When I finally snapped out of my Britten-induced reverie, I decided to start at the beginning and then work my way forward through the motorcycling continuum.
I headed for the elevator, and rode up to the top floor to scout the joint.
I spotted what looked like early and pioneer cycles on the third floor, towards the front of the building, so on the trip back down I got off there and walked over.
At the entrance to this part of the museum sat a Hildebrandt & Wolfmuller — one of the Ur-motorcycles, and the first to be manufactured and sold in quantities larger than one. The motorcycle, considering that it was produced between 1894 and 1897, is surprisingly sophisticated, with a two cylinder water-cooled 4 stroke of just under 1500 ccs. The fuel tank is more or less where we find it today, situated between the rider and the steering stem.
Other design elements are less sophisticated — the engine’s connecting rods are directly connected to the rear wheel and spin it directly. The valve cams of the engine are also mounted around the hub of the rear wheel — opening and closing the valves as the wheel spins.
Braking is via wooden shoes.
Really. The brake shoes are convex surfaced wood blocks that are pressed against the surface of the front tire via a handlebar mounted lever and rods.
Modern riders complaining of brakes with ‘wooden’ feedback are hereby advised to stop their whining and get back to riding.
In the location modern riders associate with headlamps, the Hildebrandt & Wolfmuller had what was essentially its air cleaner — a cold air intake, which the designers saw fit to locate a far distance from the hot cylinders and the hot surface ignition. On the air intake cover, the designers located their trademark, in an early precursor to what we now know as the tank badge.
Because the motorcycle was built in Munich, the company wanted to communicate as many visual elements as possible that would allow customers to associate this bike to the city in which it was made. And because it was made in Munich, home of Octoberfest, there simply had to be a beer.
It is unlikely, despite the advisability or lack of same of combining these two things, that you will be able to purchase a motorcycle with a beer as part of its branding today.
Something undefinable has clearly been lost.
As I turned to the right away from Munich’s Best, I was greeted by something even more cool — the 1869 Roper Steam Velocipede.
Imagine the love child of one’s favorite steam engined railway locomotive and a pre-safety bicycle hickory framed boneshaker — iron rimmed wooden spoked wheels and all — and your mental picture will be pretty close to the fantastic machine which completely devoured my full visual attention.
Steampunk design is a modern fashion affectation that spends a lot of time attaching copper, brass and wood to things in an attempt to make them look old without having much impact on function.
Every steampunk object you’ve ever seen looks instantly and perpetually ridiculous after you’ve beheld drop dead serious steam-powered engineering.
Consider for a second that the year is 1868 or so, and nobody’s ever seen a motorcycle. Heck, almost nobody has even imagined one. Yet here, the engineer has independently arrived at most of what we currently recognize as the entire motorcycle design vocabulary — two wheels, with the engine suspended beneath the frame between them. The throttle is operated by a rotating the entire handlebar. The ‘fuel tank’ in the case of a steam engine, is the water reservoir for the boiler, and it, like the Hildebrandt, sits directly behind the steering stem. In one oddball improvisation, the tank doubles as the saddle.
The brass and rivets of the boiler are nothing short of spectacular. The location of the boiler’s compact smokestack begs serious questions. There is almost no visual clutter — there are two steam lines, two cylinders with direct drive, a valve, a single gauge, the hickory backbone frame, and wooden spoked wheels rimmed with iron.
Its minimal, spare and purposeful. Every single part is there for a single reason.
Steampunk that, mofo.
As I was literally standing there shaking my head, one of the museum’s docents walked up.
“Man, that is just a wild thing. Does it run?”
“I know, isn’t it? Well, they say everything in the museum can be running in an hour.
Not so sure about this one, though”.
We were just two guys standing there, letting the same thoughts wash over us of this crazy brass contraption sitting there huffing smoke and hissing. Two guys, both looking at that smokestack, and contemplating its proximity to bits to which some of may have deep personal attachment.
We were just two guys sharing a hearty, knowing laugh.
