin inside the bell. It will stay with the owner as long as it is there.

Many riders also use them just as decoration or throwback to the 1940’s and 50’s when this tradition first started.

Where The Legends Originated – Actual Stories

As with all legends, there are many discrepancies as to where the true origins come from.  I’ll list the most common stories and let you choose for yourself which one sounds like the true origin.

Legend 1 – Religious Origins

There is history to support that bells were used in church services and funerals as early as the 1100’s in Europe.  This was done to scare away evil spirits and protect the living and the dead.

Bells were advocated by the Catholic church as a means to protect people against evil.  They were known as “The Bells of Protection” back then. “dead bells”.  The bell was baptized in holy waters and was then empowered to frighten away evil spirits lurking nearby.

Funeral procesions used to have a bell rung by a priest at the front to remind everyone to pray for the dead. He would do this to protect them from the evil spirits and make sure they made it to heaven.

Bells are still being used in many churches today, perhaps not so much to ward away evil spirits but to bring music into their towns.  This could be a long-standing tradition in religion that made its way to the motorcycle community.

Legend 2 – WWII Fighter Pilots

Many WWII pilots were required to fly long flights and sleep very little.  In Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa, there was constant gunfire, explosions, and a lot of it.  Pilots were always on alert, and if there were any signs of danger they were expected be in the air as soon as possible to fight.

Many pilots have even recounted stories where they were afraid to go to sleep because they didn’t want to dream.  They preferred to stay awake because their nightmares were so horrendous.  The military issued drugs to troops to aid them in staying awake and focused longer.

Pilots often experience hallucinations during long flights.  Pilots would often see visions of small creatures or dark hooded beings outside their planes, trying to cause them to crash.

Many pilots chose not to take the drugs because they didn’t like the way it made them feel, so some began hanging small bells somewhere in the cockpit in order to keep them awake and sharp.  They would focus on the constant jingle from the bell.

These bells would help metaphorically keep the “gremlins” the pilot safe.

Many pilots returned from war feeling the thrill of flying, and they started riding motorcycles.  The thrill of flying is unbeatable, but there was a way to get around it by riding a motorcycle openly.

Many pilots carried the tradition of the gremlin-bell bell home with them. They would attach their bell from war to their motorcycles as a way of fighting off any unseeable demons.  It was an honor to be able to receive one of these bells from a pilot. This tradition continues to this day.

Legend 3 – The Road Trip From Mexico

A man was riding his motorcycle home from Mexico, and he saw him one night.  He was a few miles north of the Mexican border. He was enjoying the open roads all to himself.  He didn’t know that there were a few gremlins ahead, who had placed some obstacles on the road in order to cause an accident.

Gremlins, mischievous evil spirits, like to cause trouble for people in order that we can feel as miserable.

The rider didn’t have time to react since it was dark and the road was poorly lit.  He crashed his motorcycle and skidded until he came to a halt next to one of his seatbags.  Beat and battered, the rider couldn’t get up, and as the gremlins drew closer to him he began to throw things at them from his saddlebag.

He had only one thing left in his saddlebag: a small bell.  To scare them off, he started ringing the bell. Two nearby riders had already set up camp and heard the bell.  They hiked back along the road to see the injured rider being attacked again by the gremlins.

The bikers helped their fellow rider to recover from the attacks of the gremlins.  As a token, the injured rider gave one of the men the bell. He also told the other rider that if he ever had a need, he would ring the bell, and another rider would help.

A bell hangs from the side of a motorcycle. This is an excellent gift from fellow riders, and it means that they are always looking after you.

Legend 4 – Commemorative Bell

This legend shares similar roots as the legend of the “dead bell” This was used to repel evil spirits at funerals.  For those who have lost family members or close friends in an accident on a motorcycle, memorial bells are hung from the motorcycle to commemorate their loss.

All of us who have been riding for any length of time have lost a friend to an accident, and if you haven’t then consider yourself lucky.  Motorcycle accidents are more common than auto accidents.

You can honor those who have gone before you with commemorative bells

Legend 5 – The Hooded Figure

This legend is rooted in the early days motorcycles.  A man was riding his motorcycle down an open highway late at night.  His motorcycle started to experience electrical problems and his light stopped working.  The engine started to lose power, and he rolled slowly to a halt at the side.

He became frustrated and got up from his bike to check for any signs of failure such as leakage fluids or loose wires.  He bent down to look for the problem, and the hair on his neck rose up. It was like feeling that someone is watching over you.

He ran around ready for battle and met a dark, hooded figure.  The other person raised their hand and said: “No need to be worried, I’m here to help.” He gave the instructions for the rider to hang the bell from the lowest point of his motorcycle and handed him a small brass bell.

“As you ride along, the gremlins along the road will find themselves caught in the bell and as the bell rings the gremlin will fall out of the bell onto the road.  You’ll leave them safe behind.”

The figure demanded that the man spread the word and then disappeared into the woods.  The rider attached the bell to his motorcycle and started his bike.  He got home safely and the engine started.

Legend 6 – Cheap Insurance

There were no insurance companies or alarm systems when motorcycles became more popular.  A bell was hung from the bottom of motorcycles by many riders so that thieves could not hear it.

These bells were inexpensive and prevented theft. Many owners saved themselves the heartache of losing their bikes.

How to give and receive the bell

There are also differences in how guardians bells should be given and received.  A common theme in the motorcycle community is that while you can buy a guardian bell for yourself, it won’t have the same effect if you give it to a fellow rider.

There are also those who were able to inherit a gremlin-bell from a WWII pilot.  These bells are those with the greatest resistance to gremlins. They have been able to defeat the strongest of them all.

Whatever legend you believe in, these small bells have a deep significance:  To show someone how much you care about their safety.  A guardian Bell would be a great gift to any motorcycle rider in the family.

Your bell should be kept when you sell your motorcycle.  The bell must be removed from the motorcycle to be given to the new rider. It is the sign that friendship gives the bell its power.

If someone steals an unlocked motorcycle, all the gremlins trapped inside the bell can now torment the thief.

Wrap it up

It is likely that the tradition originated somewhere in the middle all these stories, and evolved into the modern guardian bell.

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