Gene may not be well known to many vintage motorcycle enthusiasts, but he played a critical role in establishing BSA in the USA in the late 40s and early 50’s, when US sales were so important to their economic survival post- WW2 and establishing the Gold Star in the US.
He on the West Coast, along with Tommy McDermott on the East Coast were the riders first adopted and sponsored once BSA had appointed US distributors. It was their early racing successes that promoted BSA as a brand in a market where BSA were not well known, but that became BSA’s biggest market by the mid 50’s. It is not inaccurate to say that without Gene and the riders like Al Gunter and Dick Mann who were initially put under Gene’s wing by West Coast Distributor Hap Alzina, BSA may not have survived though the 1950s.
His racing career lasted from 1948 to 1958 and was only ever on a BSA. Because Gene lived in Oregon, his location and the enormous trips required to attend the major races on the West and East Coast and his trips to Daytona (going from the top left to bottom right of the continent) had to be undertaken as his work vacation.
His first time at Daytona was in 1948 as an Amateur, placing 33rd out of 119 with a punctured lung and broken ribs received from a crash earlier in the race. Subsequent Daytona outings resulted in 6 top 20 placings.
In 1954 when BSA won the first 5 places, Gene came 17th on a bike with a damaged frame that wouldn’t stay in a straight line. However, Cycle World magazine recognised the magnitude of Gene’s struggle when they reckoned his was the best ride of the race and reported that “It couldn’t be kept in a straight line … but he rode it the full distance like a man riding a rattlesnake!” - and nominated him for a medal.
Of particular significance for Gold Stars however, I am going to suggest that if you had to choose one event that established Goldies in US dirt-track racing, I would nominate Gene’s win at the Portland National in ’54. While Daytona had shown the Gold Star had long-distance reliability, most US races were on relatively short dirt tracks where torque
and acceleration were the qualities needed, both of which the Indian and Harley v-twins had in spades but after the Portland National, you start to see US racers riding Gold Stars. For years, the UK National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham had a picture of Gene Thiessen on his national championship Gold Star in the entrance - and I'm sure many people had no idea who he was.
BSA held Thiessen in high esteem and offered him a position in the UK as one of BSA’s factory riders, to race alongside people like Bill Nicholson, Jeff Draper and Fred Rist but with a full-time job and family, Gene declined and stayed in the US.
Gene hung-up his racing leathers after the San Jose mile in 1958. He’d finished 9th in the National tables that year and with the constant travelling of thousands of miles to attend events he was getting older and was tired of managing all the travelling with a full-time job and family and quit.
I came to know Gene through my work first researching, then restoring a couple of 1954 BSA Daytona Bikes. Initially corresponding by letter and phone calls, I had the great pleasure to meet Gene in 2004 when the completed bikes were displayed at Daytona with as many of the original riders in attendance for a 50th anniversary party. 50 years after the event, some riders’ memories were not so clear on the kind of details a restorer wants to know about, but Gene’s was pin sharp - I still have all the notes I took from our chats and they’re still a source of information about BSAs in the USA that I refer to often.
He was quietly, modestly, a great rider who only ever raced BSAs, a great part of BSAs history – and a lovely man.