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"For Sale: c1909 California Autocycle. Motor Needs Work."


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It sounded interesting. When I saw it an hour later I was amazed. Not 1909, surely? It was the first time I had seen a motorcycle with wooden rims - although common on early American bicycles, they were rarely used in Australia.

When I got it home, I was still puzzled. But after considerable head scratching, and the discovery of 1902 patent dates on the engine and coaster rear hub, I was convinced it was very early indeed. Confirmation came from a line drawing in Victor Page's classic book "Early Motorcycles: Construction, Operation, Service". The book itself dates from around 1914, but the drawing of the Yale (California) which closely resembled my new find, was in a section labelled "Some Early American Motorcycles Which Show a Wide Diversity of Opinion Regarding Essentials of Design Which are Standardized at the Present Time".

 line drawing

The machine turned out to be a fascinating one. Although the motor had survived a major disaster at some stage (thus the flywheel on the wrong side and a non-standard crank), in this it kept illustrious company. When George Wyman became the first motorist to cross the continental US under his own power in 1903, his only major mechanical failure was a broken crank!

The California Motor Company of San Francisco was short-lived. Announced in October 1901 to build a machine designed by Roy Marks, two years later in October 1903 an announcement appeared to the effect that the Kirk Manufacturing Company and the Snell Cycle Fittings Company were to merge to for The Consolidated Manufacturing Company, and that this company, based in Toledo, Ohio, had acquired the rights to the California motorcycle.

The new machine, to be manufactured on the old machinery which had been shipped to Toledo, was to be called the Yale -California. The first Yale motorcycle.


Not a very common machine in Australia, but there are a few similar surviviors in the US. Although my machine has been mucked around with over the years, the original specs were:

Engine: 1 1/2 hp California, Patented R.C. Marks Sept 30, 1902
Lubrication: Oil in separate cup on top of motor
Ignition: Batteries in box above rear wheel, with "Dow-Port" coil in tank
Carburettor: California patented wick carburettor in front of tank
Transmission: Direct belt
Frame: Cycle type, with leading link fork
Wheels: Wooden rims for 28x1 1/2 "singles" type tyres
Brakes: Atherton coaster rear, Duck roller brake at front
Tanks: Single tank for fuel, also holding coil and carburettor.
Builder: California Motor Company, 2212 Folsom St, San Francisco
Original Finish: Black frame and tank? Wheel rims with blue centres

Across America on a motorcycle

I've often wondered whether I could repeat it: to cross the continental US from San Francisco to New York on a gutless motorcycle with wooden wheels. But there are roads now. When George Wyman did it in 1903 there were only tracks, and he had to retreat to the railway crossties to make any progress at all. When he completed his 3800-mile journey on the afternoon of July 6, 1903 he became the first person to cross the continent with a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. The stuff of legends.


Roy Marks

All California motors have cast into the crankcase: R.C. Marks, and either "Patent applied for" or "Pat'd Sept 30, 1902". The motor was patented by one Roy Marks, originally of Toledo, Ohio, then San Diego and later of San Francisco. When the California Motor Company was formed in 1901it was announced that ".. the immediate purpose of the company is the manufacture of a motor bicycle invented by R.C. Marks..." Although there is a restored machine in San Francisco that purports to be a Marks motorcycle, I believe it to be an early California. While Marks may have invented the machine, I don't believe he was a motorcycle manufacturer.

When the California motorcycle was announced to the public in The Cycling Gazette in January 1902, one of its leading features was described as a "...carburetor that performs its function so well that it does not cause the gas to deposit soot on the spark plug, and that will use gasoline of any quality."

A short history of the California Motor Company The first reference I have to the California Motor Company appeared in the motorcycling press in October 1901 [1]. It's brief enough that we can reproduce it here in full:

To Make Motocycles in California

The California Motor Co. has been organised at San Francisco with Lewis Bill, president; J. W. Leavitt, vice president, and J. F. Bill, secretary and treasurer. While automobiles are in view, the immediate purpose of the company is the manufacture of a motor bicycle invented by R. C. Marks, formerly of Toledo, Ohio, who with E. E. Stoddard and H. A. Burgess constitute the firm.

I haven't had a chance to search for company records, but it's a fair bet the company itself was formed some time around September 1901. Marks filed the first of two patent applications covering the details of his motorcycle on September 7, 1901, and significantly Louis H. Bill was one of the witnesses on the application. (Note the spelling difference: the patent being more "official", I favour "Louis" as the correct version.) No doubt the new company was keen to protect its intellectual property. In a slightly later piece [3], Leavitt & Bill ("...well known cycle dealers...") were said to be the principal owners of stock in the company, and L. H. Bill was described as "...formerly with the Thomas company". The company premises were listed at 2212 Folsom St., San Francisco.

From the timing of this announcement, we see that if production of California "motocycles" (this spelling was widespread in the early days of the U.S. industry) did begin in 1901, it was very late in the year. By early 1902 the California publicity machine was in full swing and a number of articles appeared in the motorcycling press [2-4]. The first illustration I have appeared in The Motor Age early in February 1902 [4], corresponding with the release of the first California catalogue.

