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the Only Motorcycle Company to be Destroyed by a Natural Disaster

By Wilburn Roach with photos by the Master Markus Cuff

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This is a story about the early motorcycle industry and one of the most magnificent startups unfortunately unable to survive, because of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The California earthquake of April 18, 1906, ranks as one of the most significant earthquakes of all time. Rupturing the northernmost 296 miles (477 kilometers) of the San Andreas fault from northwest of San Juan Bautista to the triple junction at Cape Mendocino, the earthquake confounded contemporary geologists with its large, horizontal displacements and great rupture length.

At precisely 5:12 a.m., local time, a foreshock occurred with sufficient force to be felt widely throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The great earthquake broke loose 20 to 25 seconds later, with an epicenter near San Francisco. Violent shocks punctuated immense shaking which lasted 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.

Rumor has it Carl N. Nelk pushed this motorcycle out in front of his brick building for a photo-shoot when the earthquake hit. The blast destroyed his operation behind him. One bike survived and this is it. More than 3,000 San Franciscans died, and over 80 percent of the city was destroyed.

During this era and even into the ’30s the country watched motorcycle manufacturers come and go, while technology expanded rapidly. Some motorcycle companies grew behind not-so-reliable machines, while others including the Nelk, of Palo Alto, California, with its outside polished flywheel was way ahead of its time from a styling and performance standpoint. Unfortunately, the smooth art-deco styling never made it to the mass-manufacturing stage.

There can be stellar designs and devastating natural disasters. There can be quirky machines and bad management or magnificent technology and not enough funds. Business is a gamble daily and the motorcycle business holds a number of pitfalls. But we don’t know of another motorcycle start-up that didn’t survive because of a natural phenomenon.

The Nelk delivered performance, reliability and styling with overhead cams, rubber-mounted drive line, water-cooled top-end, artistically developed radiator, you name it, but the city-crushing earthquake sealed the deal forever.

According to Tod Rafferty, Nelk’s company survived from 1905 to 1912, but Carl didn’t build motorcycles after the earthquake.

The rear wheel contained a clutch, and the stylish rear sprocket was common bicycle design of the era. Even the Remington-made cork grips and engraved caps had function and style. The wet sump, over-head cam, battery powered, rubber-mounted engine was dynamic for the era, although the owner was forced to push-start the beast and jump on board to reach the foot-pedal clutch lever.

The batteries and coil were stashed below the engine is a super, art-deco shapely container to power the electric distributor. The Nelk even contained a bicycle-styled front brake.

The motorcycle contained all the earmarks of bicycle styling, but many early motorcycles were built around bike frames. This puppy could fly along at a respectable 35 mph and made toast out of any bicycle of the time but remember most of the roads were dirt until 1907.

1907: The Automobile and the Rise of Refined Petroleum Asphalt

Until about 1900, just about all asphalt used in the United States came from natural sources. However, as the automobile rose in popularity, an increased demand for better roads led to innovations in both producing and laying asphalt. This included making the switch to refined petroleum-based asphalt pavement, as well as the introduction of the mechanical drum mixers and spreaders.

Let’s roll forward into the ‘60s and the hippie generation. While folks smoked dope and listened to Janis Joplin, technology never stopped and old bikes weren’t worth the powder to blow them to hell. Forward thinking enthusiasts, like Mike Egan drove around the country buying up old dealer inventories for next to nothing.

A few proud, historically curious guys started to buy old motorcycles, and then in the ‘90s prices soared. A brother, who bought a batch of ‘50s Indian Chiefs began to unravel the antique motorcycle market and built a trusted customer base. Collectors who didn’t want to dig in barns relied on a very few knowledgeable enthusiasts to deliver the jewels of our past to their collections.

A potential customer reached out to Don Whalen, the founder of Sierra Madre Motorcycle Company and asked to find and purchase the only Nelk motorcycle in existence. Don knew where the true jewels were hiding. As the soul curator for the Richard Bunch Family collection, he delivered on this Nelk, the only one. It’s still in the family collection in hiding somewhere in California.

--Wilburn Roach

Engine: Overhead cam single
Displacement: 220cc
Horsepower: 2 hp
Wheelbase: 45 inches
Weight: 110 pounds
Top speed: 35 mph
Price: $225

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Reader Comments

What an amazing work of art.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022
Editor Response I know, incredible...

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