Motorcycle Madness

Motorcycle Madness

“Faster, faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”  ~  Hunter Thompson  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

If you’ve ever driven a motorcycle you understand what “inside a box” feels like in a car.  When you remove the box, life shifts. 

There’s nothing between you and the elements on a motorcycle.  If it’s a warm, sunny day, nothing between you and outside world can be pretty exhilarating—freedom.  The acceleration, maneuverability, speed and sense of danger on a motorcycle are a bonus. 

I learned to drive a motorcycle in college mainly because I had an unreasonable fear of them and didn’t want to be run by it.  My confidence grew over time and the fear disappeared.  

A valuable lesson.

As you might expect the first motorcycles were not unlike bicycles--clunky, a rough ride and moody.  By the early-1900s motorcycle factories were sprouting up and mass-produced bikes were showing up on the rough roads of America.  William Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson were some of the first innovators.

Who knew then a whole subculture would evolve around motorcycles?

The Indian was the first production motorcycle to have an electric start.

One of the early luxury models was the Henderson.  Birthed in Detroit, Michigan in 1912 this motorcycle was billed as fast, comfortable and a “gentleman’s” ride.  It had a long wheelbase and an optional passenger seat could be installed in front of the rider. 

The Henderson, a four-cylinder bike, was expensive to produce and expensive to buy.  Five years after the Henderson’s birth, Ignaz Schwinn, the bike maker, purchased the company.  

Schwinn moved the company to Chicago in 1918 and the motorcycle shared space with Schwinn bicycles and Excelsior motorcycles.  As the Depression worsened in 1931, Schwinn was forced to stop production on the Henderson.  It was one of finest early-motorcycles ever produced in America.  Production never resumed.

And then there was the Indian.  This motorized two-wheeler was built by Oscar Hedstrom in 1899.  Bicycle maker and former racer George Hendee saw the possibilities of the machine and the two men worked together to produce a motorcycle suitable for mass-production.  High quality, sound and sophisticated—that was the Indian.

In the racing world, Indians ruled the tracks.  Motorcycle events took place on banked oval tracks built of wooden planks or on horse tracks.  In the 1920s track speeds reached over 100mph.  Bad accidents and splinters were the norm.

The Indian was the first production motorcycle to have an electric start.  After the boom years in the early-1900s the motorcycle industry declined in America.  By the 1920s, there were only three major makers:  Excelsior, Harley-Davidson and Indian.  Excelsior stopped production in 1931.  Harley and Indian remained.

Harleys were said to be more reliable, Indians a better design.  The 1947 Indian Chief was the last real Indian.  The company went out of business and Harley survived.

On May 8, Bonhams featured a Motorcycle and Related Memorabilia auction in Carmel, Calif.  


Henderson; 70ci; four-cylinder boards track racer; machine for people who liked quality; 1919;  $29,900.

Indian; 61ci; twin board track racer; company marketed race machines that the public could purchase; company dominated race tracks; 1911;  $36,800.

Flying Merkel; single board track racer; Merkel frame may have been test bed for Harley-Davidson; 1913;  $64,975.

Ex-Otis Chandler; 67ci 7-9hp model D twin; the only known surviving example; company produced modestly priced motorcycles; 1914;  $78,200.

Royal Pioneer; 30.50ci single; company existed for nearly a decade; not a motorcycle for the everyman; advanced technology for its day; 1910;  $92,000.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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