By this time, the company was said to be "...making deliveries". The machine as shown at this early date is very much as outlined in Mark's patent applications, and differs most notable from later production Californias in that the front fork is rigid, and the drive is by round - rather than flat - belt. Accessories include the Duck brake, and a Garford spring saddle. I'm not sure when the sprung front fork appeared, but a very original early survivor in the US [5] is fitted with the unbraced fork, but with the sprung rocking links. Advertising through 1903 [6-8] used a photograph showing the braced fork. Strangely little was said about the spring fork in period advertising, especially since in the 1906 Yale-California catalogue the makers claimed: "We were the first to use the spring front fork on a motor cycle".

An amusing omission from this photo is the glass lubricating cup, that sat on top of the crank case. Perhaps it was too embarrassing to admit to!

A significant event in 1902 was the granting on September 30 of two US patents: 710,329 Explosive Engine for Motor-Vehicles (filed September 7,1901), and 710,330 Carbureter for Explosive-Engines (filed January 2, 1902). Although granted to Roy Marks, it seems likely that these patents were "company assets" which protected - and gave value to - their successful product.

1903 was a landmark year for the California Motor Company. It was the year that they "made it" in the motorcycling world, but also the year that they ceased motorcycle manufacture for good.

Undoubtedly the biggest event of the year for the company was George Wyman's success in crossing the continent on his California motorcycle. The publicity generated by this event was huge: not only did it consume pages of the specialist press (for example The Motorcycle Magazine and The Bicycling World and Motocycle Review both carried extensive reports over several issues), but the event captured good coverage in newspapers of the day. California advertising made much of the epic achievement, but perhaps more importantly much of the post-ride editorial comment read like California advertising copy. In these pioneering days of motorcycling, the California was was in the spotlight.

But the directors of the company did not spend too much time basking in the glory. Wyman completed his journey in July, and within three months a deal had been struck to sell the manufacturing rights of the motorcycle to the newly-formed Consolidated Manufacturing Company based in Toledo, Ohio. The details were outlined in an article in the October 17, 1903 edition of The Bicycling World and Motocycle Review headed "KIRK AND SNELL UNITE: Long Allied They Become One Company and Engage in Big Deal in Motor Bicycles".

In part the article reads: The factory of the California Motor Company will be closed, the important machinery, etc., shipped to Toledo, and with it will go the men who built the machine that has made such an enviable record in the Coast country. L. H. Bill, however, will remain in San Francisco, where the California Motor Company will retain the coast agency. The new motorcycle was to be called the Yale-California, and while the first models were very similar to the original California, the machine evolved to become the once-famous Yale.

I'm not sure how much of the California Motor Company lived on in San Francisco after October 1903. Certainly L. H. Bill maintained a profile in the press, but when talking up Yale-California motorcycles in June 1904 [10] his association was given as "C. E. & B. I. Bill", and a testimonial in the 1906 Yale-California catalogue was addressed to "Messrs. Leavitt & Bill". Perhaps someone with access to early San Francisco trade directories can help out?

Another puzzle: in one 1903 advertisement [8], the address of the California Motor Company is given as 305 Larkin St, San Francisco. The same address is given in January 1902 [3] for The California Handle Bar Company, manufacturers of a rather novel adjustable handle bar. Presumably another of Mr Bill's cycle-based interests. Were Larkin and Folsom Streets nearby? Do the factories still exist?

So there we have it. In two hectic years the California Motor Company was founded, built a motorcycle and a reputation, and then sold out. If the history books are anything to go by, the company has essentially been forgotten, despite producing what should be one of the most famous motorcycles of all time: Wyman's trans-continental mount. Hopefully the 2003 centenary of Wynan's ride will jog some memories.


The Bicycling World and Motocycle Review, 17 October 1901
The Cycling Gazette, January 1902, p 32
The Motor Age, 9 January 1902, pp 29-31
The Motor Age, 6 February 1902, pp 4-5
The Antique Motorcycle, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 1989
The Bicycling World and Motocycle Review, 18 April 1903
The Motor Age, 30 April 1903
The Bicycling World and Motocycle Review, 4 July 1903
The Bicycling World and Motocycle Review, 17 October 1903
The Bicycling World and Motocycle Review, 4 June 1904


Thanks to Howard Heilman, Yale enthusiast extraordinaire, how helped out with many of the original references cited here. Other references were found during a fascinating day spent in the reading room at the Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Young Floyd Clymer and the Yale-California

American readers will probably be familiar with the name of Floyd Clymer, dealer, rider and publisher. In July 1916, riding an 8-valve Harley-Davidson, Clymer set World's Dirt Track records for one hour (83.71 miles) an 100 miles (1 hour 11 min. 45 sec.), and in 1926 he set the record for the classic ascent of Pike's Peak. But Clymer is perhaps best known for his publishing efforts, among which were his "Historical Scrapbooks". First published in the early 1940's, these were among the first publications to deal with what we would now call "vintage" vehicles.

Article and photos courtesy of: http://users.senet.com.au/~mitchell/bikes/california/california.htm

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