America’s two-wheeled Cadillac
Although beaten to the honour of creating America’s first four-cylinder motorcycle by the Pierce Four introduced in 1909, when Scottish-born brothers William G. and Thomas W. Henderson founded the Henderson Motorcycle Co. in Detroit, Michigan in 1911, their aim was to manufacture a luxurious, reliable four-cylinder machine that was substantially better than anything else yet available in the marketplace. While Tom Henderson was a financial wiz, brother Bill proved to be one of the finest engineers in the USA’s early days of motorcycle R&D. The luxuriousness and quality of his designs outranked anything yet made by a European manufacturer, resulting in the company’s products being christened as ‘two-wheeled Cadillacs’.
After building a single prototype in 1911 with belt final drive, Henderson Motorcycle Co. began manufacture in January 1912 of 25 examples for public sale of its first Model B Four powered by a 934cc/57ci inline engine with mechanically-operated i.o.e. (inlet-over-exhaust) valves and chain final drive, and while it had just a single-speed transmission it did have a clutch — an uncommon feature on bikes of that era. Costing $325, the new Henderson Four retailed for $75 less than its Pierce rival, whose demise it surely hastened. Its low-slung frame extended two feet in front of the engine, with the space between the leading-link fork and the engine occupied by footboards, and twin pedals for the rear brake.
On one of these bikes Henderson customer Carl Stearns Clancy became the first man to circumnavigate the globe on a motorcycle, after deciding to emulate the exploits of certain bicycle riders who’d ridden around the world 20 years earlier. So he and his colleague Walter R. Storey sailed to Ireland in June 1912 to commence their round-the-world ride on two brand-new Model B Hendersons. But Storey crashed his bike on the first day’s riding in Ireland, and the pair then suffered awful weather in getting to Paris, whereupon he decided to drop out of the expedition. This left Clancy to soldier on alone, sending telegrams to mark his progress along the way to his weekly magazine sponsor, The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review. Clancy had also made a deal with the Hendersons that he could set up dealerships wherever he wanted, gaining a $5 commission per motorcycle sold at these. There’s no record of how much he earned doing this!
The Henderson broke down in Spain, but Clancy repaired it using some parts supplied by a bicycle shop, while in Algeria a gang of robbers shot at him, but he managed to escape. One night he was camping in Ceylon (the present-day Sri Lanka) and found his tent surrounded by jackals and mountain cats, but he again survived the scare. Eventually he reached Japan, then rode through Honshu before sailing across the Pacific from Yokohama to San Francisco, from where he reached New York on August 27, 1913. The 18,000-mile/29,000km journey had taken him 10 months to complete in visiting four continents, although he claimed the worst roads he encountered weren’t in North Africa or Asia, but in the USA – in Oregon.
That was just the start of record setting for Henderson, whose advertising slogan was "Foremost among Fours." 19-year old Alan Bedell, the so-called “Stalwart Californian”, set a new 24-hour speed record by averaging 48 mph for 1,154 miles at Ascot Park in Los Angeles in 1917. Later that same year, Bedell broke Cannonball Baker's transcontinental record on an Indian Twin set in 1915, by riding his stock Henderson Four from Los Angeles to New York, covering 3,296 miles in seven days, 16 hours, and 15 minutes. Also in 1917, Roy Artley set a Three Flags Classic record aboard his Henderson, riding from the Canadian border to Tijuana, Mexico in three days, 25 mins. With its long 65-inch/1650mm wheelbase, smooth engine, compliant fork and low saddle, the robust, reliable Henderson gave a comfy ride conducive to long distance stamina.
An immediate commercial success in spite of its high price, the Henderson Four was continually improved by the two brothers, who in 1913 increased capacity of the Ioe engine to 1,068cc, still with overhead inlet and side exhaust valves, three main bearings with splash lubrication, and a foldaway hand-crank for starting. Timing gears were easily accessible in front, and ignition was by Bosch magneto. The 1914 Model C Four was the first Henderson to have gears, in the form of an optional two-speed gearbox incorporated in the rear hub. Prices now ranged from $295 for the standard bike and $335 for the two-speed model, and significant further advances were made with the 1917 Model G. The oil was now held in the crankcase, as in a car – or, indeed, the now defunct Pierce Four – with a force feed oil pump now replacing the inferior splash system used hitherto. A three-speed gearbox replacing the previous two-speeder hub was now attached to the rear of the engine, and operated via a heavy-duty clutch. Good sales of the Henderson Four provided funds for ongoing development, but without a range of smaller capacity singles and twins to increase sales volume, Bill Henderson never had sufficient R&D funds to bankroll what he wanted to achieve. For in spite of its record-setting successes the company was experiencing financial difficulties caused by spiralling material and labour costs coupled with an irregular supply of materials and components owing to the First World War.