“So, your telling me there’s a shortage of volunteers to ride this one?”
“Well, look man. I ain’t scared.”
I gave him one of my cards.
“If they need someone to ride this thing, I’m all in.”
He looked at me like you’d look at someone that you wanted to make sure you didn’t miss too much afterwards.
“Good on ya, dude. I’ll let ’em know.”
Walking over to the early motorcycles collection was simply an embarrassment of motorcycling riches.
Right off, I was greeted by a 1913 Flying Merkel — a big V Twin, looking original, unrestored, its originally bright orange paint patinaed and spotted with rust. It looked like someone had just ridden it in here and just parked it.
There were Indians galore.
A 1905 Camelback — lovingly restored in Green. A 1912 TT and a 1922 Scout, both original in their patinaed Indian Red. Both twins looked like well loved and just ridden bikes, with many more miles, many more years and many many more stories left in them.
Across the room I was greeted by a lovely 1913 Henderson Model B — one of the lovely long tank 4 cylinder models. I have a serious weak spot for these motorcycles as well as for some of their engineering cousins — other 4 cylinder American motorcycles of the nineteen teens and twenties like the Ace and Pierce. These were motorcycles that were designed to be powerful, elegant comfortable transportation before that market was disrupted completely by some guy named Henry from Dearborn, Michigan.
The Henderson is beautifully designed. It’s floorboards and powerplant make wonderful use of aluminum. Its engine is compact, elegant. Its ignition switch is a lovely little bit of the machinist’s art in brass. The longer one looks, the more one sees.
Walking away from the Henderson, I was greeted by a display area set up to honor the heroes of early 20th century American Boardtrack racing.
The display area is an actual small section of banked board track. The unevenness of that racing surface is something you really do need to see to understand. A little imagination and you can sense the sweep and the speeds attainable on the straights of such an oval.
Or is this just wildlife in its natural habitat?
The bikes there were familiar to me, having spent a lot of time staring at the very same bikes when they were still parked nose to tail in the middle of the floor back at the dairy.
I’ve written about them before and what I wrote those years ago is really tough to improve on.
There is a small dual display of old enemies – matching Harley and Indian 8 valve board track racers from the earliest part of the last century. These were machines designed for all out speed with no thought for anything else – not steering, not stopping, not even living to race another day, if it meant losing. These machines have fixed carburetors – there is no throttle plate, no slide. The carb is designed to run WFO all the time. There are no brakes whatsoever – no fronts and no rears. What control there was was provided courtesy of an ignition kill switch similar to what was used in the radial rotary engines of the aircraft of the First World War. To modulate speed, one pressed on a piece of spring steel mounted on the handlebar. When the spring grounded on the handlebar, it turned the ignition circuit off, and the bike would slow. Take your finger off the spring and it was WFO again. Truly the earliest manifestation of the digital motorcycle – either on or off, everything or nothing, with nothing available in between.
Think about that for a while, then re-evaluate any tractability concerns you may have about your present motorcycle.
Of Course, those who could know tell me that the racers of the time never used that switch anyway. It’s not surprising that lots of people got killed, on a very regular basis, racing boardtrack.
Those bikes would be rude enough, if that was all there was, but that’s just the beginning. Neither bike has anything you’d really call an exhaust system. The Harley has the exhaust port in its cast iron cylinder head just dumping right into the atmosphere through an oval hole in the casting though which both exhaust valve stems can be seen with no exertion whatsoever. The Indian, always a more refined breed, has a set of slash cut pipes that are maybe 2 and a half inches long – just long enough to turn the flames downward the necessary 60 degrees to keep from setting one’s leathers on fire every second that the sucker was running.
Both bikes are hardtailed, with spring leather saddles like a racing bicycle’s. All of the valvegear – pushrods, rockers and valvestems – is outside the engine cases, and lubricated by a total loss oil pump that was operated by the rider with a plunger.
