Armando’s last ride
The long life and fast times of Sacramento’s iron man of motorcycles.
On a clear, crisp Friday afternoon last December, Ernie and Armando Magri, Shorty Tompkins and Jack Gormely sat at their customary table in Classic Burgers on Fulton Avenue, talking about motorcycles and the good old days, talking about how nothing could stop Armando Magri.
“Sacramento’s Iron Man,” they called him on the motorcycle racing circuit in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He wasn’t blazingly fast; he just kept coming on that big Harley-Davidson of his. When everyone else had broken down or dropped out, there was Armando, taking the checkered flag. He could ride forever, Armando Magri.
He did ride forever.
They’d been meeting at Classic Burgers for years, flirting with waitresses and jawing about bikes. They had plenty to jaw about. Ernie, 88, and Armando, 86, still rode their Harley Sportsters to lunch. Shorty, 80, and Jack, 67, preferred to travel by car, but like the Magri brothers, they’d spent most of their lives around motorcycles.
But no one had spent more time around motorcycles than Armando. After his racing career ended, he’d owned and operated the Sacramento Harley-Davidson dealership for more than 30 years, establishing a reputation for fairness and honesty with customers and employees alike. Thereafter, he was known as Mr. Harley-Davidson.
For more than half a century, he was at the center of the Northern California motorcycling universe. It wasn’t just hogs Armando dealt with. Anything with two wheels and a motor obsessed him. When Harley-Davidson began producing a small bike in the 1950s, he pioneered the sport of dirt biking in the north state. He was larger than life, Armando Magri, a man with 10,000 motorcycle stories. Over the years, Ernie, Shorty and Jack had heard them all.
There was the one about the time he’d ridden his Harley-Davidson 2,800 miles from Sacramento to Marion, Indiana, to compete in the miniature TT National Championship motorcycle race in 1938. Rode his Harley five days to get there, then raced the very same bike to first place in his heat race and third place in the main event, beating out some of the best riders in the country. Would have won the damn thing if he hadn’t got caught napping in neutral at the start.
Not to mention the time he helped KCRA-Channel 3 scoop the national networks on the 1960 Winter Olympics. A lot of guys garage their bikes at the slightest hint of snow. Not Armando. He threw a chain on the back wheel of his Harley and rode up to Squaw Valley and back through a blinding blizzard to retrieve film footage of the opening ceremonies.
Or the time he and some riding buddies manhandled their 500-pound Harleys through the boulder-strewn Rubicon River Canyon in 1940, long before the area became popular with four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, carrying the bikes by hand over rocks and other obstacles after they could ride no farther.
He was a damned gladiator, Armando Magri. Literally. At the 1938 California State Fair, he and two other riders donned purple flowing robes and rhinestone-studded headbands to race makeshift chariots, each powered by two Harleys bolted together, around the mile dirt track, broadsliding and crashing into each other like something out of Ben Hur.
Ernie, Shorty and Jack had heard these and countless other outlandish stories, and the crazy thing was, most of them were true. Nothing could stop Armando Magri, not retirement, not old age. Armando’s friends were so certain of this, they had taken to dubbing any man who demonstrated similar superhuman traits an “Armando.”
It was a token of affection for a man who was both loved and admired by his friends and associates. Everybody wants their hero to live forever. But even Armando wasn’t an “Armando,” and Ernie, Shorty and Jack had no way of knowing that their December jaunt to Classic Burgers would be Armando Magri’s last ride.
Ernie and Armando Magri grew up in Chico, the first and second sons of Italian immigrants. Their early life was disrupted by the divorce of their parents in 1920 and the premature death of their father in 1927. Shortly after his death, their mother moved into a house a block down the street from a gas station run by Jean Boutin.
Jean Boutin was 19; her father owned the station. She had a boyish figure, close-cropped hair, and wore men’s work shoes. The fact that she was a tomboy didn’t bother Ernie and Armando, who were 16 and 14 at the time, in the slightest. Jean had a 1926 Chevy roadster. She had a pilot’s license. A woman definitely ahead of her time. Best of all, she had a 1924 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The three of them became thick as thieves, and Ernie and Armando took turns teasing each other about who had the biggest crush on her.
“Hey Ernie, you got any money?” Armando asked.
“No, I’m flat-busted, just like your girlfriend,” Ernie deadpanned.
It was Ernie, by the way, who discovered Jean was a good kisser.
