Tinkering with History: Vintage Motorcycles
Enthusiasts restore classic motorcycles—and celebrate America's century-long passion for speed on two wheels
“Faster, faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death,” rhapsodized writer Hunter Thompson about America’s love of speed and motorcycles, which stretches back more than a century. While most people who think of U.S. motorcycles imagine a Harley-Davidson, there was a time when Indians ruled the American roads—big and efficient Scouts and Chiefs, which rolled out of the “Wigwam,” the Indian plant in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The earliest attempts to motorize the bicycle began in Europe as early as 1869, when a French inventor built a steam-driven “velocipede.” Steam and bicycles proved a poor match because steam engines were far too heavy and bulky. Germans Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach moved things forward with the introduction of the internal combustion, four-stroke engine. In 1885 they mounted their benzene-fueled motor on something called a “Petroleum Reitwagen,” a clumsy vehicle with wooden wheels and frame and a fan-cooled, ½-hp engine mounted behind the front wheel. While a promising beginning, Daimler’s machine—now on display at the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany—proved to be underpowered and difficult to handle. A major breakthrough came when Frenchmen Count Albert de Dion and Georges Bouton teamed up to create gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. Soon the popular design was copied all around the world, including in the United States by the Indian Company.
Indian’s founder, a bicycle racer and manufacturer named George Hendee, joined with engineer Carl Oscar Hedstrom to build the first Indian, which they called a “motocycle,” in 1901. Indians developed a loyal following over the years. Although Hedstrom left in 1913 and Hendee three years later, the company kept rolling out bikes, introducing the first Scout in 1920 and the Chief in 1922. The 1928 Model 101 Scout “is widely regarded as the best motorcycle that Indian ever built,” writes Hugo Wilson in The Encyclopedia of the Motorcycle. In 1927 Indian bought the Ace Motorcycle Company and used its engines as the basis for the company’s four-cylinder bikes, which began wearing Indian’s distinctive wide-skirted fenders in 1940. A series of bad decisions eventually forced the company out of business in 1953.
Today Harley-Davidson epitomizes the American motorcycle, maybe because Indian’s demise meant it was the last business standing. Harley owners brand their machines with affectionate names like “hogs” or “knuckleheads,” and the bikes have collected their own tough, tattooed, and leather-clad mythology. “You cannot be near one without being suffocated by these massive, icon-laden monsters,” wrote Gary Johnstone in his book Classic Motorcycles. “They swamp the memory and blur history.”
The company began modestly in Wisconsin, where two friends—William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson—decided to power a rowboat with an engine based on de Dion–Bouton principles. They soon moved on to motorcycles, building their first bike in a little wooden shed with their names written on the door, and they achieved success with a reliable single-cylinder, 6.5-hp machine, the “Silent Gray Fellow,” produced from 1906 until 1918. They made a V-twin—two cylinders mounted at a 45-degree angle to one another on a shared crankcase—in 1909. In 1936 the company introduced the legendary knucklehead, a V-twin bike so named from the knobby appearance of the rocker covers. (It replaced the flathead motor and was later succeeded by the panhead.) Like Indian, Harley produced motorcycles for the military in both world wars and found itself catching up to and eventually overtaking its rival after 1945.
Harley-Davidson still manufactures motorcycles, while most other American companies—Excelsior, Pierce, and Henderson are just a few names from the past—skidded by the roadside. Some failed owing to their own mistakes, others because of overseas competition, especially that of Japan’s Honda, by the mid-1960s the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. But the motorcycle industry has always been global. Germany has its BMWs, and Italy had a reputation for scooters such as the Vespa. Great Britain maintained a thriving motorcycle industry for years. “From 1920 to 1960, the mighty British motorcycle industry ruled the roads. And then it all just blew away like sand in the wind,” writes Johnstone.
The old companies may have vanished, but old motorcycles live on. In shops and garages all over the country, motorcycle enthusiasts work on classic bikes. Older machines fill museums such as the American Motorcyclist Association’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio, or the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. Other collections are in the hands of passionate individual collectors or Harley-Davidson dealers. Sometimes they get them back on the road; sometimes they keep them on display. And sometimes they do both.
There’s something about two wheels, a motor, and the open road that never loses its appeal.
A Speedy Two Cylinders
1909 Curtiss V-Twin
Before designing airplanes in the early 20th century, Glenn Hammond Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York, made motorcycles. Though Curtiss only had only completed eighth grade, he demonstrated a natural genius for mechanics. On January 24, 1907, he became famous as “the fastest man alive” by riding his monstrous eight-cylinder beast to a still incredible speed of 136.4 miles per hour on a Florida beach. The day before, he had set a speed record for two-cylinder machines at almost 78 miles per hour. To commemorate the records’ centennial, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport restored a two-cylinder 1909 machine and ran it on the same beach.