It’s no surprise that boardtrackers were in one big hurry to get to the checkered flag. Between having your hearing permanently shattered, being sprayed with hot oil, having a leather plank pounded up your ass, and having yellow and blue flames shooting right out the left side of the motor into your lap – getting to the line first was a matter not of competition, but of not wanting to spend one more second astride the beast than one had to, regardless of what anybody else on the track might have been doing at the time in question.
As I walked slowly around the Indian 8 Valve, doing my customary bob-and-weave dance, jockeying and turning my head to get better views of details like magnetos and hand oil pumps, I became aware of a man roughly half my age doing exactly the same thing.
“My god,” he said to me. “Isn’t it absolutely beautiful?”
I had to agree that it absolutely was.
Spend a little time gazing at the cam chest and the case for drive for the magneto drive, and you will find yourself, like the two of us were, absolutely hypnotized. The aesthetic qualities of these early Indians, especially the racers, are sufficiently compelling to recall one of my favorite characters from Robert Heinlein, who was a research scientist that was essentially held hostage and controlled by letting him gaze briefly into the interior of a piece of rare ancient Chinese porcelain.
“It is my dream to someday own one of these.”
I had to agree that that was a really good dream.
I didn’t want to let on, though, that, especially if me specifically meant one of these 8-valvers, it would be a difficult dream to realize. Very few of these bespoke racing motors were built, and when they have changed hands so has hundreds of thousands of US dollars.
Still, it is a beautiful dream.
I found myself leaving the Barber’s pioneer motorcycle area, headed towards the light coming from the wall of glass that made up the entire rear of the building.
There were lots of things to stop and admire along the way.
A 1916 Henderson Super X Twin. A 1922 Henderson DeLuxe four cylinder It’s easy to see, looking at these bikes why even 75 years later there was still enough enthusiasm for the marque to try to revive it. The bikes had their own unique design vocabulary — they were plain, functional machines that yelled of the muscle they could bring to bear to spin the planet under one’s wheels. The painted rims, the unique through-the-fender springer front end, the avoidance of bright plating — these were no-nonsense rider’s machines, and they still are.
There were also more compelling machines.
A 1917 Indian Light Twin — powered by an inline mounted boxer twin. For backroads and trail work its hard to imagine a more useful or beautiful motorcycle. Like many such attempts to make small displacement motorcycles in the US, it died in the marketplace fairly quickly.
There was also a stunningly restored Pierce Arrow Four — executed in bright red paint. Every Pierce I’ve ever seen was painted black — correct or not this one was beautiful. Inspired by the Belgian FN 4 cylinder, the Pierce continued that company’s tradition of building the best engineered and most painstakingly assembled luxury vehicles of their times.
I’ve seen Pierce Arrow automobiles as well as — and I kid you not — some early ‘Traveling Coaches’ — early RVs before the concept had even been born — and all of them speak of the same obsession with quality and fine materials. There is a Pierce Coach in the RV Hall of fame in Indiana that was originally built for Mae West, and I’ve never seen anything with wheels that had so much brass, crystal and porcelain.
This Pierce was no different. Designed in 1908 / 1909, when all motorcycles were singles or twins, with atmospheric inlet valves and leather drive belts, the Pierce was an Inline 4 with a T head and spring closed inlet valves and shaft drive. Its backbone frame that doubles as fuel and oil tanks is still used in modern motorcycles.
There are actually a fair number of mechanical or functional resemblances between that Pierce and my K Bike.
Decades ahead of its time, it was too expensive for most mortals, and after building barely 500 examples, each at a loss, the Pierce Motorcycle Company declared bankruptcy.
This motorcycle, though, has a halo. It bears looking at for a goodly long time.
After I’d drunk my fill of the Pierce, I walked to the windows at the rear of the museum.
Again, the aesthetic vision of the museum was front and center.
From the glass wall, one could see much of the racetrack — in architectural terms, both the track and the museum had been sited in a way to bring the outside inside. One could only really come to understand the stationary motorcycles behind you, if you watched them driving down Barber’s steeply dropping Corkscrew corner and up the straight behind the museum.
All of us standing at the windows there had the best seats in the house.