Jean rode Ernie and Armando on the back of her Harley through Chico’s dusty streets, teaching them how to push in the clutch on the left floorboard while simultaneously using the left hand to operate the gear shift lever mounted beside the gas tank. This entailed removing the left hand from the handlebar, a maneuver that didn’t exactly inspire confidence in new riders. The first time Ernie took Jean’s bike out on a solo run, he ran over a dog and crashed. Armando had no such problems. From the beginning he was a natural on a motorcycle, already pulling away from his older sibling.
Both brothers purchased their own motorcycles shortly thereafter. Armando picked up a 1921 Harley-Davidson for just $6, using money he had saved working summer jobs in the fields and orchards around Chico. Ernie got an Indian Scout—an interesting choice, considering the fierce rivalry between the Harley-Davidson and Indian factories. Eventually, Armando upgraded to a faster, more powerful 1927 Harley-Davidson, and he and Ernie became enthusiastic members of the Chico Motorcycle Club.
By 1933, California was firmly in the grip of the Great Depression, and Armando chased jobs all over the north state on his Harley. He worked as a firefighter, a lumber truck driver and a service station assistant. He picked fruit, knocked almonds and pitched hay. He worked as a stonebreaker, a stonecutter and a laborer in a rock quarry. Not able to find work in 1934, he attached a sidecar to his 1927 Harley and started his own motorcycle delivery service. He’d deliver any article weighing less than 50 pounds anywhere in the city for 10 cents. It wasn’t lucrative, but it helped pay the bills until better jobs came along.
Once a motorcycle thrill show came to town, and the owner asked Armando to perform the “egg trick” in the group’s performance. Armando got on his Harley, took it up to 25 mph, stood on the seat with a .22 rifle and tried to shoot the eggs that the owner threw up in the air as the motorcycle passed by. He crashed, much to the crowd’s delight and his own humiliation.
A medium-sized man with thick, dark hair and matinee idol looks, Armando enjoyed playing to the crowd and had a real nose for the spotlight. He took up boxing, winning his first bout, losing the second after being pummeled by a supposed has-been boxer, and fighting to a draw in his third and final match. Next he tried wrestling, taking on professional grapplers in the carnivals that constantly toured the small towns. He got trounced in his first match, but got lucky in the second.
“Do you wanna wrestle for real,” the professional asked, “or do you wanna put on a good show?”
Armando had brought several girls to the carnival, and remembering how badly he’d been beaten in his first match, decided he didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of them.
“Let’s put on a good show,” he said.
That they did. The girls pounded the edge of the mat the entire match, screaming, “Kill him, Magri, kill him!” It ended in a draw, Armando pocketed $3.50 for his “work,” and he never let on to the girls that the match had been fixed.
Through all of this, Armando never stopped riding. He upgraded to a 1934 Harley-Davidson, and he and Ernie continued their sibling rivalry in local field meets sponsored by the Chico Motorcycle Club. Field meets were friendly competitions featuring various events that tested a rider’s skill at stopping, accelerating and turning a motorcycle. In addition, club members often marked out courses to practice real racing. During one such practice, Ernie passed Armando on a corner, and Armando passed him right back, running over Ernie’s leg in the process. The injury happened just days before a big field meet/Tourist Trophy race in Colfax. Ernie wound up resting his leg while Armando and a few other members of the Chico Motorcycle Club rode down to the event.
Armando took second in the field meet and so impressed the sponsors, Sacramento’s Fort Sutter Motorcycle Club, that they asked him to compete in the Tourist Trophy race later in the day. A TT was a completely different animal from the field meet. The track was laid out on a closed dirt course, with left- and right-hand turns, hills, jumps and other obstacles. Racers competed over a set number of laps; the only object was to get to the checkered flag first. In a typical 50-mile race, a rider might make hundreds of gear changes. Finishing, let alone winning, required equal parts skill, courage, endurance and luck. TT racers sometimes spent hours bandaging blistered hands and splinting broken bones after races. Armando had never competed in such an event before.
“If it involves a motorcycle, I’m all for it,” he told the club members.
By the end of the day, the members of the Fort Sutter Motorcycle Club were wishing they’d never laid eyes on the Italian hayseed from Chico. Wearing cloth jodhpur breeches, leather boots laced up to the knees and a sweatshirt, he bulldogged the hard-tailed motorcycle (rear suspension had yet to be invented) around corners, up hills, over jumps and into the lead and never looked back. He ran away with the race, defeating some of the best riders in Sacramento. Elated, he returned to Chico—on the same motorcycle he had just raced—to inform his latest girlfriend, Wilma, of his success. She had recently won a singing competition on the local radio station, and he had vowed to come back from Colfax victorious as well. When he arrived at Wilma’s house, her sister told him that Wilma was at the carnival. That’s where Armando found her, in the rumble seat of a Model A Ford, smooching with his brother Ernie.
