In the late 1920s, the market leaders among 750cc motorcycle manufacturers were Excelsior-Henderson with Super X motorcycle and Indian with Scout model. The Indian Chief and Indian Four, as well as the Henderson Four, were the best-selling and most technically advanced bikes in the U.S. among motorcycles with a larger displacement. This situation had changed not through the effort of competitors, but by the chain of events that led to the Great Depression.
Excelsior factory racing team with OHC V-twin based on the Cyclone engine. Only a few copies were made, as the Excelsior engine with the inlet valve above the exhaust (IoE) proved to be as fast and much more reliable than the top-shaft design, which caused constant oil starvation [Mecum].
The Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Excelsior-Henderson all became the victims of a great economic collapse. After October 29, 1929 sales dropped dramatically, while the warehouses were filled to the top with equipment.
The Harley-Davidson company managed to fix the situation a little by selling off the plant to the Japanese, which led to the creation of the first national military motorcycle in the Land of the Rising Sun. You can find the full story in the article about the Rikuo motorcycle.
The Indian company was saved by its chairman, Paul DuPont, who bought out a part of the company. Thanks to him, this magnificent bike still exists today.
Meanwhile, Ignaz Schwinn, a wealthy industrialist, owner of a bicycle factory and Excelsior-Henderson motorcycle company, didn’t give in to panic but focused entirely on the production of bikes, which was his original passion.
2. The motorcycle king Ignaz Schwinn
Ignatz Schwinn was born in 1860, in Harmheim, Baden, Germany. In 1891, he emigrated to the United States, and in 1895, with the financial support of German-American Adolf Friedrich William Arnold, he founded the Arnold, Schwinn & Co. company. The appearance of a new bicycle company coincided with a sudden ‘bicycle boom’ in the United States. In the early years of the 20th century, bicycle production in the United States had grown to one million units per year. Chicago became the center of the U.S. bicycle industry.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last long. By 1905 the volume of annual bicycle sales fell to 25% compared to the sales level in 1900. Many small companies have gone bankrupt or became a part of larger organizations. In Chicago, only twelve bicycle companies remained in business. Realizing that he needed to take action, Ignaz Schwinn bought a few small bicycle companies and built a new modern factory in the west of Chicago to produce inexpensive bicycles on a mass scale. In 1908, the factory produced 50,000 bicycles, and 3 years later this figure doubled. The company was doing so well that Ignatz took the courage of organizing a team in order to participate in European competitions and promote the brand abroad. On top of that, Frank Schwinn was able to convince his father to invest in the developing motorcycle market at the right time.
One of the first Excelsior motorcycles with a single-cylinder engine and belt drive. In front of Keystone police, 1910.
The first motorcycle of its own design the company created in 1910, it was an in-line two-cylinder motor with a cardan drive. After the first prototype was released, Ignaz came to a conclusion that it would be easier and much cheaper to buy an already existing company than to create something from scratch. By that time there were dozens of small and large motorcycle companies in the United States, and most of them couldn’t find their place in a highly competitive market. So it wasn’t long before Ignaz Schwinn found the ideal candidate.
3. The Excelsior Supply Company 1876 – 1912
Founded by George T. Robie in 1876, the company sold spare parts for the garment manufactory. In the early 1890s, catching the wave of a ‘bicycle boom’, the company began to supply bicycle parts and also sell bicycles of other manufacturers. In 1904, the company tried to deal with the automotive parts, but Frederick, son of the founder, wisely advised his father to get involved in the motorcycle business.
The Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Company was established in 1907 as a subsidiary of Excelsior Supply Co. Frederick, who became the head of a new company, first of all, produced the Triumph Model B motorcycle with Thor engine (made by Aurora Automatic Machine Co. under Indian license), but with a chassis of the company’s own design. This model was needed in order to speed up the start of production and only a year later, in 1908, Frederic’s company already produced the Auto-Cycle Model A – the first motorcycle under the Excelsior brand.
Unfortunately, in 1909, George Robie died of appendicitis, and management of the motorcycle business and a much larger spare parts company fell on the shoulders of young Frederick, who was only 29 at the time. The new V-twin, designed in 1910 by Excelsior engineers, seemed to be a promising investment, but managing two large companies wasn’t the thing Frederick desired, so he finally decided to sell his father’s business
4. The Excelsior under Schwinn’s supervision: 1912-1917
Frederick signed a contract with Ignaz on November 14, 1911. The new owner got it all: factory, offices, new engines, motorcycles, bicycles, unsold spare parts, as well as all patents and the right to manufacture products under the Excelsior brand-name. The amount of sales was $500,000 (approximately $13,203,247 in today’s value) and on February 1, 1912, Schwinn personally signed a check.
