The Henderson Motorcycle Co. was founded in 1912 in Detroit by two brothers, Tom and William Henderson. The company was focused specifically on the production of four-cylinder motorcycles. In 1917, the firm passed into the control of Ignaz Schwinn, owner of Excelsior (the second largest motorcycle manufacturer after Indian). Schwinn shifted production from Detroit to the Excelsior factory in Chicago.

The Henderson Four of 1912, as ridden around the world for the first time by Charles Stearns Clancy [Mecum]

Despite the change in circumstances, many engineers and workers remained faithful to the company and continued to work towards creating better motorcycles. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1920s, it had become obvious something better was needed to stay ahead of the pack. The result was the Henderson KJ model, designed by ex-Harley-Davidson engineer, Arthur Constantine. It was presented in April 1929.

1932, Henderson KJ
Sales were encouraging but with the Depression biting, Ignaz Schwinn decided to quit while he was ahead, ending production of all Henderson and Excelsior motorcycles in 1931. Although it might be argued that production was ended prematurely, Henderson was at least spared the ignominy of going into decline, bowing out as ‘the finest motorcycle in the world’ with its reputation intact.

The Henderson kind of gets lost in the Harley-Indian Wars. Although most of the four-cylinder motorcycles that are out there are somewhat derive from the Henderson Brothers. All their motorcycles, including the Henderson KJ, were built to be incredibly reliable. This bike has the Bosch magneto ignition so it starts under almost any circumstances; two separate gas tanks: one to run, one for reserve. There is no suspension other than the sprung seat, though. The KJ model also has a reverse gear, which is mostly used for sidecar work.

The KJ model originally painted blue with the gold stripes. It boasted sleek styling, earning itself the sobriquet ‘the Streamline Henderson’. Producing 45 hp at 4,000 rpm this motorcycle proved exceptionally smooth and tractable, being capable of accelerating to 110 mph in top gear. Just a few motorcycles and cars of the 20s could boast such a speed, they can be found in our museum: Brough Superior SS100, Bücker 1000 and Tornax III/30.

Brough Superior SS100 from the collection «Motorworld by V.Sheynov»

Bücker 1000 from the collection «Motorworld by V.Sheynov»

Tornax III/30 from the collection «Motorworld by V.Sheynov»

A fleet of Excelsior-Henderson 4-cylinders for this police force. At the time, a ‘four’ was the fastest thing on wheels.

These 1,300 cc engine motorcycles set all kinds of speed records. Back in the 20s and 30s, police favored the KJ model for traffic patrol because it has what they call a “tell-tale” speedometer. This device has two needles, one of which showed the maximum speed that the police officer needed to catch the offender.

This is truly one of the nicest riding motorcycles. It is ideal for American road trips or any kind of travel journeys. So it is no wonder that the Henderson was the first motorcycle to go around the world in the year of 1912.

The Henderson KJ Streamline was a pretty expensive motorcycle for its time but it was faster than anything else on the roads. That was the superbike of the early 30s!

Manufacturer Excelsior Motor Mfg. and Supply Co
Years of manufacture 1929-1931
Quantity produced, units
Price $435
Today’s value
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
Type 4-cylinder inline, IOE
Engine capacity, cc 1300
Bore and stroke, mm 68×76 (2-11/16in x 3-1/2in)
Engine rating 40 hp at 4000 RPM
Ignition Magneto
Carburetion Single Shebler
Electrics 6v
Clutch
Transmission 3-speed handshift, chain final drive
FRAME AND WHEELBASE
Frame Dual downtube cradle frame
Front suspension Trailing link double leg springer forks front
Rear suspension Rigid rear
Brakes Drum front, contracting band rear
Wheel size 4×19
DIMENSIONS
Length, mm
Width, mm
Height, mm
Wheelbase, mm
Ground clearance, mm
Seat height, mm
Mass, kg 200
Fuel, ltr 15
Top speed, km/h 160
Range, km

* – Data on the results of metering at the exhibit “Motorworld by V.Sheyanov”.