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Five American Bikes from the Deep Pocket Collector Fringe

Story by Paul Garson       Photos by Teddy Pieper & Paul Garson

By the early 1900s, some 300 different motorcycle “companies” had jumped on the bandwagon of two-wheeled powered flight. While some tried steam or electricity, it was the internal combustion machine that got things burbling. Henry Ford and his mass assembly lines managed to turn the tide toward four wheels, resulting in the subsequent fading into the history books of 99% of those early iron horses. But a century later, a few of those limited-run machines still manage to survive, not swallowed up by the two wars hungry for scrap metal or crumpled on some race track.

Following are five “survivors” which stayed the course and, through luck and often the passion of a human caretaker, still can get their cylinders a-thumpin’ and our hearts a-pumpin’. Certainly their original price tags couldn’t buy one of their foot pegs today, but they are nonetheless still great dreamcatchers for your bucket list… And remember, someone’s gotta win the lottery.

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A Bend in Time - 1902 Marsh

Just the thing when you play Motorcycle Trivial Pursuits, here’s one in the category of “common as dragon’s teeth.” An American milestone motorcycle, the Marsh (1900-1913) was among the first purpose-built motorcycles, rather than simply a bicycle fitted with a motor. In 1902, Brockton, MA brothers W.T. and A.R. Marsh improved their initial 1899 design by relocating the engine, previously mounted forward of the seat post and now an integrated member of the frame. One giant leap forward for motorcycling…

The 510cc IOE single produced 3.5 horsepower, capable of propelling the belt-driven 150 lb. machine to a then-blistering 40 mph. The unusual 90 degree exhaust design helped keep heat from frying the rider’s leg, while the “salami” shaped underslung fuel tank held 1.5 gallons, a second tank mounted behind the seat carrying another ½ gallon.

While Indian is credited with setting things off in the U.S. in 1901, they initially employed 152 motors sourced under contract with the Aurora Machine and Tool Co. (later branching off with the Thor Moto Cycle company), while the Marsh brothers were utilizing their own engine design. (Ok, no road rage emails from Indian fans…)

In 1905, Marsh joined Charles Metz of Orient bicycle and motorcycle fame to form The American Motor Co., the Marsh name changing to Marsh & Metz or M.M. Today the original Marsh singles, produced at the very beginning of motorcycle production, are exceptionally rare… In fact, this is thought to be the only one.

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Sole Survivor? 1915 Indian Hendee Special

Please do not call this a “rat bike.” In reality, it shows the patina of remarkable originality, as in “barn find.” This 100-year old Indian represents some 15 years of innovation by George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom after the two icons of motorcycling first signed the company’s founding contract in 1900 on the back of a paper envelope, after which they set out to design a “popular motorbike.” This machine helped fulfill that goal.

Of the two founders of the company, George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom, it was Hendee who came up with the name Indian and, in 1904, also chose the now-famous red and gold color scheme. From their single cylinder models, the world’s first to feature twistgrip controls for both throttle and ignition, Indian then debuted its new V-twin in 1907.

Fast forward to 1915 - another significant year for Indian, as the production line saw some “firsts” as well as “lasts.” It was the last of the Hedstrom F-head engines in a cradle-spring frame. The list of “firsts” included the addition of Schleber carbs, and customers could now opt for either the standard 2-speed or the new 3-speed gearbox with a stouter clutch and dual controls. Weighing in at 370lb. the Standard 15 hp Big Twin could transport its passenger to 55mph in considerable style.

However, the bike seen here is by no means “Standard.” Undoubtedly one of the holy grails of motorcycling, this machine appears to be an exceptionally rare “Hendee Special,” as indicated by the large battery box, forward engine mounted generator and electric (rather than acetylene) powered headlamp and electric taillight. Very original, it even retains its frame mounted bicycle pump.

Once part of the famous Sigal Collection, it is rightly revered for its milestone connection to the Indian MotoCycle Co. and its extraordinary status as the only known existing “Special.” In its present original state, this 100-year old survivor is a virtual time machine to be preserved as such.

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And Now for a Pair of Flying Chairs with Flair!

The SUV of 1920 - Ace Four with Watsonian Sidecar

Back in the early years of the 1900s, sidecars were the station wagons and SUVs of the day. People had their first dates on them, babies were born in them and everything in between. “Flying Chairs” were attached to all kinds of bikes, from the humble to the rumble and the very upscale as well.

