When we talk about classic American motorcycles, we immediately recall Indian and Harley-Davidson. But in the 30s, both of these marks on the scale of steepness were shadowed by the apparatus built by Albert “Al” Crocker.
It’s a real luck to see this bike live, and you will not be able to find another one in Russia with all your desire. Few serial motorcycles have received such a legendary status like the Crocker V-twin. From 1936 to 1942 about 110 of these vehicles were built in Los Angeles, California, each in its own way unique. The fact that Albert G. Crocker, their creator, was notorious for not numbering his products consecutively, not only means that nobody is exactly sure how many bikes were built, but also gives a hint as to the kind of man he was.
Label 37-61-25 on the engine says that our Crocker was the 25th motorcycle, made in 1937 with a 61 cubic inch (1000 cm3) engine.
For rather than concentrating on paperwork, Al Crocker focused on creating the fastest, lightest, most powerful and most sophisticated street motorcycle money could buy. Unfortunately, this ambition ultimately proved inconsistent with making a profit, thanks to his insistence on using only the very best materials and components. While forced to compete on price with Harley-Davidson and Indian, Crocker suffered a crippling loss on every machine sold, even though each of his bikes was supplied direct to the customer, avoiding the additional costs of a dealer network.
This meant Crocker’s bikes were subsidized by the profits of the high-tech machine shop in which the Crocker bike factory was housed, but after America entered World War II in 1941 the business switched over to supporting the war effort, and motorcycle production was abandoned.
Crocker V-twins were very expensive to buy and also to make – but the payoff was a level of performance of which riders of rival machines could only dream. Crocker offered a refund to any owner who lost a race to an Indian or Harley, and legend has it he never once had to pay up!
Al Crocker was born near Chicago in 1882, and after later completing an engineering degree he worked for the Thor motorcycle company in Illinois. There he formed a friendship with his rivals George Hendee and Carl Hedstrom, founders of Indian, for whom Crocker found himself working as a designer and engineer by 1910.
Crocker duly turned his attention to selling the bikes he’d helped create, taking over the Indian agency in Denver, Colorado, in 1913, then managing its branch office in Kansas City, before finally settling in Los Angeles in 1928, where he acquired the Indian dealership on Venice Boulevard. There he hired a talented young engineer named Paul A. Bigsby, and together the pair got involved in cinder-track speedway racing, the concept newly imported from Australia.
Crocker began making frames from 1931 onwards to accept the 45ci/750cc Indian Scout V-twin engine, but then developed a single of his own – a 350cc OHV design – around which he built a reputed 31 complete motorcycles.
Superior to Harley’s CAC but underpowered compared to the British JAP-engined bikes, Crocker abandoned the single and – at age 54 – turned his attention to creating a class-leading V-twin road bike.
Crocker duly sold his Indian dealership in 1935 and established a 1200ft² machine shop to begin making that dream a reality. The first Crocker 61ci (986cc) V-twin that appeared in 1936 was a joint effort of Crocker and Bigsby, who together created what was then the only American street motorcycle with overhead valves (although unbeknownst to them, Harley’s OHV Knucklehead was only a few months away).
Crocker’s 45° air-cooled engine established the platform for all future Crockers, with the 61ci unit measuring 82.6mm x 92.1 mm – shorter-stroke dimensions than were then fashionable in the USA, with the OHV engine’s pushrods sharing a common tube, as on the earlier speedway engines.
The most advanced technical feature was the use of deep hemispherical combustion chambers with the valves inclined at 90°, the domed pistons delivering a 7.5:1 compression ratio (later raised to 8.5:1).
However, after building the first 17 such engines Crocker discontinued the hemi design owing to heads cracking and poor rocker lubrication, opting for the simpler, less troublesome arrangement of enclosed parallel valves and a flatter combustion chamber. This sacrificed improved breathing for dependability and greater ease of manufacture, as well as enhanced oil tightness and more flexible performance at slower speeds, such as in traffic.
The original Hemi engine had delivered 40.5kW (55hp) at 5800rpm and was safe to a remarkable 6700rpm, which allowed Bigsby record an astounding 128mph (204.8km/h) on one of the first five bikes built at the 1936 Muroc Dry Lake Speed Trials in the Mojave Desert – on a street-legal motorcycle! Although the parallel-valve models weren’t as fast, Crocker insisted they were still fleet enough to post a 106mph (169.6km/h) top speed. This was 10-12mph (16.0-19.2km/h) faster than either the Flathead Indian Scout or new OHV Harley Knucklehead, and indeed the later Crockers ended up making 35.3kW (48hp) compared to 26.5kW (36hp) for the Knucklehead engine or 23.5kW (32hp) for the larger 74ci Harley VL flathead engine.
However, in the wake of the Great Depression, a Crocker cost $495 when a top-of-the-line EL Harley Knucklehead sold for just $380. Crocker responded with the option of ever-larger displacements since the walls of his cylinders were thick enough to tolerate a considerable degree of overbore – Crocker was able to offer engines in capacities up to and even over 72ci (1180cc).
The performance and allure of the Crockers earned them the sobriquet of the ‘Duesenberg of motorcycles’, but unlike his transatlantic counterpart George Brough, the creator of the so-called ‘Rolls-Royce of motorcycles’, and who relied on high-quality proprietary components to assemble his Brough Superiors, Crocker manufactured almost everything in-house. He even started out making his own carburetors, before eventually obtaining supplies of a proprietary Linkert to fit his bikes.