Soon enough Ignatz started to build the world’s largest motorcycle factory in Chicago. The Excelsior motorcycles got the new logo – a large red letter ‘X’ on a gas tank.
To promote his motorcycles, Schwinn hired the coolest riders of the time to participate in competitions. Excelsior was the first motorcycle to exceed the 100 mph mark while maintaining the same average speed throughout the race. The Big X advertisement strategy was based on the fact that Excelsior had “the only engine ever achieved 100 mph under the supervision of the American Motorcycle Federation (F.A.M.). Not to be confused with the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) and the American Motorcycle Federation (AFM).
The first Excelsior bikes developed under Schwinn’s supervision appeared in 1915. The new design anticipated the fashion of the 1920s and 1930s: the upper part of the frame, smoothly lowered to the back of the frame, allowed the seat to be placed lower than usual, and to narrow the fuel tank. The Excelsior bike was faster than its competitors, thanks to the new engine, so soon a lightweight model with a 221cc engine was introduced, which was perfect for beginners.
Despite the difficult economic situation during the First World War, the Excelsior company was on top of the game and Schwinn was willing to expand the model range with a four-cylinder motorcycle. By 1917 the Pierce Motorcycle Co. went bankrupt and the only four-cylinder motorcycle remaining on the US market was Henderson 4.
5. The Henderson Motorcycle Co. 1911-1917
In October 1911, in Detroit, two brothers, William and Tom Henderson, developed the concept of a four-cylinder 7 hp motorcycle named Model A. The bike had the drive to the rear wheel via a flat leather belt, there were only one gear and no suspension. Today this design may seem a bit strange, but for 1912 it was a top notch. The advertisement was out, the price of $325 was set and brothers started taking pre-orders. At the beginning of 1912, 25 motorcycles were already complete. The plan was to produce 1000 units per year, despite the fact that Henderson was already the third manufacturer of four-cylinder motorcycles in America. Sales went up like crazy.
In 1913, a front suspension was added, the leather belt of a rear wheel drive was replaced by a steel chain, brakes were improved and seat height was lowered (Model B). Instead of a tubular cylinder, which served as a gas tank, a rectangular tank was installed, which increased the overall volume.
The October issue of World Motorcycle Review magazine once had an article by Carl Stirns, who went around the globe on the Henderson motorcycle.
In 1914, a two-speed gearbox was added to the Model C. Interesting, that it wasn’t connected to the engine, as it is done nowadays, but placed separately in the hub of the rear wheel.
In 1915, the motorcycle underwent a serious reconstruction (Model E). First of all, the place for the driver’s feet was no longer on the frame in front of the engine, but on special platforms at the sides of it. This allowed to shorten the base from 1651 to 1437 mm, which radically improved the bike’s maneuverability.
For a while, the company produced and sold both the long base model D and the new short base model E.
In 1916, only a short version of the frame was left, in which an upgraded engine with an automatic lubrication system and foot kickstarter was installed. In the following year, the engine was upgraded again. It finally got a closed lubrication system with oil in the crankcase of the engine, a three-speed gearbox that was now fixed to the back of the engine, and also there were clutch disks between the engine and gearbox.
The Model G was not inferior to the V-twins in terms of its characteristics, its engine, for example, worked much smoother and steadier. The bike was favoured for its phenomenal reliability, so sales were good.
In 1917, the Henderson set three new records: first Alan Badell went 3296 miles from Los Angeles to New York in less than eight days, later set the record in the 24-hour race on the Ascot Park race track, with 1154 miles covered, and also Roy Artley went 1667 miles from Blaine (Canada) to Tijuana (Mexico) in slightly over three days.
Despite all this success, the Henderson brothers’ business was not doing well. The cost of labor was growing, materials not only became more expensive, but there were some serious complications with their supply because the priority was given to the state production facilities. The overall situation was worsened by the First World War, so the brothers decided to sell the motorcycle business. Luckily for them, Ignaz Schwinn, the bicycle king of America, immediately responded to the offer.
