Early Motorcycles In America

From the December 1939 Issue of Motorcyclist magazine

In the following is a brief sketch of the early history of motorcycling in America. It serves as a prelude to a series of shorts which will appear during the winter months on the different models of Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The material is secured from the records of the two factories, as are the photographic illustrations that will appear in conjunction with each item. A complete history of motorcycles in this country would require a volume in itself. Some day that may be forthcoming. Meanwhile, in response to not a few requests, we present the interesting background of the machines we ride today.


Although the sport of motorcycling is of long standing in the United States, its history is known to comparatively few persons.

Motorcycles made their first appearance through their use in pacing bicycle racers. Bicycle racing was at its peak, with several tracks throughout the vicinity of New York City and New England, late in the 1890’s.

Bicycle racers, always in search of ways to speed up the races, began the use of crudely constructed motor driven bicycles for pacing the riders. Since knowledge of the intricacies of the gasoline engine was not general, the first motorcycles were somewhat unsuccessful and extremely erratic in their operation. By the general public the machines were regarded as a mysterious and complicated mechanism hard to understand and harder still to keep in order and to operate. Furthermore, this impression was a natural one, since even the builders could not always make their contraptions perform.

By 1899 a number of these hand built wonders were in use by the bicycle racers. George M. Hendee, half owner of the Springfield Coliseum, a six lap board track, was featuring motor-paced bicycle races. A champion racer himself, and builder of racing bicycles, he cast around in search of more successful motorcycles for pacing his riders. His attention became centered on one machine, which according to reports, was noted for its speed and reliability. This motorcycle was built by a Brooklyn, New York, young man, Mr. Oscar Hedstrom. Mr. Hendee sent for Mr. Hedstrom to bring his machine to Springfield, agreeing to pay an unusual price for each appearance. Mr. Hedstrom came and operated his machine with the greatest success throughout the remainder of the summer.

The successful working of this machine so interested Mr. Hendee that he believed there might be great business possibilities for a properly designed and constructed motorcycle. He discussed this matter with Mr. Hedstrom throughout the following summer.

In January of 1901 Mr. Hendee, while exhibiting his line of bicycles at the Madison Square Garden in New York City, renewed this discussion with Mr. Hedstrom, with the final result that a contract was drawn between the two before the show closed.

Steps were at once taken toward developing the motorcycle for general use. The tool room of the old Worcester Bicycle Manufacturing Company at Middletown, Connecticut, was leased on February 1, 1901, and there Mr. Hedstrom began to construct the proposed machine for commercial purposes.

On May 25th the first machine, all hand built by Mr. Hedstrom himself, was finished. A few days later Mr. Hedstrom rode his creation to Springfield, Massachusetts, to stage a public demonstration, in order that capital might be raised to manufacture the machines in quantity. The tests were more than satisfactory. The machine performed to perfection on the Cross Street hill in Springfield, a 19 percent grade, 350 feet long. This was hailed as a difficult feat and Mr. Hedstrom made several ascents at varying speeds to demonstrate the power and control of the machine.

Mr. Hendee, then manufacturing bicycles, and a member of the Springfield Board of Trade, proposed to that body that additional capital be raised to manufacture the machines. The proposition was at once taken up, and in a very short time $20,000 was subscribed.

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