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Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Brand to be Offered by Mecum Auctions 2018

By Paul d’Orléans

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Editor's Note: The Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Brand to be Offered by Mecum Auctions.

Purchase includes ownership of the Excelsior-Henderson Brand. As one of the Big 3, Excelsior-Henderson has a rich history. 18 federally registered trademarks are included in the Excelsior-Henderson purchase.

A unique offering by Mecum Auctions will take place in Las Vegas on Jan. 27, 2018, at the South Point Hotel & Casino. The iconic Excelsior-Henderson motorcycle brand and all its intellectual property will be auctioned at the 27th annual Mecum Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction, which will span Jan. 23-27 and present 1,750 motorcycles for auction.

Included in the purchase will be the ownership of the Excelsior-Henderson brand name, all federally registered trademarks, web domains and includes the previous motorcycle frame and engine designs, as well as the expired patents that can only be effectively exploited by the owner of Excelsior-Henderson.

--Mecum Auctions


The Big 3. For a time, they were the last men standing in the American motorcycle industry: Excelsior-Henderson, Harley-Davidson and Indian. They fought hard on the dirt tracks, race tracks, hill climbs and sales floors, and in their 1920s heyday, the competition between the Big 3 made for the most exciting racing anyone had ever seen between the fastest and most advanced racing bikes in the world.

Sales-floor competition made each company improve its products dramatically, and by the late 1920s, it was Excelsior-Henderson and Indian that dominated the 45 CI (750cc) market with the Super X and Scout models.

Their big models—the Henderson Four as well as the Indian Chief and Four—were admired the world over, and were in many ways the most attractive and technically interesting motorcycles built in the U.S. But larger forces were at work in the marketplace, far beyond any company’s control, that determined the fate of the Big 3.

Excelsior-Henderson, Harley-Davidson and Indian all nearly succumbed to the Great Depression. Their sales figures after October 29, 1929, were dismal, and instead of selling tens of thousands of motorcycles toward the end of 1929, they sold bikes by the tens and hundreds, while unsold stock languished in distribution warehouses.

Drastic action was necessary; Harley-Davidson found cash in Japan, selling its old tooling and leftover parts supply to make Rikuo motorcycles under license, a deal arranged by the company’s Japanese importer Alfred R. Child. It’s still little known that the “Dabbitoson Harley Motorcycle Co. Japan” was the secret savior of the Screaming Eagle.

1929 four.
1929 four.

As for Indian, E. Paul DuPont decided he’d rather double down and buy a majority stake in the company than see his family’s six-figure investment go down the drain, resulting in the company’s most profitable period ever from 1930-45.

Excelsior-Henderson was owned by Ignaz Schwinn, whose mighty two-wheeled empire in Chicago earned most of its profit from bicycles. Schwinn correctly foresaw a major downturn in motorcycle sales for 1930, and decided to pull the plug on his big bikes and focus on the ones without motors, which were likely to continue selling when jobs were scarce.

He was right; Schwinn bicycles outlived Indian and thrived through the 1960s and ‘70s, but the company never again produced motorcycles. But the Excelsior-Henderson name has quietly survived, waiting for the right combination of capital and inspiration to roar back to life.

The motorcycle industry began slowly in the U.S. at the dawn of the 20th century, but soon it exploded into life, becoming a veritable springtime of manufacturers sprouting up from the ingenuity and pluck of our native country.

Hundreds of small factories emerged between 1900 and 1920, as the formula for making a motorcycle—adding a motor to a bicycle—was intuitively easy to replicate. Bicycles were at the peak of their popularity, with manufacturers like Schwinn producing hundreds of thousands per year and inventing “vertical integration” by incorporating every aspect of building, advertising, selling, racing, sponsoring and repairing under its umbrella, and becoming very rich in the process.

Ignaz Schwinn was an American success story. Born in 1860 near Baden, Germany, Schwinn was the second eldest of seven children, and while his family was mildly prosperous as manufacturers of organs and pianos, his father died when he was just 11.

After a primary and vocational school education, he scoured northern Germany for work, repairing bicycles for cash. He found a job as a machinist at the Kleyer bicycle works and burned the midnight oil on a small drawing board in his room, designing his own “safety” bicycle, which had recently been invented by Stanley in England. Heinrich Kleyer approved of these drawings, and gradually Schwinn rose to the post of factory manager and designer for Kleyer’s “Adler” bicycles—the factory later grew famous making typewriters and motorcycles.

