A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

July 2001

Rolling Thunder
Vintage American Motorcycles

by Kenneth (Greg) Watson


Crescent Bicycle & Repair Shop
Crescent Bicycle and Repair Shop.  c 1914
WRVM #314

Two-Wheel Prehistory

It's a bit more common to see an antique automobile on the road than a motorcycle from grandma's day. Through most of motoring history, there have been more cars manufactured each year than bikes. By the same token, fewer people know about antique motorcycles and their history than that of automobiles. Bringing that history to light and tying it to the heritage of the White River Valley is one of the reasons behind the exhibit "Rolling Thunder", for which this article is a brief introduction.

Any discussion of motorcycle history has to start with the bicycle, starting in 1817 when Baron von Drais invented a machine to "assist walking." This device, called a hobbyhorse, consisted of two wheels attached to a frame that the user straddled like a modern bicycle. The front wheel swiveled to steer, also like a modern two-wheeler, but there the resemblance ended. No brakes. No springs. The only means of propulsion was pushing against the ground with one's feet, sort of like Fred Flintstone.

By the 1860s, pedals had been added to either side of the front wheel. Their admirers called these machines velocipedes (fast feet), but without soft tires or effective spring suspensions, those who rode them on the rough cobblestone roads more popularly called them boneshakers.

It was during this period that the idea of powered two-wheeled transportation was first explored. in 1867 a Massachusetts inventor named Sylvester Howard Roper invented a boneshaker with a small steam engine attached to drive the rear wheel.

Young men in pursuit of speed popularized the high wheel or penny-farthing bicycle in the 1880s. The larger the wheel, the more distance with one push of the pedal and thus the faster top speed -- and the greater danger of injury when a rider perched high atop his "wheel" encountered a rock or a pothole.

In answer to the challenges of rider welfare and speed came one of the great inventions of modern times -- the safety bicycle. In the 1890's, metal drive chains let designers return to two same-size, smaller wheels with the rider in between and closer to earth, with pedals driving the rear wheel through a chain and sprockets. The rider didn't have so far to fall, hence the "safety" label. With the addition of brakes and pneumatic (inflated rather than solid) rubber tires to lessen the shock of rough roads, the modern bicycle was born.

The closing years of the 1880s saw a tremendous boom in bicycle use and mass manufacturing. Bicycles had an especially important role in women's history at this time. One could ride a safety bike wearing modest long skirts, but not while using the tight corsets and bustles dictated by Victorian fashion. Bicycles spurred on the "rational dress movement" and offered women greater mobility and good exercise. In 1896 Susan B. Anthony said "the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."

A Kent lady with her trusty safety bicycle. Though she
is wearing a corset, there is a good chance that it is
a shorter garment, allowing for greater ease of movement.
WRVM #1505

The safety bicycle of the 1890s was valuable in itself, but it was also a motorcycle waiting for an engine, and the engine was ready.

Motoring Cycles
Gottlieb Daimler, co-founder of Daimler-Benz Corporation, built the first experimental internal combustion motorcycle in 1885. It was a wooden "boneshaker" with a small engine attached, like Roper's steam cycle. The important difference was that gasoline engines had the potential of being much lighter than steam engines of the same power, since they didn't have to include a boiler and water tank.

Several more experiments were made in the late 1880s, but 1895 saw the introduction of the engine that would make motorcycling practical -- the single cylinder, 1/2 horsepower DeDion Bouton. This small, upright air-cooled engine had a modern battery and coil ignition system.

The first production motorcycle in the United States was the Orient-Aster, built by the Mertz Company of Waltham, Massachusetts in 1898 using a copy of the DeBion Bouton engine. The Orient-Aster was a good example of standard motorcycle design through the 'teens: a slightly hefty safety bicycle with a fuel tank mounted high on the frame and an engine low on the frame between the rider's ankles, providing power through a sturdy belt to a large pulley attached to the rear wheel. Like almost all early motorcycles, it retained its pedals, chain and sprockets for help in starting, hills, and getting home when something happened to the engine.

Aldolph Jorgenson's motorcyle shop

Aldolph Jorgenson's motorcyle shop
Aldolph Jorgenson owned and operated a long-lived bicycle,
motorcycle and general repair shop in Auburn.
As seen in the above picture, his shop was equipped with
electric belts that powered many of his tools. Observe the belts
running across the ceiling, down walls, etc. One click
of a switch and they all sprang to life!
Top -- WRVM #317  Above -- WRVM #312

Within a decade, there were dozens of motorcycle factories in the US, most of them producing variations on the DeDion Bouton -- safety bicycle theme. At a time when automobiles were too expensive for most American families, motorcycles offered less expensive, fast transportation that was tough enough for America's mostly dirt and gravel roads. As engines grew more efficient and larger, passenger seats and sidecars became popular. Commercial uses also developed. Couriers, including the "Call Boys" at the Auburn yard who notified train crewmembers of their assignments often used motorcycles.

