Why Motorcycles Have Bells: The History & The Legends

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Photo courtesy of @shes2wheeled

Several years ago I bought an old Honda CB motorcycle to restore and found a small bell hanging off the back of 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.

So why do motorcycles have bells?  Motorcycles have bells as a good luck charm or sign for gremlins and bad spirits on the road to stay away.  There is an old tradition of motorcycle riders giving a bell as a gift to a fellow rider for protection from hazards on the road.  They can only be given, not bought.

There are certain rules that go along with the bell that each motorcycle rider must understand, and if you are given one from a fellow rider take it as a sign that they truly care about you.  We’ll get into more detail below.

Names Of The Bell

These bells are known as:

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

They all refer to the same thing but are called by different names throughout the world. 

Uses For The Bell

There are many stories of lost or tormented souls who wander the highways of the world in search of some soul to harass and make miserable like themselves.  The motorcycle bell is a traditional gift from one rider to another that should be hung from the lowest point of your motorcycle, which is usually the frame or exhaust.

The idea is that when a motorcycle rider passes one of these gremlins on the road, as the gremlin tries to grab onto the motorcycles it gets caught in the bell and is trapped as long as that bell stays with that owner.

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

Just like with any legend, there are discrepancies about where the true origins came 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.  These bells were rang during services in order to frighten off evil spirits in order to protect the righteous living and the deceased.  

The Catholic church itself encouraged the use of bells as a way to protect people from evil.  In those days they were referred to as “dead bells”.  The bell itself was baptized in holy water and then it possessed the power to frighten off any evil that waited in the shadows nearby.

During funeral processions, the bell would be rung by a priest in the front of the line as a way for him to call out to all those within hearing distance to pray for the deceased that their soul would make it to heaven and be protected from the evil spirits along the way.

Bells are still used in many churches to this day, maybe not as much to ward off evil spirits, but as a way to bring music to their cities.  It is possible that this long standing religious tradition made its way into the motorcycle community.

Legend 2 – WWII Fighter Pilots

During WWII, many pilots were tasked with flying long missions and sleeping very little.  There was constant gunfire and explosions all across Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa.  Pilots were on constant call, if there was any sign of near danger they were expected to be airborne as soon as possible to help fight.

Many pilots have even recounted stories where they were afraid to go to sleep because they didn’t want to dream.  Their dreams were so gruesome that they would rather stay awake.  Those long days and nights were made possible by the military issuing drugs to the troops in order to help them stay awake and focused for longer.

On long flights, pilots would often start to see hallucinations.  Out of the corner of their eyes they would envision things like small creatures outside their planes trying to make them crash, or dark hooded figures that wanted to cause them harm.

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.  The constant jingle of the bell would help them focus.

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

When the pilots came home from the war, many of them missed feeling the rush of flying and got into motorcycle riding.  There is nothing quite like the rush of flying, but a way to help compensate for that was to drive like mad on a motorcycle on the open road.

The tradition of the gremlin bell followed them home and many of the pilots would hang their bell from the war onto their motorcycle as a way to fight off any unseen demons on the road.  To ever receive one of the bells from a pilot was seen as an honor in the motorcycle community and the tradition has continued to this day.

Legend 3 – The Road Trip From Mexico

One night there was a man on his way home from a road trip to Mexico on his motorcycle.  He was several miles North of the Mexican border and enjoying the open road all to himself.  Unbeknownst to him, there was a group of gremlins up ahead who had left some obstacles in the road to cause an accident.

Gremlins are those mischievous evil spirits that like to cause problems for people just so we will be as miserable as they are.

The rider didn’t have time to react since it was dark and the road was poorly lit.  He crashed his motorcycle and skidded to a stop near one of his saddlebags.  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.

The last thing he had left in his saddlebag was a small bell.  As he began ringing it to try to scare them off, two other nearby riders who had make camp for the night heard the bell and were curious where it was coming from.  They hiked back to the road to find this injured rider being attacked by the gremlins.

This group of bikers fought off the gremlins and nursed their fellow rider back to health.  As a token of appreciation, the injured rider gave the bell to one of the men and told him that if he ever needed help, just to ring that bell and a fellow rider would be there to help him.

So if you ever see a motorcycle with a bell hanging from it, know that that person has been given a great gift from a fellow rider, the gift that they are always looking out for you.

Legend 4 – Commemorative Bell

This legend has similar roots to that of the “dead bell” that was rung at funerals to ward off evil spirits.  But instead of trying to ward off gremlins, commemorative bells are hung from a motorcycle for those who have lost close friends or family members in a motorcycle accident.

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 do happen, and tend to be more severe than most auto accidents.

Commemorative bells can be used to honor those who have left us behind.

Legend 5 – The Hooded Figure

This legend has its origins in the early days of motorcycles.  A man was riding his motorcycle late one night down an open road.  His motorcycle began to have electrical issues and his light went dead.  The engine lost power and he slowly rolled to a stop at the side of the road.

Obviously frustrated, he climbed off the bike to look for any of the evident signs of failure like leaking fluids or loose wires.  As he was bent down looking for the problem the hair on the back of his neck stood up, like the feeling you get when you know someone is watching you.

He jumped around ready to fight and found himself face to face with a dark hooded figure.  The person put up their hand and said, “No need to be worried, I’m here to help.”  He handed the rider a small brass bell and gave the instructions to hang it from the lowest part of his motorcycle.

“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 asked the man to spread the word and disappeared into the trees.  The rider hung the bell from his motorcycle and tried to start up his motorcycle.  The engine sprang to life and he made his way home safe, never worrying about the gremlins again.

Legend 6 – Cheap Insurance

When motorcycles first became popular for the general public there were no alarm systems and no insurance companies to protect your motorcycle.  It is said that many riders would hang a bell from the bottom of their motorcycle so if someone tried to steal it during the night, the owner could hear the bell and run out to catch the thief.

The bells were used as a cheap way to prevent easy theft and saved many owners the heartache of losing their motorcycle.

How To Give And Receive The Bell

There are also discrepancies concerning how to give and receive a guardian bell.  The most common theme throughout the motorcycle community is that you may buy yourself a guardian bell, but it will not have the same effect as if a fellow rider had given it to you.

And then there are those lucky few who have actually inherited a gremlin bell from a WWII pilot.  These bells are the ones endowed with the greatest strength against gremlins, because it has fought off the strongest gremlins there were.

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 make a great gift for any motorcycle rider in your family.

When you sell a motorcycle, you should keep your bell, do not transfer it with the motorcycle.  If you wish to give it to the new rider, you must remove the bell and hand it to them face to face, that is the sign of friendship that gives the bell its power.

If someone steals a motorcycle that has a bell on it, all those gremlins that were trapped in the bell now have the ability to torment that thief. 

Wrapping It Up

The reality is, the tradition probably came from somewhere in the middle of all of these stories and has morphed into what we know today as the modern guardian bell.

Kyle Cannon

Kyle currently works as a mechanical engineer and graduated with a minor in automotive engineering. He loves restoring motorcycles, has a vast knowledge of how they work, and has sold his restoration projects to customers from all over the United States.

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