In 1891, Schwinn left Germany to seek his fortune in Chicago, the center of American bicycle manufacture. He quickly found work at the Hill Cycle Manufacturing Co., makers of the “Fowler” bicycle, where once again he rose to the job of factory manager and designer.

Schwinn was also involved in the launch of Hill’s related International Manufacturing Co., which produced the “America” bicycle. Schwinn designed International’s bicycles, selected the machinery and tools for manufacture, and hired the employees to make them. Within a year, he was supervising 237 workers and oversaw a move to a larger factory building with 60,000 square feet of space.

Schwinn had made a great success of International Manufacturing, but he wasn’t happy with the management of the company, and he quit in 1894. During that year, he made plans to begin his own bicycle-manufacturing business, keeping an eye out for a good location and someone who could provide financial backing. He found a kindred spirit in another German immigrant, Adolf Arnold, who owned the Arnold Brothers meat-packing plant and was president of the Haymarket Produce Bank. After Schwinn’s successful management of three large bicycle manufacturing firms during a worldwide boom in the bicycle industry, the idea of him starting his own company must have seemed a sure bet to Arnold.

Arnold, Schwinn & Co. was founded in 1895, with Arnold’s investment of $75,000. The company carried on doing business under that name through 1967, although when Arnold retired in 1908, Schwinn purchased his stake in the company. That year, the company built 50,000 bicycles—a number that would double in three years. Schwinn became a very large company and even fielded a racing team in Europe to promote the brand. With so much success, Ignaz’ son, Frank—an avid motorcyclist—encouraged his father to invest in the burgeoning motorcycle industry.

Schwinn’s engineers designed a motorcycle in 1910 with a parallel-twin cylinder engine, a crankcase incorporating an integral clutch, and a shaft final drive. It was a very advanced design, and at least one prototype was built, but Schwinn decided it prudent to buy an existing motorcycle brand rather than develop a new one. Dozens of small and large companies made motorcycles in the U.S. in 1910, and most of them struggled to make ends meet in a highly competitive market. Ignaz Schwinn didn’t have to look far for a successful motorcycle manufacturer looking to sell; he found the perfect fit right in Chicago.

Excelsior Supply Company

The Excelsior Supply Company was formed in 1876 by George T. Robie, initially for the distribution of sewing-machine parts. By the early 1890s, Excelsior branched into the booming bicycle business as well, selling parts and new “safety” bicycles built by other brands.

By 1904, the company added automobile parts to its list of distributed supplies. George was content with distribution, but his son Frederick aspired to be a manufacturer and prevailed over his father to embark on motorcycle production. The “Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review” noted in 1906, “The Excelsior Company is the largest and best known bicycle supply house in the West, and has the means and equipment and acquaintance to cut a very large figure in the motorcycle business.”

The Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Co. was formed as a subsidiary of the Excelsior Supply Co. in 1907 with Frederick Robie as president. The brand’s first motorcycle was called the Triumph Model B, using a Thor engine—designed by Indian and built under license by the Aurora Automatic Machine Co., just outside Chicago—with Excelsior’s own chassis.

The Triumph was a stopgap to enter the market quickly; during the 1908 model year, a new machine was introduced, designed by Excelsior’s George Meiser, called the Excelsior Auto-Cycle Model A. By 1909, business was booming, and Frederick Robie hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build him a new home on Woodlawn Avenue in Chicago.

Unfortunately, in late 1909, George T. Robie died of appendicitis, and young Frederick, at the age of 29, was left to run both his motorcycle business and the far-larger Supply Co., as well as settle his father’s personal debts. The Excelsior Motorcycle Co. was booming and could not keep up with demand, so Frederick expanded both the manufacturing premises and the product line.

Extensive product lines taxed the company resources and left them spread thin. Excelsior developed a new V-twin motor for 1910 possessing a beautiful profile, which went into full production in 1911; but the combined weight of managing both the Supply and Motorcycle companies was too much for Frederick. While his Excelsior Motorcycle Co. was tremendously successful, the combination of his father’s debts and lackluster performance from the Supply Co. made Excelsior ripe for a takeover.

Excelsior Under Schwinn: 1912-17

A transfer-of-ownership contract between Ignaz Schwinn and his former rival, the Excelsior Supply Co. and Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Co., was signed on November 14, 1911. All the assets of these companies went to Schwinn, including the factory and office equipment; motors, motorcycles, bicycles, whole or in process; all parts and stock; the goodwill and rights to brand names; all patents; and the right to manufacture and sell under the Excelsior name.

