September 23, 2016

Internal-combustion engines don't consume fuel when they are not working. This is unlike horses. It is therefore not a surprise that horses were being replaced by engines for mail carriers, deliveries, and other services starting in the late 19th Century. Indian Motorcycles, established in 1901 under Hendee Manufacturing in Springfield, Mass., started selling their elegant little motorcycles to police forces; many of which were looking to reduce the cost of maintaining horses. This publicity shot shows an early "Camelback" Indian. New York City started using Indian motorcycles back in 1905. Both Harley-Davidson and Indian lobbied hard to get the lucrative municipal contracts for motorcycles. Indian’s left-hand throttle allowed police to use the right hand to direct motorists; not really for using a gun like so many would like to believe.  

September 9, 2016

German designs clearly influenced and propelled Japan’s postwar motorcycle industry. It is evident in this DKW. The Germans would provide a two-stroke engine foundation for many companies, including British, American, Russian, and Japanese makers.The Allies deemed the German designs as patent-free as part of their war reparations. Harley-Davidson took advantage of that to introduce the S125, its own faithful reproduction of the great little RT125 commuter bike made by Germany’s DKW. Britain’s BSA also introduced a DKW clone called the Bantam. Yamaha, a company rooted in musical instrument manufacture, did the same by introducing a 125cc in 1954, following a visit to Germany. Named the YA-1, it was remarkably similar to the DKW design. The small two-stroke with its Teutonic heritage brought transportation to a lot of people that otherwise may never have been able to afford it. Photo courtesy of Mike Dunn.

September 9, 2016

This fuzzy16mm movie frame of a sidecar race on a Berlin street was taken the day motorcycling made its first impression on me. My uncle took me to quite a few automobile races, but this was my first motorcycle race. I was around five years old, and was mesmerized by the sound and the speed. Prewar and postwar BMW, DKW, Zündapp, and NSUs were racing on the cobbled streets with little but the curb to direct their path. The postwar years in Europe were good times for motorcycle development. Despite the restraint of war, engineers visualized many concepts for when things would get back to normal. Vincent for one came out with quite a few new ideas, including the famous Series "B" Rapide...the World's Fastest Standard Motorcycle. Film by Ara Movsessian.

September 6, 2016

Board track racing was an exciting opportunity for young men to gain notariety and make some serious money. They could earn $2,000 a year. That's 3x the average American's wage in 1915, and equivalent to $47,000 today. The risk however was real. There was no safety equipment to speak of. Most wore a flimsy leather helmet and a wool sweater; not much use when hitting the boards and meeting long splinters. Things were not safe for the fans either. They stood at the top of the track. Many accidents happened where a rider lost control and flew over the top. The Newark Motordrome (NJ) a 1⁄8 mi oval banked at 45 degrees was the deadliest. On September 8, 1912, famous Eddie Hasha was killed. His bike also killed 4 spectators and injured 10 more. As the board tracks weathered, more accidents, and more splinters developed. Most were shut down by 1919 as safer dirt tracks took over. This was a bloody era in motorcycle racing. The photos show just how steep the banks were....

September 4, 2016

Board track racers of the nineteen-teens and early nineteen-twenties were motorcycles on steroids. Most featured highly modified and tuned engines driving the rear wheel directly without a transmission. A few models featured a clutch, but nearly all lacked a brake. The bikes had to be slowed down by riding up on the steep 45 degree banks and/or grounding out the ignition magneto via a small metal tab shorting against the handlebar. They were loud and spewed oil through their stubby exhaust pipes, making the wooden track slick.  Engine modifications may have included 4 valves per head, and as in the case of the formidable 61 cu in (1,000 cc) 45° V-Twin Cyclone made between 1912 and 1917, single ovehead cams. The example pictured in its famous yellow paint sold for over $750,000 at auction. The top photo is of an Indian racer in unrestored condition. It features a clutch lever mounted next to the tank. Bikes were push started. Part III will adress the brave men who rode these wild machin...

September 3, 2016

As motorcycle engines increased in power, so did their speed. A modified V-twin of the nineteen-teens could produce 30 to 45 horsepower; strong enough to propel a machine just a bit larger than a bicyle over 90 mph. Matter of fact, a V-twin Cyclone built in 1913 was timed at 108 mph in a Minneapolis motordrome. The next year it was timed at 111.1 mph at Omaha, Nebraska. These were astounding speeds given the simplicity of design of the motorcycles. This caught the eye of opportunistic promoters who went to work getting investors to fund the building of two dozen of the huge wooden motordromes. These steeply banked ovals were made of 2x4s. The pictured Los Angeles track was circular. The largest of the board tracks were in Chicago and Cincinnati at 2 miles. Spectator capacity was in the tens of thousands, with a record attendance of 80,000 at Chicago's Speedway Park. Part II will look at the machines, Part III will look at the racers and the danger they faced....

September 2, 2016

Motorcycle Polo, or Motoball, as it is called in Europe, is essentially a soccer game where the players are on motorcycles. The ball is typically larger than a soccer ball and may be kicked or manipulated with the bike. Motorcycle Polo was very popular in the United States during the Depression years when Uncle Harry played it. It required extraordinary strength and skill.

The bikes used were Harleys and Indians with foot clutches and hand shifts.

The game is very popular in Europe today, albeit with smaller and more agile dirt bikes with a hand clutch and hand brake. The photos show that it is a dangerous contact sport.

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©2016 Armand Ensanian

Equus Potentia Publishing

Discovering the Motorcycle