If that was supposed to stop Armando Magri, well, it didn’t. Oh, he stopped dating Wilma, all right. He was sore at Ernie for a little while. But that first taste of victory in a real motorcycle race gave him something else to think about. He was only 21, and he had just beaten some of the best riders in Northern California. Who was to say he couldn’t beat the rest of the riders in California? What was stopping him from trying?
Armando attached a sidecar to his Harley, loaded it with tools, spare tires and his brother Ernie, and headed south to Hollister to compete against the best riders from San Francisco in the Pacific Coast TT. After completing the six-hour journey, Ernie and Armando detached the sidecar, removed the headlights and running gear, placed a larger front wheel on the motorcycle, and were ready to race. Armando took fourth place, finishing with both eyes almost completely packed with sand.
“Why didn’t you quit?” Ernie asked.
“I couldn’t,” he grinned, beaming through sandy slits.
His performance didn’t sit well with the Bay Area riders, who tried to cheat him out of the $40 awarded for fourth place. Timely intervention by a local CHP officer secured Armando’s winnings, and Ernie drove the sidecar back to Chico, so Armando could get some sleep. After all, he had to get up in the morning and run the motorcycle delivery service.
This was the epitome of Class C, “run-what-you-brung” motorcycle racing in California, and Armando became a regular on the circuit during the last half of the 1930s. Class C was just beginning to attain the status of Class A speedway racing, which regularly drew crowds of up to 10,000 people to Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium on Friday nights. Armando began placing consistently in the top five, attracting the attention of Frank Murray, the Harley-Davidson dealer in Sacramento. Murray wanted Armando to race for the shop, so he hired him as an apprentice mechanic in 1937, granting Armando his first steady paycheck in years as well as access to the latest Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Shortly after joining forces with Murray, Armando earned his first nickname. On the way to Saugus to compete in the Southern California TT on a brand new 1937 Harley-Davidson, he hit a patch of oil on the freeway near Fresno, spinning out and crashing. Badly bruised, but not broken, Armando located the local Harley dealer, repaired the motorcycle, then continued on to Saugus, feeling like he’d been run over by a Mack truck. The track was brutal, pounding more than one rider into submission; but Armando hung on, surging ahead of Hap Jones, a national-caliber rider out of San Francisco, on the final laps to take the victory. The next day in the papers, they were calling him Sacramento’s Iron Man.
In 1938, Sacramento’s Iron Man was tending Murray’s store when in walked a cute, petite high-school girl wearing a blue angora sweater, a blue skirt and white bobby socks. Her name was Ludella Tritten, and one look told Armando everything he needed to know. He and Lu were married in September 1939, but not even that stopped Armando from entering a race at Ascot Park during the Southern California leg of their honeymoon.
In fact, it was beginning to look like nothing really could stop Armando Magri. He and Lu had good jobs, a cozy little rental house in Rio Linda, and Armando’s racing career was going full bore. After third place at the miniature National TT Championship in Marion, the Harley-Davidson factory provided him with travel expenses and a motorcycle for the 1941 Daytona 200, the premier event in American motorcycle racing. Armando lead the race early on, before his transmission locked up on the sixth lap.
In June, he won the Pacific Coast TT Championship in Hollister. The winner was awarded a large perpetual trophy, which, if the competitor won the race a second time, became his for life. Armando never won the race a second time, but he ended up keeping the trophy anyway. The United States entered World War II, the Hollister TT was canceled and never held again, and Armando’s dream of becoming a championship motorcycle racer was thrown into limbo. Something had finally stopped Armando Magri.
Or so it seemed.
As America geared up for the war, Armando quit his job at Frank Murray’s to work at McClellan Air Force Base as an aircraft mechanic. Then he learned that John Harley, one of the Harley-Davidson heirs, was serving as an instructor at the Army’s motorcycle school, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Armando knew Harley well, so he wrote and asked about becoming an instructor for the school. Harley told Armando that if he came to Fort Knox immediately, the position was his. Armando quit his job at McClellan, moved Lu in with her parents, threw a big going-away bash, and rode his motorcycle to Fort Knox to join the Army. He ran into Harley as soon as he arrived but Harley ignored Magri.
“It’s all bullshit,” he told Lu on the phone that night. “He doesn’t have any more pull down here than I do. I’m coming home.”
“You mean you moved me in with my parents, had a big going-away party, and now you think you’re coming back!?” Lu scolded. “You might as well join the Army, because you’re going to be drafted anyway.”