Ignaz Schwinn personally signed a check for $500,000 on February 1, 1912; with the mighty Schwinn name behind it, Excelsior now had the capital it needed to thrive. A new factory was a first priority, and the newly formed Excelsior Motor, Mfg. & Supply Co. built a new, 200,000-square-foot factory in Chicago, the largest motorcycle plant in the world. The new big red “X” logo appeared on Excelsior fuel tanks that year.

Schwinn knew racing success was the best advertising, and Excelsior built special racing machines and hired professional riders to fly its flag, like Jake DeRosier, Charles Balke, Lee Humiston and Don Johns. Excelsior board-track racers were highly successful, and in 1912, they became the first motorcycle to exceed an average of 100 MPH during a race when Humiston flew over the boards at Playa Del Rey in Los Angeles. In 1914, Excelsior introduced the 7-S.C. racing V-twin with a “short-coupled” frame, specifically for the board tracks and dirt ovals of the day, to compete against Indian’s 8-valve racer introduced in 1911.

Regardless of the Indian’s theoretical superiority, the Excelsior V-twin proved a worthy adversary, setting many speed records. In late 1915, Carl Goudy won a 300-mile race at Chicago’s famous Speedway Park Board Track, averaging more than 85 MPH. Advertisements for “the Big X” reminded buyers that Excelsior was “still the only motor that has ever attained a speed of 100 miles per hour under FAM sanction and recognition.”

The first “Schwinn” Excelsiors appeared in 1915 with new, sweeping lines that presaged the streamline era of the 1920s and ‘30s. The frame top tube curved downward at the rear, creating a lower seating position and allowing the fuel tank to taper at the back, while the front fender had a curved “bell” at the bottom, giving the whole machine a masculine grace. Excelsior’s new “big valve” engine proved faster than its rivals on road and track, and the company introduced a Lightweight model with a 221cc motor for new riders.

Despite difficult economic conditions during World War I, Excelsior flourished, and Schwinn looked to expand his product line to include 4-cylinders. By 1917, the Pierce Motorcycle Co. was long gone, and only Henderson built 4-cylinder motorcycles in the U.S.

Early four, model G.
Early four, model G.

The Henderson Motorcycle Company

William Henderson should have been the inheritor of the Winton automobile factory, as the grandson of Winton’s founder and the son of Thomas Henderson, vice-president of Winton. Young William dreamed of two wheels though, and he sketched dozens of drawings for a new 4-cylinder motorcycle, which he ran by his engineer father for approval.

Years of back-and-forth ended with a blueprint for a complete 4-cylinder motorcycle in 1909, detailed to the last nut and bolt, which his father could not criticize. His father advised him to quit the idea, as he knew the difficulties of manufacturing and selling a vehicle, but he chose an unusual parental strategy, giving William enough money to build a prototype in hopes the difficult process of building a motorcycle from scratch would deter his son.

It took more than a year for Tom to turn his blueprints into casting patterns for frame lugs, crankcases and cylinder heads, but by 1911, the prototype was complete, and it worked very well. The first Henderson motorcycle was a unique long-chassis inline 4-cylinder machine with single-speed direct belt drive and built-in seating for two on its long chassis.

Production by the new Henderson Motorcycle Co. began in 1912. William was joined in forming a business by his brother, Thomas, and with their father’s help, they found $175,000 of capitalization to begin production. After setting up a factory in Detroit, the first production Henderson motorcycle emerged in January 1912.

The engine was a 4-cylinder 57 CI (934cc) F-head with a single-speed chain drive and clutch, which was started by a folding hand crank—shades of Winton practice. Beside the 4-cylinder motor, the most distinctive feature was that very long chassis with built-on passenger seating, with a short leading-link front fork and a lovely “torpedo” fuel/oil tank, which was used for one year only. The Henderson was an attractive machine, beautifully built, and expensive at $325.

The new Henderson was an immediate international news item, as Carl Stearns Clancy set forth on a new Henderson in October 1912, intending to become the first motorcyclist to circle the globe. Clancy made money as he traveled by selling stories to the press; thus, everyone within reach of a newspaper knew about the Henderson motorcycle, a tremendous global PR coup.

By 1915, Henderson gained a 2-speed rear hub, and by spring, a much shorter wheelbase was available as an option at 58 inches instead of the original 65 inches, in an effort to bring the Henderson more in line with other manufacturers’ dimensions.