Seen here is such a rig. Considered by many to be the ultimate masterpiece of American motorcycle production, the Ace inline four-cylinder was designed by William Henderson of Philadelphia. The Ace was produced circa 1920-24.

In 1917 things got a tad bit confusing when William, running low on funds, sold his company to the Schwinn/Excelsior company. He was supposed to stay on board but got fed up, found some funding and, since someone else now owned the Henderson name, went for Ace. So it was a bit of four cylinder sibling rivalry and the bikes looked somewhat alike although no parts apparently were interchangeable.

While other companies offered fours, Ace scored top speed honors, earning the accolade “Fastest Motorcycle in the World.” Ace’s fame was enhanced by Cannonball Baker’s historic 7-day cross-country run.

First appearing in 1920 and powered by a 1262 cc (77 cu. in.) inline-4 that produced 35 horsepower, the elegant 350 lb. machine could reach 85 mph. Because of its exceptionally sturdy design and construction, it could accommodate a “flying chair” for passenger duties.

This rig was restored in England and has taken laps cruising around the Isle of Man with the British vintage club. It’s teamed up with a British Watsonian sidecar, a correct combination after its original importation to Great Britain. The eminently rideable classic also shows a variety of accessories and instrumentation. This 95-years “young” dreadnaught on two wheels has been identified as one of three 1920 Aces known to exist.

The Ace ran into money troubles again, which resulted in Indian buying the company in 1927, the Four now badged as an Indian until WWII and its material demands helped close the book on the Ace of Aces.

A much lighter-looking early production Ace, this beauty can be at Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, NC. The distinctive blue paint and yellow wheels were Ace signature colors.

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Four Cylinder Sibling Rivalry - 1925 Henderson DeLuxe with Goulding Sidecar

In 1913, a Henderson ridden by Carl Stevens Clancy would set both in the history books when he became the first person to circumnavigate the world on a motorcycle. The luster of the Henderson Four would continue to shine brightly more than a century later.

Detroit-based brothers Tom and William Henderson had started building their four cylinder machines in 1912; those four individually cast cylinders mated to an aluminum crankcase on three main bearings. Instead of pedal start, standard for the day, the design employed a car-style crankshaft, the very nature of the inline-four imparting an automotive aura to the long wheel-based machine that exuded elegance, refinement and grace of movement. It offered the rider the smooth transmission of power, fine handling and easily controllable operation. It would establish a benchmark for others to follow.

In 1917, a Henderson smashed the longstanding Cannonball Baker cross-country record by nearly four days, further cementing its prestige. Even Henry Ford bought one. Production continued until the sun set on the Henderson Four in 1931.

The Henderson DeLuxe, now owned by Schwinn/Excelsior, was introduced in 1922, and considered the most refined Henderson model ever produced up to that date. It ensured that the Henderson name continued to grow and prosper. The 1301cc 28 hp machine was also a winner with police departments. Capable of 100mph, they beat out the Harley police models during a famous 1922 Chicago “shootout.”

This exceptional example is fitted with a matching “chair” as produced by Goulding, the Detroit company considered the first American sidecar company.

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1914 Henderson Four

Kris Thompson’s 1915 Henderson Four “rolling billboard” that he rode in the 2010 Cannon Ball Run.

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Motorcycling’s Greatest Mystery? The 1916 Traub

Unless this bike was created in an alternate universe that one day we might explore, it remains a total mystery. You can see it, touch it, smell it at Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time Museum. What is known about can be summed up in the following few words:

It was discovered in 1967, concealed in the brick wall of a residence in Chicago. Its maker is unknown. All of its parts, excluding the seat, carb and magneto, are apparently hand-built. None of the parts are interchangeable with the components of any other early machine.

The engine displaces 80 cubic inches and features massive 2-inch valves. The 3-speed transmission is of a unique design with two neutrals, plus there are two ways to operate the clutch. While there’s no front brake, the rear unit is also unique, as it’s a double-acting design. Front suspension is an elliptical spring design; there is not one, but three tool compartments. Apparently, though, tools were seldom needed. The bike is in perfect operating condition and performs flawlessly to speeds in excess of 80 mph.