Norm Brush, a museum volunteer since 1994 who had learned a bit about mechanics when he was in the appliance business, took charge of the project. The museum had acquired the motorcycle within a few years of its opening in 1960 and replaced the missing oil tank with one fabricated on the basis of photographs; other than that, it was an original Curtiss bike.
In 2007 he took apart the two-cylinder, four-stroke engine. It employed a chain-driven magneto (earlier Curtiss motors had three dry-cell batteries with a small distributor) and a direct-drive system that originally featured a cogged leather belt. Unable to find the right kind of belt at first, Brush compromised with a rubber substitute. It was a little too long, so he had to rig a hidden pulley to keep it tight. Someone later supplied a cogged leather belt, which is on the motorcycle now.
“The biggest problem I had was timing the magneto,” Brush reports, which was necessary to get the two cylinders to fire properly. “It was kicking and having a terrible time.” He finally straightened out the timing. Brush enjoyed tinkering with the motorcycle’s hand-grip throttle, a Curtiss innovation. Earlier Curtiss bikes had used a small thumb lever on the handlebar for throttle control. Brush relates that Curtiss reputedly rode down on his bicycle to the village, where he started talking with a friend and unconsciously pulled on the handlebar grip. That sparked the proverbial lightbulb. “In the handlebar itself he cut a groove that was like a huge thread, and he slipped a pipe over the top with a pin in it, so as you turn the handle grip it actually screws in and out,” Brush explains. “He put a cable on the end of that and ran that down through the handlebars and down to the carburetor, and that opens and closes it.” (The Indian Motorcycle Company also developed a true twist throttle of the kind that motorcycles still use today.)
As with many early motorcycles, the rider of Curtiss’s bike had to release the engine’s compression and pedal to start up the engine. During the restoration Brush found that an adaptor for the compression-release mechanism was missing, and so he fabricated one.
During the test run in Florida, they got the old bike up to 52 miles per hour—not exactly up to the standards of the fastest man alive, but impressive for a bike that was pushing a century.
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
8419 State Route 54
Hammondsport, NY 14840
(607) 569-2160 or www.glennhcurtissmuseum.org
Motorcycles by Mail Order
1915 Sears Dreadnaught
Between 1912 and 1916, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold mail-order motorcycles. Its 1915 catalog tantalized readers with the Dreadnaught, a “giant for power, a glutton for eating up distance, as sturdy as a bull, as fleet as a greyhound and a ‘bear’ for looks.”
Few of those bikes exist today, but the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, has been restoring one. “We know of ours and two others,” says museum motorcycle technician and restorer Dennis McCarthy. The Sears bikes were manufactured by the Excelsior Cycle Company in Chicago, and the motors, which Sears offered in either seven or nine horsepower, came from Indianapolis-based F. W. Spacke. A single Bosch magneto sparked the engine’s twin 70-cubic-inch cylinders, each featuring a 3.5-inch bore and a 3.6-inch stroke. The museum’s nine-horsepower bike looks strikingly like a bicycle with an engine, its frame performing a graceful curve to accommodate the power plant. The motorcycle also has pedals, which were used to start the engine, not propel the machine. “It’s a pretty big V-twin, so it’s got what you call a compression release mechanism built into the ignition advance,” explains McCarthy. The mechanism had a handlebar control that the rider used to relieve some of the engine’s compression before pedaling to start the engine.
“The engine has huge flywheels inside the bottom end,” says McCarthy. “They’re probably 16 inches in diameter. These engines really weren’t very efficient, so you had to have a lot of flywheel mass to go through all the four cycles to keep the engine running.” McCarthy describes the camshaft as a “really odd-looking thing.” Instead of the lobes you’d see in today’s typical cam, it has a disklike mechanism with the cam profile machined into it.
Part of the front fender had broken off, so the museum had to re-create the missing section and its two front brackets, using the shop’s OMAX water-jet machine to cut the metal. They used the same machine to fabricate the tools they needed to disassemble the motorcyle’s clutch, which offered its own challenges. The race—the track that holds the ball bearings in place—was built in and had extremely fine threads. McCarthy admits to being mystified as to how the original manufacturers made such a precision piece of equipment. “Our hats are off to them.”
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
6030 Barber Motorsports Parkway
Birmingham, AL 35094
(205) 699-7275 or www.barbermuseum.org.
Cross a Harley with an Indian
1937 Harley-Davidson UMG
Fifty-seven-year-old Dale Walksler, founder and curator of the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and a former Harley-Davidson dealership owner, has tinkered with motorcycles since he was 12. In 2000 he sold his Mount Vernon, Illinois, dealership and two years later moved everything to the Asheville area, where he has collected around 300 rare bikes.