In January 1917, Roy Artley rode a Henderson and sidecar (with passenger Alan Munks) for 24 hours straight, making three round trips between Del Mar and Los Angeles to set a new world record of 706 miles, adding 122 miles to the previous record.

On the other end of the performance scale, E.L. Hals of Modesto managed 104.2 miles on a gallon of gas with his ’16 Henderson, winning a fuel economy contest between Henderson dealers. Police departments and gentleman riders appreciated the quiet quality of the smooth 4-cylinder, although behind the scenes, the factory was struggling mightily with problems of inflation brought on by World War I.

The 1917 Model G was announced in September 1916, had a 3-speed gearbox, the “short” frame, a proper kickstarter, stronger forks and a new induction tract, which fed the cylinders more efficiently and generated more power. Full electric lighting was offered, and even Henry Ford bought himself a Henderson. But the company had yet to turn a profit, and as honorable men, William and Thomas Henderson decided to sell the company.

The Henderson brothers had been manufacturing their own design of motorcycle for six years, and their 4-cylinder machine was globally acclaimed as a superb design. The Henderson men were still relatively young—Tom was 46 and William just 36—and would continue to be involved with the motorcycle industry for years to come.

Henderson Acquired by Schwinn in 1917

In 1917, Ignaz Schwinn looked to expand his motorcycle business and thought a 4-cylinder lineup would complement his line of singles and V-twins nicely. It wasn’t known until the 1990s—and is still little-known today—that under Schwinn’s direction, Excelsior drew up plans for a 4-cylinder motorcycle.

Plans dated March 1917 designated it the Model O, which featured a sidevalve engine—rather than Henderson’s “pocket valve” IoE motor—3-speed gearbox and a shaft final drive, a mix of Pierce and Henderson’s best ideas. But in a repeat of his successful 1911 tactics, Schwinn surmised it would be easier to start production of a 4-cylinder using an established design. There was only one U.S. company making 4-cylinders in 1917; the Henderson Motorcycle Co. of Detroit.

Although the Henderson brothers built the “Duesenberg of Motorcycles,” they’d yet to turn a profit. The company had several suitors, but on October 1, 1917, Thomas Henderson, president of Henderson Motorcycle Co., gave a financial statement to Ignaz Schwinn. It showed assets of $284,693.39, and liabilities of $288,091.71.

The proposed sale of the Henderson Motorcycle Co. included 200 shares of Excelsior stock for Tom and a position as general sales manager at $10,000 per year for five years. Schwinn merged his two brands as Excelsior-Henderson and began making changes in earnest.

1929 Model X.
1929 Model X.


The year 1917 was an exceptional one for the newly integrated Excelsior-Henderson brands. Alan T. Bedell used a Special Model G Henderson to lop four days off “Cannonball” Baker’s 1914 cross-country Indian record, making the Los Angeles-to-New York trip in seven days, 16 hours and 15 minutes, with no mechanical trouble. The Excelsior Lightweight was dropped from the line to focus attention on further developing the Henderson 4-cylinder, so the Excelsior-Henderson model line now consisted of a big V-twin and a Four.

The heat in American racing was truly turned up when Harley-Davidson officially entered the fray, fielding a team of professional riders for the first time. The company took a leaf from Indian’s technical book and introduced its own 8-valve racer, and the intense competition between factories created the first Golden Age of American motorcycle racing. Excelsior had an excellent design, which required little development to be very fast, but the factory’s attention after 1917 was on the Henderson, the only 4-cylinder motorcycle produced in the U.S. between 1911-21. World War I and the ensuing inflation of wages and materials shook out most motorcycle manufacturers, leaving the Big 3 to duke it out: Excelsior-Henderson, Indian and Harley-Davidson.

Schwinn knew Excelsior needed a boost in racing, and while the Henderson was excellent for long-distance events, it was no dirt-track/board-track racer. Excelsior developed an OHC V-twin design in 1919, based closely on the Cyclone design, and built six engines for the 1920 season. But changes to the racing rules—to limit speeds and increase safety—spelled the end of the board-track era.

Hill climbing was on the ascendant—the practice of “vertical drag racing” up freakish hills across the country—and Excelsior Big Valve racers proved very much suited for the practice. Long-distance racing and hill climbs were Excelsior-Henderson’s biggest source of advertising copy in the post-World War I period, as well as international racing, with wins in South Africa, Denmark and France.