Armando enlisted, the captain of the school noticed his extensive motorcycle experience, and assigned him to be an instructor after all. To give soldiers experience on motorcycles in the field, the Army conducted motorcycle endurance runs in the woods surrounding Fort Knox. In one particularly muddy, grueling event, 105 riders started and only six finished. Guess who finished first? It was the closest Armando would get to racing for a long time, as he was shipped out to Okinawa after the first two years of his hitch were up.
He spent the final year of the war on the Pacific island, serving as an artillery mechanic in a maintenance and supply outfit. It rained 200 days a year, and the camp was a constant quagmire. Kamikaze aircraft screamed overhead, crashing into the American ships anchored in the harbor. The outfit’s position was shelled nearly every night. Once, a shell landed close to Armando’s tent, killing one of his buddies and causing permanent hearing loss in one of his ears.
He wrote Lu every chance he got, and she wrote back, sending pictures of herself in swimsuits, or with the hem of her skirt pulled up just over her knees. Those pictures sustained him through the end of the war. He returned to the United States to discover that Lu, on her own, had built them a small cottage on her parent’s property in Rio Linda. It was quite a homecoming.
The job at McClellan was waiting for him when he returned, but so was the job at Murray’s. The McClellan job paid a lot more and came with full government benefits, but it didn’t involve motorcycles. Armando cut Murray a deal. He’d come back to work for him if he gave him a new Harley-Davidson free of charge and a week’s vacation to go fishing with his buddies. Wartime rationing was still in effect, and motorcycles were in short supply, so Armando figured Murray would turn him down. Much to his surprise, Murray accepted, and Armando was back in the saddle.
In 1948, Armando was 34 and hadn’t raced professionally for seven years. His racing buddies were bugging him to get back on the circuit, but Lu was against it. She hadn’t waited and worried all those long, lonely nights in Rio Linda during the war just so he could get maimed or killed in a motorcycle racing accident. But his buddies kept egging him on and, against Lu’s wishes, Armando entered the 100-mile TT race at Box Springs, near Riverside. In typical Sacramento Iron Man fashion, he hung on to finish fourth. It was his last race.
Later that year, Lu gave birth to their first child, Terrie. It was time to start planning for the future. Murray had placed Armando in a managerial position after the war, and by now, Armando was completely capable of running the business himself. As it turned out, that was exactly what Murray had in mind. In September 1949, he called Armando into his office and asked him if he wanted to buy the dealership. Lu and Armando spent four frantic months raising the money, and in early 1950, they became the new owners of Sacramento’s Harley-Davidson dealership, located at 815 12th Street.
Success, of course, had its price. Armando and Lu worked long, hard hours at the shop, taking few days off during their first 10 years. Somehow, Lu found time to have another child, Ken, in 1954. Ernie came on board as sales manager in 1963 and wound up making a career out of it. In 1964, Armando and Lu took their first vacation, a family cruise to Hawaii in celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary.
While Armando was the gregarious figurehead of the dealership, bringing in customers and keeping them satisfied, family members will tell you that Lu was a major factor in the business’s success. She worked side-by-side with her husband for more than 30 years, providing the administrative support and business acumen that enabled the dealership to end each year in the black. It was no mean feat, considering that from the mid-1960s on, the Japanese motorcycle invasion was in full swing, pushing Harley-Davidson to the brink of bankruptcy by the late 1970s.
In 1973, they moved the dealership to its present location at Arden Way and Evergreen Street, into a brand-spanking-new 13,000-square-foot structure they’d built to realize one of Armando’s long-standing goals: to make the experience of buying a Harley-Davidson the motorcycling equivalent of purchasing a Cadillac. By the time Armando and Lu sold the business to Mike Shattuck in 1983, the dealership was well on its way to achieving that goal.
Retirement failed to slow down Sacramento’s Iron Man. He and Lu traveled to Europe, then toured the western United States via motorhome throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He took up freshwater sport fishing, setting several world records with salmon he caught in Alaska. But mostly, he continued to eat, drink and breathe motorcycles, competing in long-distance touring events, attending Harley-Davidson rallies, and restoring classic bikes that held special significance for him.
His world-class collection of Harley-Davidsons mirrors his history with the marque. A 1921 WJ Sport Twin was similar to the bike Jean Boutin taught Armando and Ernie to ride on back in 1928. A 1936 61-cubic inch OHV knucklehead marked his late Chico and early Sacramento years. A 1938 WLDR racer, with a 45-cubic-inch engine, a chrome-plated frame and Armando’s favorite No. 2 plate, recalled his glory days as a motorcycle racer. He restored nearly a dozen bikes in total; many of them are still on display at Sacramento Harley-Davidson, and all of them run. He was riding the 1912 Twin one time when the clutch on its ancient engine flew apart. Shorty Tompkins helped find the rare replacement parts.
