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Marjorie Smith: A Pioneering Motorcycle Businesswoman

She guided a major motorcycle engine builder to where it is today

By Teri Conrad, Photos courtesy S&S Cycle


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Marjorie always had a warm smile for those who visited her in her office.
Marjorie always had a warm smile for those who visited her in her office.

One of the biggest and most respected engine manufacturers in the motorcycle industry, S&S Cycle, may not have existed if it wasn't for Marjorie Smith. "If it wasn't for her willingness to continue the business in 1959 and take over the office responsibilities and financial burden, there probably wouldn't be an S&S," reflects Ken Smith, one of Marjorie's two sons who started working with the company in the 1970s.

Marjorie was married to George Smith, co-founder of S&S Cycle. Not only was she a businesswoman, she was a motorcycle enthusiast before she met and married George.

Early Days
George founded S&S Cycle in 1958 with Stanley Stankos in Blue Island, Illinois. Within a year of starting the company, Stankos sold his share to Smith so he could pursue his upholstery business.

Marjorie was always there to support George who had won the drag-racing championships at Half Day Dragway in Illinois in 1952. Here she helps him show off some of the trophies from that day while holding daughter Margie.
Marjorie was always there to support George who had won the drag-racing championships at Half Day Dragway in Illinois in 1952. Here she helps him show off some of the trophies from that day while holding daughter Margie.

It wasn't long afterwards that Marjorie (whose maiden name was also Smith), jumped in to help keep the business going. At 37, after raising two daughters and two sons and running a household, she was up for the task. Soon thereafter, the company went from being known as Smith & Stankos to Smith & Smith (S&S).

Marjorie was a stickler about organization and felt image was an important part of running a business. She was also meticulous about bookkeeping as shown here in her basement office at the Elm Street house in Blue Island, Illinois.
Marjorie was a stickler about organization and felt image was an important part of running a business. She was also meticulous about bookkeeping as shown here in her basement office at the Elm Street house in Blue Island, Illinois.

Marjorie didn't know it at the time, but the skills she learned in college served as a foundation for her later success with S&S. After growing up in a rural farm environment in central Illinois, Marjorie, her parents and two brothers moved to the south suburbs of Chicago in 1936. It was there she attended Thornton Township High School and graduated in 1940. With the aid of a scholarship and a part-time job, she completed two years of bookkeeping and general office training at Thornton Junior College.

Her interest in two-wheels blossomed as a teenager when one of her girlfriend's brothers bought a motorcycle. She knew some of the riders in the group, and through them met George Smith. Motorcycles only added to their attraction to one another. Marjorie, tall at 5-foot 10-inches, rode her own motorcycle when it wasn't popular for women to do so.

Marjorie developed an interest in motorcycles as a teenager, although it was several years later before she would actually get her own. She was especially fond of her friend Bill Weissner's 1941 Harley-Davidson with its 61 cubic-inch engine shown here with her sitting on it near her parent's house in Dalton, Illinois.
Marjorie developed an interest in motorcycles as a teenager, although it was several years later before she would actually get her own. She was especially fond of her friend Bill Weissner's 1941 Harley-Davidson with its 61 cubic-inch engine shown here with her sitting on it near her parent's house in Dalton, Illinois.

Building A Business
It is said that Marjorie -- affectionately known as "Ma," had more responsibilities for the long-term success of the business than her husband George. Ken says his father was the creative genius of the two. George's passion was for designing and making motorcycle parts, and he enjoyed going fast on motorcycles, however, he was a cattle farmer at heart and really wanted to be a cowboy.

In 1969, S&S moved from Blue Island to Viola, Wisconsin. In 2004 the company expanded to include a second location in La Crosse, Wisconsin. With a lot of hard work and determination, S&S has become a leading manufacturer of performance V-Twin motorcycle components and engines for more than 45 years.

Marjorie played an integral role in the business, from talking to customers, taking the orders, keeping the books, and answering technical calls. Those customers, who in the beginning scoffed about having a woman help them with technical questions, began asking for Marjorie by name. She developed quite a knowledge base over the years and wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty, even doing some minor machine work.

In the beginning, while still operating the business out of the basement on Elm Street, Marjorie helped with the machining. She was a quick study on cutting base plates for stroker kits in the mid-1960s.
In the beginning, while still operating the business out of the basement on Elm Street, Marjorie helped with the machining. She was a quick study on cutting base plates for stroker kits in the mid-1960s.

"She was the classiest, most eloquent woman I ever met," remembers Brett Smith, son of George Jr., who now runs S&S Cycle as president. "She was rough and tumble, but always a lady and was extremely intelligent."

Ken remembers, "She always enjoyed talking to customers and other industry related people. Had it not been for health reasons, she would have continued working until the day she died."

Marjorie answered most of the technical calls even after the company's move to Viola in the late 1970s.
Marjorie answered most of the technical calls even after the company's move to Viola in the late 1970s.

Marjorie passed away at 68 after succumbing to emphysema in 1990, but her legacy lives on through the business she and George worked so hard to make a success. More than 400 people are now employed at two facilities in Wisconsin producing components and engines for several well-known V-twin custom motorcycle manufacturers as well as for the public.

Well Deserved Recognition
In 1997, Marjorie and George were inducted into the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In April 2003, S&S saluted its founders with the 145 Tribute, a motorcycle project that also marked S&S's 45th anniversary. The tribute recognized Marjorie and George as pioneers who played an integral part in the evolution of the V-twin motorcycle market.

(LEFT TO RIGHT) Floyd Baker--the very first S&S employee, Marjorie, Warner Riley--test rider, George Sr. and George Jr. hard at work in 1979 at Bonneville testing a 1977 FXE 93 cubic-inch Sidewinder against a 1977 Harley-Davidson Low Rider with a 98 cubic-inch engine enhanced with S&S components, against a 1979 stock 80 cubic-inch Harley-Davidson Low Rider. Even when it came to testing S&S components, Marjorie was there to keep the records.
(LEFT TO RIGHT) Floyd Baker--the very first S&S employee, Marjorie, Warner Riley--test rider, George Sr. and George Jr. hard at work in 1979 at Bonneville testing a 1977 FXE 93 cubic-inch Sidewinder against a 1977 Harley-Davidson Low Rider with a 98 cubic-inch engine enhanced with S&S components, against a 1979 stock 80 cubic-inch Harley-Davidson Low Rider. Even when it came to testing S&S components, Marjorie was there to keep the records.

And the tributes haven't stopped there. The company holds commemorative rides every year on the birthdays of Marjorie and George to keep their memory alive. To read more about the couple visit www.sscycle.com. S&S is sponsoring a jacket giveaway contest on WomenRidersNow.com called "Everybody Has A Story." Visit Readers' Stories for more information

Teri Conrad is a freelance writer and motorcycle enthusiast, who lives in Southern California. She has been published in IronHorse, Adventure Sports Outdoors, Accelerate, and Ride Texas magazines. She can be reached celebritywriter@cox.net or you can visit her Web site www.celebritywriter.com.


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