One bike Walksler did not have was a Harley-Davidson UMG, a motorcycle the company created to go head-to-head with rival Indian and sell to the New York City Police Department. The U meant it was a Harley Type U bike—a big twin-cylinder—and the MG signified that it ran on a magneto, not battery, system. That was an NYPD specification, as was the unusual left-hand throttle, right-hand shift, and a clutch operated with the heel instead of the toes. Harley also had to paint the bikes in the “Indian red” characteristic of its rival.
Harley supposedly manufactured only about 200 UMGs, perhaps less according to Walksler, because so few parts show up at swap meets. Walksler painstakingly collected parts and finally completed his UMG in late 2009. The engine came from a swap meet of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, but it had been decommissioned so that the magneto generator had been removed and the engine converted to battery. He found a dyanamo from a collector in Canada, paying more for it than he did the engine.
The chassis came from a parts collector Walksler diplomatically refers to as “a colorful individual.” Fitting the engine into the frame was a bit of a tight squeeze, with only about 1/16 inch to spare between the magneto and the frame. Walksler had a left-hand gas tank but had to search for the right-hand one, which he found at Bill’s Old Bike Barn in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. The tank was missing the bracket for the UMG’s right-hand shifter, but he found a usable bracket right out in front of Wheels Through Time, on a three-wheeled Harley Servi-Car that, unlike the Harley motorcycles, had a right-hand shift. Walksler determined the arrangement of the shift by examining photos, and he acquired the linkage by modifying a part found through a supplier in Oregon.
John Dills did the painting on the bike, with Mike Peters taking care of the gold and black pinstriping. Larry Medwig handled the metalwork, which included straightening out the badly bent front fender.
When Walksler took the finished bike out for its first ride, he had to make a little mental adjustment. “Every time I drive that bike, I have to reorient myself to not only how to drive it, but also the starting procedure,” he says, because the setup is opposite from a typical Harley-Davidson bike. “Every time you do that, it is a chore for a Harley rider.”
Wheels Through Time
62 Vintage Lane
Maggie Valley, NC 28751
(828) 926-6266 or www.wheelsthroughtime.com
Piece by Piece
1935 Indian Four-Cylinder
For Jim Wear, owner of the modest Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, the 1935 Indian Four motorcycle, a transitional four-cylinder, in-line bike, became something of an obsession. “The lines and the look of the sheet metal combined with that smaller engine and the way the handlebars were, and the external speedometer. . . . I just thought that was the most beautiful machine ever.” The problem for Wear was how to get one. He couldn’t afford the $50,000 he estimated it would have cost him to buy one: “I was just a working guy who owned a chopper shop.” So he set out to build one.
Wear found an engine in Pueblo, but locating Indian vintage engines is always easier than finding a frame. “Engines were pulled out to run ditch pumps and tractors. So you can always find a motor,” Wear says. It took a long chain of circumstances before he could piece together the rest of the bike.
The process started when a man showed up at Wear’s shop with a 1937 Indian four-cylinder chassis, jury-rigged with a Crosley automobile motor. The frame was essentially untouched except for a one-inch extension added to the down tube to accommodate the larger engine. Wear traded a running 1947 Indian Chief. “I had to suck up hard to do the deal,” he admits. He knew it wasn’t quite right, because the 1935 frame he had sought had a skeletonized neck at the top front of the frame where it meets the fork stem, not the solid, filled-in neck of the ’37. “But nonetheless, it was a four frame, and I could make it work.” He pulled the motor and started work on the chassis.
Sometime in the mid-1990s Wear was contacted by another man who had a 1937 four-cylinder engine in a 1934 frame. “There was almost zero difference between the ’34 and the ’35 frame,” says Wear, so he traded the ’37 frame he had for the ’34. “Suddenly I had the right frame and motor. Well, the ’37 fork and wheels and so forth that I had were not right, but then again, okay, screw it, we’re a little closer.” Then he got a call from a friend in Canada, who knew of a 1936 Model B Scout, an Indian that the right fork and wheels for Wear’s project. He traveled to Canada and bought the Scout.
“Four motorcycles later, I have the right components for this ’35 four-cylinder,” Wear relates, although he still had smaller bits and pieces to gather. He asked Iron Horse Corral, a company that fabricates Indian parts, to create a fuel tank and fenders. He bought a taillight bracket from a friend in Colorado. “It’s one year only, for 1935.” It was bent and rusty, but he was able to salvage it.
He’s still looking for a few more parts but getting close. “The 1935 seat bracket—the whole seat arrangement—is one year only. I’ve been hunting it for years. Most people have never even seen one.” Wear might have to fabricate that, too.
Very soon he hopes his dedication and patience will pay off.
Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame
5865 North Nevada Avenue
Colorado Springs, CO 80908