So in November 1917 the Henderson brothers sold their under-capitalised company to Excelsior owner Ignaz Schwinn, who moved production to his Chicago bicycle factory where he’d also been making increasingly more sophisticated single- and twin-cylinder motorcycles since 1907. Schwinn was developing his own four-cylinder Excelsior motorcycle at the time, but decided that purchasing the Hendersons’ company was a simpler and less costly way to fulfill that objective, allowing Excelsior to be the first of the Big Three (with Indian and Harley-Davidson) to offer a prestige four-cylinder model.
But Schwinn was apparently a very difficult man to work under, and so after just a couple of years in 1919 the suitably disillusioned Henderson brothers decided to leave their eponymous company. Tom moved to Europe, but non-compete agreements apparently not then being a fact of US corporate life, as they are today, Bill Henderson founded a new factory in Philadelphia to produce a completely different four-cylinder design, which he duly christened the Ace. This was very successful, the legendary Cannonball Baker using an Ace four to set his final coast-to-coast record of less than seven days in 1922 – ironically, in direct competition with a Henderson-mounted rival, Wells Bennett. Shortly afterwards, though, on December 11 that year, Bill Henderson was killed when hit by a car while testing a new four-cylinder Ace model.
The Henderson Model K had been introduced by Excelsior in 1920, employing a side-valve engine that produced more power, yet was more durable than its i.o.e predecessors. It was the first motorcycle to use full pressure engine lubrication, as well as the first to offer an optional reverse gear for use with sidecars. Among its other advanced features were electric lighting and a fully enclosed chain. In 1922 Excelsior introduced the yet further improved 79ci Henderson De Luxe, benefitting from less weight, a redesigned crankshaft, cooler-running cylinder head, an improved intake system, more powerful rear brakes, and a better exhaust system. The heavier Police Department version was shown first to the Chicago Police and achieved 98 mph, but when later demonstrated to San Diego Police it sped to a genuine 100 mph.
Harley-Davidson was Henderson's main rival for police sales, and quickly challenged them to a match race of 12 heats held at Dundee Road, Chicago in April 1922. Harley’s V-twin won the first heat, but then lost the other eleven, with the Henderson four repeatedly exceeding 100 mph. Not only was the new model fast as well as prestigious – Henry Ford was an owner, and so too was future Indian company president E. Paul DuPont – but reliable, too. Henderson rider Wells Bennett averaged 65.10 mph to cover 1,562.54 miles at the Tacoma Speedway on May 30-31, 1922 to set a new 24-hour endurance record that was not beaten until 1933, and then only by Peugeot with a team of four riders. The solo record was not bettered until 1937, when Fred Ham's Harley-Davidson averaged 76 mph.
In 1929, Henderson released the KJ Streamline model, which featured improved cooling and a return to the i.o.e (inlet over exhaust) valve configuration. The Streamline was fast – capable of a genuine 100 mph – and advanced for its time, with such features as an illuminated speedometer built into the fuel tank. It was produced from 1929 until 1931, by which time the harsh effects of the Depression on motorcycle sales, coupled with the need to devote resources to his conversely buoyant Schwinn bicycle business, persuaded Ignaz Schwinn – by now in his mid-70s – to shut up shop. At a March 1931 meeting with his key management, he announced the shutdown of Excelsior and Henderson motorcycle production with the famous statement that "Boys, today we quit." And quit they did – just like that…..
Henderson Fours are much sought after today, so when one was entered for the Bonhams sale at the Legend of the Motorcycle show near San Francisco in May 2007, there was fierce bidding before the highly original 1,068cc 1914 Model C bearing frame no. 2705 and British registration plate LF 2320, was sold for $93,600 (then £72,576) to an American expat who’d been living in the UK for more than 40 years. How very ironic – for the bike is question has in fact lived its entire life in Great Britain, after being delivered brand new from Detroit in 1914 to its discerning first owner, Mr. Frederick Burnett of 11, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, Scotland – the land of the Henderson brothers’ birth. When soon after acquiring the bike Burnett was called up for military service upon the outbreak of the First World War, he took his trusty Henderson with him when he was posted to Norfolk, and quite remarkably a photograph survives of him sitting astride the Model C Four wearing his military uniform.
A Scottish collector, Michael Mutch, discovered the Henderson in an Edinburgh cellar in 1960, still in the hands of its original owner, Frederick Burnett. Mutch acquired the by now somewhat shabby bike for display in the Myreton Motor Museum in nearby East Lothian, re-fettling it to running condition and repainting it in the present shade of Royal Blue – he even kept the receipt for the paint! He rode it in the 1961 Vintage Run organised by the Perth & District Motor Club, achieving a coveted Finisher’s Award over what would undoubtedly have been a challenging course running through the Trossach Hills. Thereafter the Henderson saw little use – the odometer showing of 1946 miles from new may even be correct – and was displayed in the Myreton Museum until acquired by the present owner, which the protocol of auction sales disallows me from naming. For after a decade of ownership, during which it’s become a regular feature of Britain’s many annual Vintage events, including the arduous Pioneer Run from London to Brighton for pre-1915 Veteran machines, he’s now put this three-owner 103-year old machine up for sale at the Bonhams Autumn Stafford Sale on October 15 http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/24131/ – before which he kindly invited me to have a ride on it, right after sampling his earlier 1910 Pierce Four.
