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.

At that time it was decided that the most economical method of constructing the machine would be to contract with a machinery company to build the motors, and to build the remainder of the machine in the bicycle factory of Mr. Hendee, where the final-assembly would take place. Negotiations led to the selection of the Aurora Machinery Company of Aurora, Illinois, to manufacture the, motor units.

Both Mr. Hendee and Mr. Hedstrom journeyed to Aurora to make final arrangements with the machine company, after which Mr. Hendee returned to Springfield to start production of the machine itself, while Mr. Hedstrom remained in Aurora to look after the manufacture of the motor units.

At a meeting of the stockholders in the new company in New York City at this time, it was decided to name the new product after the American Indian, since the machine was to be the pioneer motorcycle on the American Continent.

In its first appearances, the motorcycle was quickly accepted by the public and the business of the Hendee Manufacturing Company increased so rapidly that it became difficult to secure motors in sufficient quantities from the Aurora Machinery Company to meet the demand. With this situation before them, Mr. Hendee and Mr. Hedstrom decided to manufacture the entire machine in the Springfield factory of the company: Elaborate preparations were made and a great deal of special machinery was set up for the purpose.

In changing over the manufacture of the motors to Springfield, Mr. Hedstrom effected many changes in the original motor design, and while the old motor had been regarded as very dependable, the new motor was even more efficient and more powerful.

The success which the Hendee Company met caused a rush on the part of other bicycle concerns and machine manufacturers to market motorcycles themselves and in the year 1902 a number of machines made their appearance on the market. In that year were advertised: Indian, Marsh, DeLong, Holley, Royal, Auto-Bi, American, Mitchell, Hercules, Kelecom and Orient.

Competition soon developed among the manufacturers of the different make machines and in the latter part of the year, the first competitive motorcycle race was run. Indiana won. This was in New York City.

The simplicity of design, construction and operation, along with the dependability and power of these early machines, created a firm foundation for motorcycles. The enthusiasm created by motorcycles was tremendous, since they appeared at the height of the popularity of the bicycle, when the public was clamoring for faster and easier means of transportation. The motorcycle was the ideal vehicle. Its cost was not prohibitive and its upkeep negligible; and further, the machinery satisfied the urge of the younger generation to learn something of gasoline engines.

In 1903 still other manufacturers made their appearance, among which was the Harley-Davidson Motor Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In 1905 the first twin cylinder motorcycle was offered to the public. By 1910 business had greatly increased, and factories were enlarging. By 1912 distributors of American motorcycles were operating in every section of the globe from South Africa to Russia, China to Australia and New Zealand, and from Canada to South America.

By the year 1913 we find 37 different makes of motorcycles being marketed. They were: Harley-Davidson, Indian, A. M. C., Eagle, M. & M., Thor, Black Hawk, Bradley, Yale, Crawford, Dayton, Emblem, DeLuxe, Excelsior, Feilbach Ltd., Henderson, Monarch, Thiem, Iver Johnson, Flying Merkel, Militaire, Minneapolis, Michaelson, M.B., Pierce, Pope, Reading Standard, Schickel, Waverly Medland, Curtiss, N.F.U., Jefferson, Breed, Corson Special, and the Hefelfinger.

Development of automobiles brought about a new competition in the matter of automotive locomotion. Some of the many manufacturers dropped from the ranks.

Then came the world war. Our government in a headlong rush to organize and control American manufacturers, seriously upset the routine of distributors of American machines. Something like 65% of the motorcycles used by the Allies came out of this country.

Sales organizations were disrupted and some manufacturers went into other lines.

By the end of the war the motorcycle industry had dwindled in this country.

Reorganizations began and some new models were created. There was a revival in business until the depression of 1929 came along. Out of that we emerged with the two companies of today. Both of them pioneers, they have improved equipment and built to meet the demands that have grown out of other great developments such as automobiles, planes and those things which have given us our modern era.

As conditions exist now, about 65% of American machines are for sports use, 20% for police use and 15% for commercial use.

Since 1933 there has been a steady upward trend in the use of motorcycles in America.

The history of that development may be read between the lines of the printed sports reports and stories, such as have been carried in The Motorcyclist since November, 1932, and is well enough known by riders nationally that it needs no scanning.

George Hendee’s 1901 Hedstrom

This first American motorcycle was advertised in George Hendee’s bicycle catalog. The price was $200. The advertising said: “The idea of a motorcycle has long been with us and the demand foreseen, but not until late in the fall of 1900 did we see our opportunity to produce one which would fill the demands required. In securing the services of Mr. Oscar Hedstrom, who without doubt is the best posted man on motors pertaining to motorcycles of anyone in this country, we took a step which landed us in the lead with a single bound. The machine which he designed has proven a success from the start, as hundreds who have ridden it can testify.

“Its simplicity, handsome appearance, ease of control, power, cleanliness, positiveness, absence of noise and vibration, and being chain driven throughout, are some of the features which give the ‘Indian’ an immediate following and which place the machine in advance of all. This motorcycle is perfected in all its details and the manufacture was not taken up until six months of exhaustive tests had been made and the machine not found wanting.

“There is no oil dripping from the machine at any point, nor is there any being thrown on the clothing of the rider. A pair of trousers give perfect protection on this machine, as on a regular bicycle. The motor can be run for any distance without a particle of overheating. A motor bicycle to be perfect must climb hills without assistance from the pedals. This machine has repeatedly climbed Cross Street hill in Springfield, a 19 per cent grade with loose surface, at speeds varying from six to eighteen miles an hour. To illustrate the power of the motor, the hill can be taken at ten miles per hour until half of the ascent is made, when the speed will increase to fifteen miles an hour or more. The construction is of the best.