In the late 1920s, as mass production lowered the price of automobiles, many motorcycle companies ceased production. Nonetheless, a market for motorcycles has remained ever since, driven by those seeking recreation or the sheer individualist thrill of riding in the wind. Surviving companies were the ones who improved technology and best caught the potential buyers' attention and imagination.

Aldolph Jorgenson's motorcyle shop
Mr. Jorgenson was a quiet, but firm individual
WRVM #315

Big Americans
Many of the early makers -- Pope, Ace, Reading, and others, are almost unknown today, a few marques stood out and survived to continue American motorcycling history.

In 1901, racing bicycle maker Oscar Hedstrom built a single cylinder motorcycle in his shop in Springfield, Massachusetts. He intended the machine as a coaching tool, a pacer for bicycle racers. A local entrepreneur, George Hendee, persuaded Hedstrom to go into the motorcycle business, and in 1902 the first Indians were offered for sale.

Hedstrom and Hendee were a successful pair -- Hendee found and expanding market for the product and Hedstrom continually improved performance and reliability, introducing two and three speed transmissions and larger engines, first using a two cylinder (the V-twin, a hallmark of American motorcycle design) in 1903. Downright visionary introductions included "swing arm" rear suspension (many motorcycles had no rear suspension except seat springs and the rider's spine until after W.W.II) and the world's first electric start motorcycle in 1913.

Hedstom and Hendee both left Indian in the 'teens. Design remained innovative through the 1920's, but financial mismanagement began almost immediately. Famous Indians include the 101 Scout, the Chief (produced with modifications through 1952, and arguably the most beautiful motorcycle ever built), and a four cylinder cruiser based on patents from the Ace Motorcycle Co.

Indian limped through the Depression, survived the World War II on military contracts, and built beautiful but increasingly outmoded Chiefs until the company's death from poor management in the 1950s. After years of legal squabbles, the Indian name was acquired by investors in the 1990s and a small number of newly designed Chiefs and Scouts are being built today in Gilroy, California.

The Excelsior Supply Company of Chicago rolled out its first single cylinder motorcycles in 1907. In 1910 the company introduced a V-twin model, and in 1911 bicycle magnate Ignatz Schwinn purchased the successful operation. Excelsior quickly became the smallest of the "big three" manufacturers behind Indian and Harley Davidson. During the 'teens, Excelsior was the most popular brand in the Puget Sound area, and several Excelsior machines can be seen in photos of Mr. Jorgenson's repair shop in Auburn.

In 1925 the Super X model was introduced, the first American 45 cubic inch V-twin. Harley and Indian soon followed suit with 45s of their own.

In 1931, with sales falling due to the Depression, Schwinn decided to get out of the motorcycle business. Excelsior motorcycles were fine quality machines to the last year of production. Like Indian, the name was revived in the 1990's by, in this case, the Hanlon Manufacturing Company of Minnesota.

Excelsior motorcycles for sale
Excelsior motorcycles for sale.
WRVM #316

Harley Davidson
In 1901 two young Milwaukee, Wisconsin inventors, William Harley and Arthur Davidson, began designing a motorized bicycle. By 1903 they had formed a company, Harley-Davidson. First year production was only three units. The following year the company produced its first signature model, the single cylinder "Silent Gray Fellow", so named for its quiet exhaust note and low-key color scheme. Production expanded rapidly, with 1,149 cycles built in 1909, including a new engine with two cylinders at a 45-degree angle, Harley's still-signature V-twin.

As with Indian, technical sophistication of Harley-Davidsons soared in the 'teens and 20s with introduction of three speed transmissions, improved engine valve designs, and front brakes. About 20,000 cycles were used by the armed forces in W.W.I, and in 1920 Harley Davidson became the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer with almost 30,000 units made.

As with most manufacturing businesses, the Great Depression hit Harley Davidson hard. 1933 production dropped to a mere 3,700 vehicles. The company stayed alive by careful management and commitment to quality and engineering improvement.

During World War II, Harley-Davidson went to military production exclusively, with more than 90,000 units made by the war's end. These motorcycles were popular "army surplus" purchases after VJ day, and along with new models and a thriving postwar economy they fueled a boom in recreational riding through the 1950s.

The demise of Indian left Harley-Davidson as the sole American manufacturer as the '60s approached. Despite several major changes in management, and challenges from the innovative imports Harley-Davidson has survived. Now the Milwaukee-based company thrives by refining its signature products and capitalizing on its unique role as the only American motorcycle manufacturer in continuous production since the early 20th century. As the company's centennial approaches, the road ahead looks good.

Aldolph Jorgenson's motorcyle shop
Jorgenson's shop was powered by belts running throughout.
WRVM #310

Into the Sunset
Although the everyday use of motorcycles is lower in the United States than elsewhere, a record number of Americans own motorcycles for touring, off-road riding, and cruising around the neighborhood on sunny weekends. Collect antique and classic motorcycles grows as investors and connoisseurs multiply. Developed as a low-cost alternative to the automobile or a way to "take the work out of bicycling", motorcycles have evolved for more than a century to make their own place in American culture.

Kenneth (Greg) Watson