On November 17, 1917 the company got a new owner. For Schwinn, it was a great chance to get a high status in the motorcycle world by using the fame of a successful brand, and he immediately ‘took the bull by the horn’. Instead of an old ‘wheel of fortune’ image on the logo, a large letter X appeared along with the inscription ‘Excelsior Motor Company’. The production was moved from Detroit to Chicago.
6. Excelsior Motor Mfg. & Supply Co. 1918–1931
The Henderson brothers didn’t own the company anymore but still worked there. William Henderson was a factory director with an annual income of $5,000, and Tom Henderson was a head of sales with an annual salary of $10,000. Tom also got 200 shares of the company with the worth of $ 25,000. In fact, this was not given directly to him but was kept by the current owner of the company for five years, to prevent such a valuable worker from leaving. Nevertheless, in late 1918, Tom Henderson resigned. He wished to start his own company to import the Henderson and Excelsior motorcycles to Europe.
The Chicago motorcycles’ serial numbers began with the letter Z, while the Detroit bikes were marked with the letter H. Gradually, the list of sporting achievements was expanding. In addition to the long-distance disciplines, the motorcycles performed well in hill riding and racing on the twisted roads of Los Angeles.
The Model Z (1919) had a very similar design to the Model H. Among the significant changes, we can notice a full-fledged generator, the displacement of which grew from 918cc to 1147cc and which now had a capacity of 14.2 hp. The rear wheel hub was also different, plus a new rear brake with a double cam drum was applied.
The 1920 Model K was developed by Arthur O. Lemon, who had worked for the company since 1915. He started as a sales specialist, later was transferred to the design office, after moving to Chicago he worked for Excelsior.
The new bike was much heavier than the previous one, but also more powerful and reliable. The working volume of the engine was increased to 1300 cc (68.3 x 89 mm), the power went up to 18 hp. Oil was now pushed by the oil pump to all units through lubrication channels, the valve drive was changed, which made the motor more compact and maintainable, the welded parts of the frame were reinforced. The front suspension was unified with Excelsior Series 20.
William Henderson was not in favour of this kind of upgrade – on the contrary, he tried to lighten the construction and increase the maximum speed of the motorcycle. As a result of constant disagreements, he left Excelsior Motor Mfg. & Supply Co. in 1920, and founded the Ace Motor Corporation. Its first motorcycle, named Ace Four, was ready by the end of the year, but the serial production began only in 1922.
Schwinn made Arthur Lemon a chief designer of both Henderson and Excelsior companies. Model K by the year 1921 has not changed at all.
The country was slowly recovering from the war, the wheels of the economy began to turn, and purchasing power soon increased. The reliability of Henderson motorcycles was proven once again: Roy Artley went 300 miles on a 1.25-mile track with an average speed of 77 mph, and the first 100 miles he went with the speed of 80 mph. These were quite impressive results, taking into account that it was a wooden board track and the bike had narrow tires! So no wonder that the U.S. Traffic Police Department showed a deep interest in the brand, which resulted in cooperation and large contracts.
The year 1922 can be considered the best time in the company’s history. The new model, called DeLuxe, got a 28 hp engine, a new larger carburetor, a new crankshaft, reinforced rear brake, and even the cooling of the cylinder head was improved. Light alloy pistons and reverse gear were optional.
Especially for the police, the company organized a few demonstration races. Paul Anderson on a serial police motorcycle went as fast as 98 mph in Chicago and 100 mph in San Diego. As a result, the number of orders from the police increased several times.
Soon the Harley-Davidson company joined the battle for government contracts. There was a series of 12 speed races that went on right on public roads of many different states. The first race won Leslie Red Parkhurst on 1200cc Harley-Davidson V-twin, but the other 11 races won Paul Anderson on his DeLuxe and in each race, there was a moment when he went faster than 100 mph. It was clear that to compete with Henderson was nearly impossible at the time.
At the end of May 1922, at the Tacoma Speedway track in Washington, D.C. Wells Bennett set a new world record for non-stop riding. On a serial motorcycle, he covered 1562.54 miles in 24 hours at an average speed of 104.49 km/h. This record lasted until 1937.
On December 11, 1922, in Philadelphia, William Henderson got in a terrible car accident, during the test-drive of one of the first serial Ace Four Sporting Solo. He was rushed to the hospital, but the doctors couldn’t save his life. The founder of the Henderson company died at the age of 39. After his death, Arthur O. Lemon moved to Ace company as chief engineer.
On October 20, 1924, a new world record was set by Fred Ludlo. On DeLuxe with a front fairing, he reached the speed of 127.1 miles per hour.
