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Rastus (and Max) of New Zealand
Motor Cat (and Catman) of Washington DC
You might have come across accounts of dogs on motorbikes but biking cats?
Indeed they have existed: we know details of one in New Zealand and one in America,
although sadly neither is alive today. They were true 'free spirits'.
of New Zealand,
Rastus finds a soulmate
Rastus was a jet-black, Bombay-cross cat (although one source described him as Burmese), born in Canada. Max Corkill, a panel-beater by trade and a keen car and bike restorer and bike customiser, had worked in the Vancouver, BC area of Canada for many years; he and Rastus met each other in 1989 at a swap meet. A young girl asked him to look after the kitten while she went to look at something, but she never returned. Corkill took him home, advertised in the local paper and on radio stations, but when there were no replies he decided to keep the cat. The two were soon to become inseparable. On finding Rastus one day a few weeks later asleep on one of the bikes in his workshop, he started it up to see whether the cat would take fright and jump off but he didn't. So Max took the bike, with cat, out for a slow ride around, and Rastus loved it, leaning forward with his forepaws on the handlebars and back paws on the petrol tank.
The biking begins
From then on, whenever Max rode, so did Rastus. A leather cover was made to fit over the tank of whichever bike they were using Rastus wasn't fussy for comfort and to give a better grip, and before long he also had a specially made little helmet and pair of goggles. He sported a red-spotted bandana round his neck in authentic biker fashion. In North America alone he was said to have covered some 75,000 miles in all (120,000 km) cruising around with Max. For longer journeys, instead of his customary position leaning into the wind on the petrol tank, Rastus would ride in a specially-made zipped pouch mounted on the tank in front of Max (shown below, inner right), with just his head peeping out. The BMW's tank sometimes became very hot, but with Rastus' comfort always a priority Max's design incorporated venting which allowed air to flow over the tank in space beneath the bag.
A change of scene and charity work
In 1994, after his long stay in Canada, Corkill returned to New Plymouth in his native New Zealand to be near his elderly mother. Of course Rastus went too, although first he had to spend six months in quarantine in Hawaii, which he didn't enjoy and Max said seemed 'very long'. Once he was cleared, the pair devoted time to raising money for animal charities. Max formed a company to market souvenirs such as T-shirts, posters and badges (the latter sold out). They even had a joint cheque account, with Rastus' signature being his pawprint, also used on some of the merchandise.
The duo visited schools to tell children about the importance of caring for pets; they attended various functions; they starred in a prize-winning television advert for the Bell Tea Company. 'The cat was just like a person,' said Bell CEO John Mahoney. 'He used to come into the offices here and make himself at home. He would drink milky tea out of a cup (no sugar), and would get quite testy if it was taken away before he had finished.' There was a thriving Rastus fan club, and the pair became a familiar sight on the roads around Taranaki and New Plymouth, often on Max's classic 1952 Sunbeam (above).
At Christmastime each year Max would put on a Santa outfit and disguise a bike as a sleigh, while Rastus sported a special helmet with little imitation reindeer antlers attached (outer right). They would take part in a Toy Run, organised by a local bikers' group who collected toys along the way for disadvantaged children. In some ways the cat was said to behave more like a dog, obeying Max's commands and 'growling' replies, rather than meowing.
Tragedy and tributes
Tragedy struck on the morning of 20 January 1998, when they were riding Max's customised black BMW, in company with his partner Gaynor Martin. Their bike collided head on with a car coming round a bend on the wrong side of the road; all three died instantly. Rastus had been in his pouch on the tank. The 31-year-old car driver turned out to be drunk, and was charged by police with two counts of manslaughter as well as driving offences.
Their friend Pastor Wally Aish took the funeral service for Max and Rastus on 23 January in New Plymouth. An amazing crowd of over a thousand fellow bikers came to pay their respects and take part in the funeral procession (above left). The two pals' helmets were placed side by side on the coffin they shared (above right), and they were cremated together, as Max had wished. Their ashes were scattered by Max's eldest son at a ceremony on Mount Egmont, a mountain they both loved and that Rastus had been the only cat to climb. There's a tribute site for Max, Gaynor and Rastus; and at the scene of the accident three white crosses were erected at the roadside, the centre and smallest one for Rastus having a black wooden cat attached to it, with a red bandana.
A series of books about Rastus was written for children by New Zealand author Carolyn Ann Aish, as well as a summary book about the lives of the motorcycling duo and information about Max's bikes. In 2012 another book was published, Max and his Marvellous Motorcycling Moggy by Elizabeth Krammer, published by RSVP Publishing of New Zealand, ISBN 978-0-9876587-3-9. Although only a small softback volume it's packed full of information about Max and Rastus and the busy lives they led, and has a number of photographs we hadn't seen before. Highly recommended and a donation of a dollar is made to the NZSPCA for every copy sold.