Short-track racing with smaller 500cc (30.50 CI) motors was gaining popularity, and Excelsior adapted its Model M racing V-twin motor into a single and took records on tracks across the U.S. But the sport of hill climbing really attracted the crowds, growing enormously popular as the decade progressed.

A full 30,000 spectators watched the Capistrano Hill Climb in San Francisco in 1922, where Wells Bennett’s Excelsior bested local-favorite Dudley Perkins’ Harley-Davidson. The following year, 40,000 people watched as Ed Ryan—on a very special, long-wheelbase 80 CI Excelsior Model M racer—won the Open class at Capistrano, besting the factory-sponsored efforts of Indian and Harley-Davidson. The era of the “slant artist” had begun.

Hendersons gained a new sidevalve motor based on Schwinn’s original Model O design of 1916, and all models had 3-speed gearboxes. The finish and quality of construction of the Hendersons earned the name “Duesenberg of Motorcycles,” and they continued to win long-distance events before the sanctioning body of racing—the M&ATA Competition Committee—stopped certifying cross-country record runs and instead dubbed them as “outlaw events.”

Excelsior made a strategic move in 1925 and introduced the new Super X as a 45 CI (750cc) V-twin into a vacant gap in the American marketplace. Indian produced the 600cc Scout model, which was popular, but adding 150cc made the Super X faster than the Scout and nearly as fast at the 61 CI Harley-Davidsons and Indians.

The Super X was light, handled very well with a double-cradle loop frame, and had a good turn of speed. It was easily tuned for racing too and changed the American motorcycle marketplace for decades to come. Suddenly the 45 CI class was popular with riders, and while it was easy for Indian to add engine capacity to the Scout, Harley-Davidson needed a totally new design to compete, which didn’t appear for another four years with the Model D.

In 1929, the Excelsior-Henderson line was transformed with the new Streamline series. Rounded teardrop tanks and lower riding positions gave a thoroughly modernized appearance, and performance of the Henderson 4-cylinder was greatly improved with input from former Harley-Davidson staff Joe Petrali and Arthur Constantine, who’d joined Excelsior-Henderson on the design team.

The Henderson KJ model had 31 HP, and was capable of 100 MPH, satisfying the many police departments using 4-cylinder pursuit motorcycles. On the competition front, Petrali had won the 1928 Hillclimb Championship on a Super X, but competition was heating up with Indian and Harley-Davidson developing very special racers.

In response, Petrali and Constantine built a series of experimental racers, including an OHV version of the Super X designed with Andrew Koslow that developed 50 HP on alcohol. In the Unlimited class, they built several “Big Bertha” racers using 61 CI motors and IoE cylinder heads. Petrali won 31 competitions in a row with his Big Bertha, and he won the Championship again in 1929, and in 1930, Gene Rhyne took the Championship for Excelsior once more.

But the economic crash of October 1929 was devastating to all industries in the U.S. The effects were immediate, and motorcycle sales fell drastically. As mentioned, Harley-Davidson scraped through the early 1930s with an infusion of cash from Japan, and Indian survived via a takeover by the DuPont family.

Ignaz and his son Frank Schwinn were canny businessman and predicted that the Great Depression, as it became known, could last many years. It was decided to pare back manufacturing to suit the times, and so they assembled the key Excelsior-Henderson personnel in March 1931 to announce, “Gentlemen, today we stop.”

The Excelsior-Henderson Revival

In the early 1990s, motorcycles were booming in the U.S., especially the heavyweight cruiser market. Daniel Hanlon secured the trademarks and rights to produce great American motorcycles under the Excelsior-Henderson brand. British-based Weslake Engineering developed a sophisticated DOHC 4-valve fuel-injected V-twin motor that would be further refined for the needs of a big American cruiser.

Hanlon’s intention was to build a proprietary “100-year bike” of tremendous durability and build quality. His team designed a chassis to echo the original Super X at a factory in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. The Super X, began production in December 1998 and nearly 2,000 machines were built before the Excelsior-Henderson limited-production run was complete in late 1999.

There is tremendous enthusiasm in the American Motorcycle market for heritage brands, and now there’s a historic and tremendous opportunity to own one of the Big 3.

Forever this individual’s name will be etched in history as an owner of Excelsior-Henderson and inherit the heritage of the brand, just as Schwinn and a select few others have in the past. Imagine the possibilities of being part of this important lineage. The name alone holds a unique mystique and heritage that sparks the passion of a multitude of motorcycle enthusiasts. In short, an iconic brand with such a rich history as Excelsior-Henderson deserves another act. Just imagine the possibilities …

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