In 1925, the frame of the motorcycle was changed, which allowed to shift the center of gravity of the motorcycle even lower. The gas tank became shorter and wider and its volume increased to four gallons (15 liters), aluminum pistons with one oil ring and two compression rings became standard, and tires were now as wide as 3.85″.
The 1927 DeLuxe engine received new cylinder heads and now developed 35 hp, thanks to two additional discs in the clutch and reinforced springs. The dashboard on the tank included a speedometer, ammeter and oil pressure sensor. There were also changes in the positioning and shape of a horn, fenders and lights.
In January 1927, Indian Motorcycle Company bought the Ace Motor Corporation so the chief designer Arthur Lemon had no choice but to eсcept the change. During his time at Ace, Arthur had finished two major projects called Ace XP3 and Ace XP4, these motorcycles could go as fast as 129 miles per hour. The Ace Four was first renamed Indian Ace, and since 1928 it has been called Indian Four. With numerous changes, it was produced until 1942.
1941 Indian Four from the “Motorworld by V.Sheyanov” collection
The last year of production of the DeLuxe model was 1928. The degree of compression was increased, the valve guides were reinforced and the motorcycle got a new front fork. In order to develop further, a new chief designer was needed, so Schwinn decided to recruit a really famous engineer Arthur Connie Constantine, who had previously worked for Harley-Davidson.
Arthur took a radical approach to the model range refreshment. It all started with a new engine for Model K. The inlet valves were driven from the top camshaft and outlet valves from the bottom camshaft. This made it possible to increase the power of the motor while keeping it very compact. Thus, the power was increased to 40 hp at 4000 rpm. The tank became even shorter, the seat was moved forward, and the machine got a sporty low handlebar. The optional side racks were of a very aerodynamic shape, which was the result of Connie’s growing passion for streamlined forms. In 1929, the Henderson KJ Streamline was finally introduced.
On October 29, 1929, the day also known as ‘Black Tuesday’, the U.S. stock market collapsed and the Great Depression began. Nevertheless, the company’s sales remained at a high level and there was no decline in production, mostly because Henderson motorcycles belonged to the luxury segment of the market, which is usually not affected by such economic roller coasters. The government orders also helped.
A solo version of the 1930 KL Special model was equipped with a more powerful engine (45 hp at 4500 rpm), carburetor with a 32 mm diffuser, two-ring racing pistons, sport front fork and wider tires (4.25″).
The four-cylinder engine made it possible to smoothly accelerate from 8 to 110 miles per hour in the highest gear. This particular model was used by the U.S. Department of Traffic Police.
Police Squad on 4-cylinder Excelsior-Henderson motorcycles. At that time, this model was the fastest motorcycle in the United States.
In the summer of 1931, Ignaz Schwinn met with the heads of Henderson and Excelsior departments and told them, “Gentlemen, today we stop working”. He believed that the depression would last for at least another eight years and was not ready to take the risk, instead he focused on a cheaper and more popular product – bicycles. The last motorcycle left the factory in September 1931.
With a power of 45 hp at 4000 rpm, the engine ran very smoothly, the maneuverability of the motorcycle was excellent and it was able to easily accelerate up to 110 miles per hour. American police simply loved this model. Only a few bikes of the ‘20s could compare to it in speed, some of them you can find in our museum, such as Brough Superior SS100, Bücker 1000, and Tornax III/30.
Brough Superior SS100 from the “Motorworld by V.Sheyanov” collection
Bücker 1000 from the “Motorworld by V.Sheyanov” collection
Tornax III/30 from the “Motorworld by V.Sheyanov” collection
The Excelsior Henderson was also the most popular motorcycle among firefighters, due to its speed and reliability. It was the largest and fastest bike of that time, ideal for long trips on American highways
In 1993, Dan Hanlon tried to revive the brand. He bought all the rights and founded Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Company in Minnesota. From 1998 to 2000 the company produced about 2000 Henderson Super-X motorcycles with V-twin engines, which had nothing in common with the legendary four-cylinder motorcycles. From the beginning, there were almost no sales, and soon enough the company went bankrupt and left the market.
7. Technical specifications of 1931 Henderson KJ
|Manufacturer||Excelsior Motor Mfg. and Supply Co|
|Years of manufacture||1929-1931|
|Quantity produced, units|
|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|
|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|
|Ground clearance, mm|
|Seat height, mm|
|Top speed, km/h||160|