With acknowledgements to Max and Rastus: The Road they Travelled, by Max's nephew Logan Sutton, self-published by him in 1998; ISBN 0-473-05544-9. Warm thanks also to Elizabeth Krammer for permission to use images from her book.
of Washington DC
This tabby and white female, born in 1984, came originally from a garage in the Washington area. She was covered in dirt and grease hence her earlier name of Greasy and did not seem to be particularly well cared for. When J. Catman (not his real name, but the one he preferred to use) took his car in for repairs the mechanic apparently did a poor job on the car, but agreed to give up Greasy. She rode home in the car's back seat, sitting up just like a person would.
An unusual cat
At her new home, Greasy would perch on a windowsill and watch traffic; if a loud motorcycle went by she would stare at it, rather than running away from the noise as many cats would. When Catman watched racing on TV or videos, she'd be very interested, would sit up on her chair and watch the TV, he recalls. And she liked loud music, especially Jimi Hendrix! Another example of her bizarre behaviour occurred one day when Catman was driving his car and was pursued by another car driven by a woman, who speeded up when he did and seemed to be trying to attract his attention. When he eventually pulled over, she said there was something on the car roof. It was Greasy! She was standing on it and had evidently 'surfed' up there since he'd left home and he hadn't been going particularly slowly. She liked being on car roofs, but after that episode he always checked carefully every time before driving off.
'Greasy' becomes a biker
But Catman had been a biker for a number of years, and he kept finding the cat perched on his bike saddle. One day he decided to take her for a short ride, very slowly, thinking she would be scared and jump off and that would be the end of it. But she seemed to enjoy it: and that's how, in 1988, she started to ride with him and became Motor Cat. Catman insisted it was her idea; no one made her do it and at first he tried to dissuade her but she was quite clear that she wanted to ride, and she loved it! After a year or so she was quite a pro. He fixed pieces of carpeting to the petrol tank and back seat of his Yamaha 500, to make her more comfortable and to give better grip for her claws and so the pair of bikers caused people to do double takes as they cruised the highways. To begin with he never exceeded 35 miles an hour (56 km/hr), but Motor Cat loved to speed, liked the wind on her face and would try to get him to go faster. Her usual perch was on the petrol tank so she could look through the windshield, but sometimes she rode pillion, or even occasionally on his shoulder. Catman trained her to lean into the curves by nudging her, but later she got the hang of the turn indicators and would know when a turn was coming up. She also knew how to brace herself for stops. Neither she nor Catman ever came off the bike.
Once it became obvious Motor Cat would be riding regularly, her owner started to look for a helmet for her but it took a long time, as no one made helmets for cats! Eventually a West Coast company was located that would make her a mini-helmet; it was colour-coded to match the bike, and had her name emblazoned on it. It reduced the wind and traffic noise for her, although her ears had to be pressed down under it. She didn't seem to mind.
In 1993 Catman and his biking partner were separated for three weeks, following a heated altercation at a local Seventh Day Adventist church. He wished to deliver an urgent message to someone at a ceremony being held there, and was carrying Motor Cat with him. The ushers refused to allow them in and asked them to leave. Catman said his pal had just as much right to be there as anyone else, and a minor scuffle ensued, during which the cat ran off. He couldn't find her. In the end he gave up his landscape-maintenance job in order to maintain an almost round-the-clock search, distributing thousands of leaflets to all homes within a half mile of the church. There was still no sign of her. Finally one day, exhausted, he was sitting down having a snack not far from the church when she suddenly appeared, meowing loudly and demanding to be picked up. She was thinner, but otherwise seemed none the worse. Thinking she probably wouldn't want to ride the bike, he was planning to order a taxi but Motor Cat just wanted to get on and ride home!
End of the road
By 1998 Motor Cat had developed diabetes, but treatment kept it under control and she was still riding regularly. In 2001, though, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. One day in July 2002 they'd been visiting a recreation park and she seemed in really good spirits; but after that her condition started to rapidly deteriorate. Catman had to make 'the extremely hard decision' to have her put to sleep. She was surrounded by friends at the Takoma Park Animal Clinic, where she'd been a patient for 14 years but never for any bike-related incidents. She was 17 years old.
Donations were accepted for a permanent memorial in the pets section of Parktown Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland, with any surplus funds going to the American Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPCA).
(with acknowledgements to the Washington Post and National Geographic)
More biker cats
If you'd like to comment, have any more details or images to add,
or know of any other biker cats we can illustrate, please contact me,
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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Page created December 2010, with later revisions and additions