The 1914 Henderson Four displays that delightful patina of age which even the most skilled restorer can’t recreate, and comes equipped with Powell & Hanmer acetylene lighting and a period Gloriaphone klaxon, whose loud croak has people turning round and smiling when you use it to alert them of your presence. There’s also a Cowey Engineering Co. Ltd. 0-80mph speedometer driven off the front hub, and mounted on the right side of the functional rather than graceful pulled back handlebar. When you look at this from on top it truly lives up to its name, with two bars attached at right angles to the front cross bar that are pulled back towards your hands and bear substantial rubber twistgrips which incorporate a period-style left-hand throttle, and a right-hand ignition control. The well-sprung Brooks leather saddle is extremely comfortable, and indeed seated aboard the Henderson it seems plush and substantial, with your legs stretched forward ahead of the engine for your feet to rest on the aluminium footboard positioned in front of it, embossed with the diamond-shaped Henderson badge and the words Detroit, Mich, USA. It’s a rational and comfortable stance which greatly contrasted with the earlier Pierce I’d just been riding. Five years is a long time in motorcycle development, and that was never more evident than in riding these two Early Americans one after the other.
For the Henderson not only seems more substantial and better laid out tjhan the Pierce, but also more refined in use. Mind you, you still have to follow the same period palaver in getting it started, in terms of placing it on the stand, selecting neutral via the gear lever on the left of the bike, turning on the petrol, setting the positive-action throttle (with no return spring) about one-third open, then retarding the ignition via the right-hand twistgrip. But instead of pedaling like mad bicycle-style to fire up the motor as on the Pierce, on the Henderson you squat down on the right of the bike, pull out the crank handle that’s clipped to the frame, insert it on the boss at the rear of the engine, turn it over to get it on compression – then yank it smartly. It took three goes from cold to get it started, after which I could do it first time when warm – although do make sure you grasp the luggage rack, and don’t leave the fingers on your left hand anywhere near the rear wheel as the motor fires up! Look, I gave already (personal joke)!
The noise from the thin 4-1 exhaust running down the right side in front of you as you store away the crank handle sounds just like a small 1930s motor car, which I suppose is in many ways the Henderson’s engine most closely resembles. Using one of the two brake pedals on the footboard to stop the rear wheel spinning, pulling the bike off its stand, clipping that up into the rear mudguard and climbing aboard that supportive seat is the prelude to party time, for now you have to achieve forward motion – and that’s not easy. As on the Pierce, the multiplate clutch made by the Eclipse Manufacturing. Co. of Elmira, NY is the so-called automatic type, which means that to get the bike removing you must very carefully re-engage it.by pushing the gear lever forward to select Low Speed on the Thor two-speed transmission – the clutch and gear levers will move together, If you do it with enough care you will eventually manage to take off without stalling the engine, in which case you soon realise that the Pierce is a period curiosity in comparison to the Henderson, that a century ago represented a major landmark in the evolution of the motorcycle. The future began here.
That’s because it’s both smooth and practical, and delivers a great sense of substance and security, as you coast along with the so-cool miniature Stars & Stripes the owner’s fitted fluttering from the handlebar. “Dad, this is like cheating in class!” his twenty-something son is reputed to have said after riding the Henderson on the Pioneer Run from London to Brighton, having swept past slower and less potent Veterans as they struggled to climb or in many cases were pushed up hills which the Henderson shrugged off as a minor inconvenience. It’s extremely comfortable to ride even by the standards of 40 years later, with the long wheelbase delivering stability over bumps, aided by the surprisingly compliant leading-link fork. Its handling is thankfully less nervous than the Pierce’s bicycle-stem front end, and the small six-inch/152mm external contracting band rear brake works pretty well, too – although it howls like a dervish when you use it hard, perhaps as a useful early warning device! And the four-cylinder engine is so extremely smooth, making it an ideal device to cover long distances with back in the days of setting coast-to-coast or 24-hour records, No wonder Henderson riders ruled the roads of America in motorcycling’s early days – and surely Scotland’s, too, I’m bound to say, with this marvellous piece of transatlantic engineering. You chose well, Mr.Burnett!
I was positively put out when it started raining after a relatively short time riding the Henderson, because I was just getting the hang of grappling with the transmission, and the left-hand throttle was becoming second nature – OK, third nature, then…! But rather than expose this ultra valuable piece of two-wheeled history to the vagaries of the British summer, it was time to put it away and be grateful for having been allowed to ride such a sophisticated seeming and positively avantgarde device, which would set the standards for others to emulate for years to come.