“It is folly to try cheapness when motors are in question. The material has been selected without regard to cost and the workmanship is as fine as brains and money can produce.”

The Hedstrom motor was listed at 1 ¾ h.p.; frame 22”; tires, Fisk motorcycle tires 1 3/4” front and 1 3/4” rear, or 1 3/4” front and 2” rear; handlebar, fully adjustable; saddle, Troxel motorcycle with 3-coil spring; chains, best quality nickel steel; finish royal blue enamel, all bright parts handsomely nickeled; weight, ready to ride, 98 lbs.

A small lever, termed the “speed lever,” and mounted on the cross bar of the frame, connected by means of a shaft to the carburetor, controlled the amount of air in the carburetor. When pushed in an “Off” position it lifted the exhaust valve permitting the machine to be pushed about by hand.

To start the rider pedalled hard, threw the lever a quarter of an inch forward which dropped the exhaust valve. That started the motor, or at least the engineer hoped it did, then speed increased as the lever was pushed on forward. The oil measure carried enough to lubricate the machine for 30 or 40 miles. The motor was supposed to do 40 per on a smooth road. A mixture lever on the top of the carburetor allowed a change from rich to lean.

All frame connections were steel drop forgings. The tubing in the main frame was 16 gauge; fork stem 12 gauge, reinforced with another tube of equal strength. Front fork stays were 16 gauge and rear fork and stays 18 gauge.

Motors were manufactured only as ordered, but often the orders were verbal.

1904 Harley- Davidson

All of the Harley-Davidson models from 1904 to the present time are on display at the Harley-Davidson factory in the historical exhibit. Anyone going to Milwaukee should see this exhibit

Way back when bicycles and motorcycles were closely related, Arthur Davidson and William Harley, school boy chums, decided to try their hand at making a motorized bicycle. Both young men, with the assistance of Walter Davidson, built the first working model in an old shed in the rear of the Davidson home in 1903. (The first motor was finished in 1902.) The machine was so successful they built three of them in 1904 for their friends. Four months to make each machine. The market price was $210.00 without taxes of any kind to be added.

This machine resembled somewhat other motor bicycles of the time, if anything it was slightly heavier in design and construction. One of the most obvious things wasthe appearance and size of the engine, due principally to excessively deep fins. Other motorcycle motors at the time had very shallow fins and, therefore, this Harley-Davidson motor looked huge with its eleven inch crankcase.

The frame and forks were made of heavy gauge material, lifting it out of the bicycle frame class. The wheel base was 53” and the height to the saddle was 31”. The machine weighed approximately 150 pounds and developed 3 h.p.

Like all the rest of the early motorcycles, to start this Harley-Davidson meant to pedal it or to run along side and jump on after the motor started. All early Harley-Davidsons were belt drive and the belt tightener or idler system can be seen in the picture. A spring device to keep uniform tension on the belt governed by a hand lever with a ratchet control attached to the tank served the purpose. This belt was 1 1/2” wide and 3/8” thick. The belt pulley was leather faced and it was necessary to keep the leather pulley facings as well as the belt treated with neatsfoot oil for satisfactory drive as well as preservation of the leather.

The gasoline tank is fitted just below the top frame bar and the oil tank fitted above the bar, both being clamped together. The gasoline capacity was about 1 1/2 gals., or as the manufacturers said in those days sufficient for 150 miles travel.

Battery ignition with a circuit breaker or “commutator,” spark coil and three dry batteries. The dry cells are located in the triangular case at the rear of the saddle. The spark coil is mounted directly below the tank ahead of the rear frame tube. An automatic inlet valve is used which means that the fuel charge was taken into the cylinder on the down stroke of the piston, the suction created causing the valve to open (it had a very weak spring) and thus take in the charge.

The carburetor was a very simple and efficient automatic type designed by Mr. Harley. The throttle control was by right hand grip through a chain and pulley arrangement to throttle shaft lever attached to the tank. The spark was controlled by a lever located on the right side of the tank.

Lubrication was centrifugal splash regulated by a needle valve. Oil was fed into the motor directly to the crank pin and thrown from the crank pin in centrifugal fashion to upper cylinder and other working parts. The motor would run about 2000 miles on a gallon of oil.

The braking system was an oversize bicycle coaster brake built into the rear hub and operated through the pedalling chain. To press the pedals backward caused the brake to act.

The speed of this 1904 Harley-Davidson was between 45 and 50 miles per hour where streets or roads would permit of such speed, and for the most part country roads were too hard, too rutted or too dusty for such high speeds. Some of the cities and towns, however, had brick pavement where the boys could open her up at least for a few blocks and enjoy the breezes.

The engine specifications are as follows: Bore 3”, stroke 3 1/2”. Diameter of flywheels 11 1/2”. Weight of flywheels 22 lbs. Weight of piston 24 ounces with 3 rings. Diameter of shaft and crank pin 5/16”. Diameter of wrist pin 5/8”. The left shaft bronze bearing was 1 5/8” long and the right or gear side shaft bearing was 2” long. Exhaust and inlet valve openings were 1 3/16” in diameter. The motor alone weighed 47 lbs. Wheels were 28” fitted with Goodrich or G&J 28 x 2 ½ inch tires of the double clincher type.

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