Faced with the threat that the Crocker represented to its investment in creating the new Knucklehead, Harley is reputed to have influenced various suppliers not to meet Crocker’s orders.
Amongst these, a couple of companies were ‘persuaded’ not to sell their wire wheels to Crocker, so Crocker customers were obliged to personally obtain their own, and ship them to Crocker for assembly into their motorcycles!
The Crocker 61ci V-twin featured generously-finned cast-iron cylinders deeply spigoted into the substantial aluminum dry-sump crankcases, and two external oil pumps – one to feed lubricant from the 2.84lt oil tank incorporated into the cast aluminum gas tank, the other to scavenge.
All bikes built had the same ultra-robust constant-mesh three-speed gearbox with a tall 3.9:1 top gear ratio. The transmission employed a four-row chain primary drive and hand-shifted via a gated rack mounted on the left of the gas tank, matched to a five-plate oil-bath clutch operated via a rocking pedal on the left floorboard.
The heavy-duty rigid frame was of a conventional diamond pattern design, while girder forks with either a single or dual spring. Crocker held the weight of his bike down to a genuine 240kg dry – 36kg or so lighter than the equivalent Harley – thanks to liberal use of aluminium components cast in his own on-site foundry.
The Crocker looked small and compact next to its American rivals, and with a short 1473mm wheelbase (1524mm on the Big Tank model) it was much more in the mould of a British-style sporting V-twin, like the HRD-Vincent or Brough Superior, than a US bike. However, the brakes were the usual pathetically-small 178mm single-leading-shoe drums of the day.
While the Arizona Highway Patrol purchased a fleet of 10 Crockers in 1940 to augment their other patrol bikes, the order wasn’t enough to forestall the demise of the Crocker Motorcycle Company, and Al Crocker finally pulled the plug on motorcycle production in 1941.
Crocker hoped that Indian might buy the manufacturing rights to his bike, but the advent of the war scuppered that – a pity for everyone, except Harley-Davidson stockholders.
Together with his son Albert, Al Crocker turned his business over to manufacturing aviation parts before passing away in 1961, at the age of 79.
Paul Bigsby went on to become a key figure in the evolution of electric guitars, creating the whammy bar and the pedal steel guitar. After founding Bigsby Guitars and selling several of his designs to Gibson and other companies, he too passed away, in 1968.
The Crocker story is the great might-have-been of American biking, yet like a great vintage wine that never made it to the world’s cellar, it just withered on the vine and died.
In a 1948 interview, Al Crocker explained his bike’s demise. “It was the war,” he said. “We had the last 85 Crocker machines three-quarters completed, but could not get the government authorization for the critical materials to finish them. We broke them up, got $75 for the junk, and an adjustment from the government to make up for the losses. End of story.” Literally.
On the road
In spite of having no valve-lifter fitted, the bike started first kick from cold. There’s more entailed in firing up a Crocker than even the Brough Superior SS100, and still more in riding it compared to a Brit bike of the same era.
The chief challenge is adapting to the Crocker’s quite different set of controls, for while the throttle is still on the right handlebar there’s a corresponding twistgrip on the left ‘bar that advances or retards the ignition. This is an important tool, not only for actually firing it up when you must twist it backwards to retard the ignition but also for supplementing the quite astoundingly poor and very definitely minuscule drum brakes on both bikes.
While the lever on the left side of the handlebar operates the front brake, your right foot works the rear one. Your left foot works the clutch via a rocking pedal while you move the gate-mounted lever on the left of the gas tank to its rearward notch, then carefully release the clutch by pressing down with your left heel and riding the gear as your toe rises. Do that right, and you’re in business – but it takes some practice! The balanced use of the advance/retard lever, foot clutch, and throttle that’s needed to guide the Crocker through traffic is truly an acquired skill, though of course, city streets weren’t its natural habitat – the Crocker was king of the open road.
The Crocker’s V-twin engine sounds glorious, with the sound of thunder rolling out of those long, barely-muffled exhausts, and it’s also pretty well balanced – it’s smoother than other American vintage-era V-twins. I didn’t have the space to really give her the berries, but by all accounts this was a genuinely impressive ton-up motorcycle that would have been a fine match for the Brough Superior. Too bad no Crockers ever found their way to British shores in the period – I’m sure they would have given a good account of themselves at Brooklands.
There’s a treat in store for the fortunate new owner(s) of these Crockers. The Crocker 61ci V-twin was a true original that pushed the envelope of prevailing motorcycle design. American excellence on two wheels, the Crocker represents a landmark in Trans-Atlantic motorcycle design, just as Phil Irving’s HRD-Vincent and George Brough’s eponymous Superiors did on the other side of the pond, at exactly the same time.
Based on the Alan Catchcart’s story.
Crocker Small Tank Specs
|Manufacturer||Crocker Motorcycle Company|
|Years of manufacture||1936-1942|
|Quantity produced, units||about 70|
|ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION|
|Engine capacity, cc||1000|
|Bore and stroke, mm||82.55×92 (bore 3¼ , stroke 3 5/8”)|
|Engine rating||60 hp|
|Transmission||Constant mesh type|
|FRAME AND WHEELBASE|
|Ground clearance, mm|
|Seat height, mm|
|Top speed, km/h|