By far his favorite classic bike to ride was a 1950 sidecar rig. Painted in Harley orange and black, it was a showstopper, and Armando never lost the ability to sniff out the spotlight, whether it was driving a two-star general around in the sidecar during a 1995 retirement ceremony at McClellan Air Force Base, or delivering the Easter Bunny to Country Club Plaza in 1998. Got his picture in the paper both times.
The sidecar also generated one of Armando’s last, great motorcycle stories. In 1987, he was driving it back from Reno on Interstate 80 one morning in the pouring rain. Lu was asleep in the sidecar, which was covered with a tarp to keep the rain out. Suddenly, a pickup truck swerved in front of Armando, clipping his handlebar and knocking him off the bike. He landed in the middle of the lane on his butt. Fortunately, no traffic was coming, and he got up to chase the Harley, which was motoring down the freeway under its own power. The motorcycle veered to the side of the road, hopped the curb, and came to a gentle stop in a patch of ice plants. Lu, wondering why Armando had decided to go off-roading, peeked out from under the tarp and casually turned off the ignition.
It was one of Lu’s last rides, but Armando continued motorcycling despite the deteriorating effects of aging. In 1998, when his legs grew too weak to reliably hold up the 1984 FXRS he rode daily, he traded it in for a lighter, more nimble Sportster.
On that crisp, sunny day last December, Armando fired up his Sportster and rumbled past the finely manicured lawns of his Carmichael neighborhood to meet Ernie and the boys at Classic Burgers for lunch. They ate hamburgers and French fries and talked about motorcycles. Then he rode home and parked the Harley for good. He’d been fighting a long battle with pulmonary lung disease and had only a few months to live.
Armando and Ernie talked about everything those last few months. They talked about motorcycles and women and luck. They talked about the time they drove the sidecar down to Hollister and a country bumpkin from Chico by the name of Magri took fourth place in the big race. They talked about Jean Boutin and Wilma and Lu and Ernie’s wife Rose, who passed away in 1998. “If you hadn’t held out for that motorcycle from Frank Murray, you probably would have retired from McClellan instead of owning your own business,” Ernie once enviously told his brother. Strange, how fate can place one brother in the other’s shadow. Not that Ernie minded that much. To be around Armando wasn’t just to be along for the ride, it was to be a part of the story. Besides, someone had to be there to make sure Armando got the story right.
He kept right on telling stories until the very end. On a Saturday in April, in a Kaiser hospital room, he talked about motorcycles while taking strained breaths through an oxygen mask.
“I was racing at San Pedro, and my front tire blew out doing 60 mph,” he reminisced. “I lost control and the spectators were lined up three-deep around the track. I didn’t know whether to jump off, lay it down, or ride it out. I sure didn’t want to hurt anyone. I held on with every last bit of strength I had, and then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, the crowd separated and I rode straight through.”
He paused to take some breaths through the mask, and someone asked why he rode motorcycles.
“The fresh air,” he said. “Coming around a mountain bend, the sun coming up, the fresh air in your face.”
He passed away the next morning with Lu, daughter Terrie and son Ken at his side.
There were hundreds of Harleys at the funeral. Knuckleheads, panheads, shovelheads, flatheads, Evos, a couple of new Twin Cams. Metal-flaked choppers, chromed-out dressers, slicked-back cruisers, a few crusty old hogs and a smattering of sidecars. Just about anyone who’d ever owned a Harley-Davidson in Sacramento was there. Mike Shattuck delivered the eulogy, using words you don’t often hear associated with businessmen, such as “honesty” and “fairness.”
At Classic Burgers the following Friday afternoon, they were still talking about the man who wasn’t there.
“He wasn’t exactly the most sensational rider to watch,” Ernie recalled. “He just sat there and sawed wood. But he was there when it was over.”
“He was an iron man, the bastard,” Shorty agreed.
“He had stamina,” Jack said.
“If he had a gift,” said Ernie, “it was that he was tough.”
It was an unusually hot spring day in Sacramento; the sun was beating down mercilessly on the old men gathered around the concrete picnic table. They talked about motorcycles, flirted some more with the waitresses, then Shorty and Jack got into their car and left. For a few moments, Ernie seemed at a loss for what to do, like somebody or something was missing. Then he got on his Harley-Davidson Sportster and rode away.