Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros

Most motorcycle trips inevitably involve riding a motorcycle.

Me, though, I’m a bit of a different drummer dude. If there’s a weird way to do something, that’s more than likely the way that I’ll embrace.

 

***

 

Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I were way overdue for some quality road time. Road Time, for us anyway, is just an opportunity to unplug from the routine of home, work and family, burn some gas, get loose, see some stuff we’ve never seen, and spend some time enjoying each other’s company.

In an ideal world, Road Time involves my K1200LT, but the world is sometimes not ideal.

Fortunately, the backup plans are not exactly suffering, either.

One day, more or less out of the blue, Sweet Doris came to me and said, “Greggy, I know you’ve always wanted to visit the AMA Hall of Fame Museum. What say you take a few days off and we take a little camping trip?”

Regular readers of Rolling Physics Problem are familiar with reading statements about the reasons for my undying love for this woman.

This would be another one of those.

Sweet Doris, it seems, had been browsing the Rand McNally Road Atlas maps of — well, pretty much anything and everything west of here — looking for flimsy excuses for a several day wander. Unsurprisingly, she’d found a few.

Coopers Rock, West Virginia was one — a Civilian Conservation Corps-built series of campgrounds and hiking trails built around a spectacular mountain overlook just west of Morgantown. Arthurdale, West Virginia – a new deal era Homestead Project community — was another, where people from impoverished mining communities were given a small farm and taught agriculture and other trades and crafts to allow them to be self-sufficient. Buckeye Lake, Ohio, an man-made lake that has been a boaters’ and vacation destination since 1830. And the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio — about a 15 minute drive from Buckeye Lake.

It looked like a great setup — a cluster of interesting destinations without a great deal of road mileage between them, the opportunity for some hiking and bicycling to undo way too much desk time, a bucket list motorcycling destination, and a map of craft breweries in close proximity to our likely campsites.

After a quick and wholly satisfactory Friday conversation with my manager at work, I went out to the garage, filled up the small water tank in the galley of my homebuilt teardrop camper, closed up the galley’s clamshell lid, and pushed the trailer out of the garage where it could be hitched to our Ram Tradesman work truck.

Saturday morning, we got up, had a cup of coffee, threw some saddlebag liners with a few changes of clothes and toothbrushes in the teardrop’s cabin, and fired up the truck’s small block V8 and headed west.

 

***

 

Bikers will tell you that it ain’t the destination, it’s the journey, but it’s my story, so this time, it’s the destination.

Now it isn’t like the journey wasn’t without some of the little jewels that the road always provides.

The road west from Jefferson always takes me out I-68, and one of the unbridled wonders of the US Interstate Highway System, Sideling Hill.

The Mountain Inside The Mountain

Sideling Hill is an exposed geologic syncline — the highway cut opened up folds of rock which look like an inverted mountain concealed inside another mountain. The geology geek in me loves to see the mountain laid bare, but that isn’t really why I love this place.

Paul Mihalka was a rider’s rider — a BMW Million Mile Badge Man — and a humble gentleman of the highest order. Paul was prone to taking motorcycle rides that would render the likes of you and me dull, lifeless and inert. A weekend ride to Montana for a slice of pie, and back at work on time on Monday. That sort of thing.

When the Spirit moved Paul, and he was leaving for a ride, he thought it good fortune to watch the sun rise over Sideling.

So Sweet Doris and I might not be much on the Dawn part, but every ride past Sideling has Paul riding along — it feels like good luck for us, too.

 

***

 

Cooper’s Other Rock

It isn’t much of a run from Sideling to Morgantown, and before long we were setting camp at Cooper’s Rock.

Quite

State Parks have rules, so Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I were quite something after 10 pm, though we’re not sure quite what.

 

***

 

After 2 days at Coopers, and a fascinating visit to Arthurdale, we beat feet for Ohio, and set camp again at Buckeye Lake.

Our campsite was about a quarter-mile from Buckeye Lake Brewing, which has to be the absolute finest use I have ever seen for a recycled 1950 vintage white tile Texaco Station. For a small brewery in a very small town, Buckeye can stand toe-to-toe with any brewery anywhere — we sampled everything they made and there wasn’t a bad brew in the lot.

 

***

 

The next morning, after a slightly slow start — which might have had something to do with some Legend Valley IPAs with pink grapefruit juice ice cubes — we rolled up to Pickerington, Ohio, and The AMA Hall of Fame Museum.

AMA’s facility sits in a very suburban location, just off the interstate and behind some typical commercial big box sprawl, in its own green and forested little campus, backed up by some high density townhomes — a most unlikely site. After turning through the campus’ brick gateway, and winding up the rolling driveway, one enters into a very corporate looking office complex — 70s architecture, with a lot of natural and dark woods, cathedral ceilings, clerestory windows — all very anonymously, painfully, boringly normal. The only hint that something a tad less bland might be afoot is the standing seam metal roofed shed at the far end of the courtyard — a covered motorcycle parking area which this morning contained a silver BMW R80ST and a classic white Harley Electra Glide Authority Model.

As Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I walked through the treed parking lot, which featured some well landscaped garden seating areas, we came up on the Hall of Fame’s sign, which telegraphed AMA’s good taste in art, which would be front and center for much of our day.

The First of Many Trackers

We didn’t even manage to get through the entrance hall before the excitement started.

“Oh, look, Greggie! What a perfect camping motorcycle.”

I had to admit, with minimal consideration, that the brand new customized Ural Gear Up that AMA was raffling off was the perfect camping motorcycle — between the substantial cargo capacity of the sidecar itself, both motorcycle and sidecar had beefy luggage racks, deer melting rally lighting, multiple jerry cans for fuel and water, serious bash plates, two wheel drive and some chewy looking knobbies. Now I know, from some painful experience gained by some of my moto-writing cohorts that the Ural is not a go anywhere machine (Right, Abhi?), but with some common sense about its limitations, it will go a lot of places, and while going there will carry nearly as much camping gear, cooking equipment and cold beer as my pickup and teardrop camper combination.

“I’d love to have one of these.”

“Well, Hon, if you see that nice lady over there, and give her a few five dollar bills, I’m sure she’ll sell you a few chances to win this one.”

So we have a few chances to finally exceed the upper motorcycle storage limit of my garage when the drawing is held on The Hall of Fame’s next Induction Ceremony one weekend this September.

Fingers crossed.

 

***

 

Entering into the Museum itself, the overwhelming impression is one of an embarrassment of riches. The AMA either owns or displays a nearly incomprehensible number of historic motorcycles, racing motorcycles from AMA sanctioned racing series, racetrack leathers, helmets and boots from Hall of Fame racers, and one of a kind performance and stunt motorcycles such as Land Speed Record machines and Daredevil Bikes. All of these motorcycles and artifacts are displayed on two floors of the building — the upper level mostly devoted to inducted members of the Hall of Fame, and the lower level devoted to special exhibitions, a memorial wall, and ‘The Garage’, an area filled with motorcycles donated by AMA Members.

A blessing that these many treasures may be, the reality is that their collection far exceeds the capacity of their facility — making organization of the collection a challenge, and making display and examination of the many motorcycles and racer figures somewhat haphazard. The first gallery, for example, contains machinery which covers a period between 1914 — a Harley Davidson Pocket Valve Factory Racer — and 2016 — the engineering prototype for the hugely successful Indian FTR750 Flat Tracker.

As someone who has to deal with too many motorcycles in far too little space, I empathize with their problem, but the collection cries out for a re-examination of their curation, and ultimately, as I’m sure they’re well aware, a bigger space.

You shouldn’t, for even a millisecond, let this concern keep you from planning a ride to Ohio to visit, though. I couldn’t begin to describe everything but I can share some of my favorite exhibits to whet your appetite for your trip to Pickerington so you can pick your own.

 

***

 

Walking into the first gallery kind of perfectly encapsulates just what I mean. Displayed in a tight cluster are a replica of Gottlieb Daimler’s Einspur, a vintage Honda MiniTrail 50, and a late 90s vintage Honda Dream 50. Other than the fact that all three are single cylinder motorcycles, it’s hard to for me to see what the thread there is.

Maybe It’s Just Because They Fit There

Fortunately, I have a bit of an irrational fondness for Dream 50s, so I really didn’t overthink things at the time, I just got down on the floor and checked out the little fella.

My irrational fondness stems from my favorite motorcycle ad of all time, which features Father Yvonne and Son Miguel DuHamel banging bars on the track on a Dream 50 and NSR 50. If there’s ever been a cuter motorcycle ad I can’t recall what it is — two road racing champions, father and son, flogging the snot of two absolutely diminutive motorcycles – motorcycles which were small replicas of the foundational racing motorcycles of each’s time – and dicing with each other like the Number One plate was on the line.

It’s an image that’s hard to shake.

So yeah, I like Dream 50s

In the entrance to the gallery sits the Hall of Fame plaque honoring Soichiro Honda, and as his monument, a Honda RC161 250 cc four-cylinder racing motorcycle. The RC is an amazing thing — the proving ground for what would prove to be at least a half-dozen generations of 4 cylinder Honda Motorcycles. And although MV Agusta and Gilera may have gotten there first, all if the design elements — four transverse air-cooled cylinders, overhead cams with chain drive, 4 semi downdraft carburetors, laydown cylinder block, and four exhausts wrapping around either side of the motorcycle — were there, and developed to a degree of output and reliability no one had ever previously managed. In its first full year of Grand Prix competition, the RC 161 and its 125 cc brother won 18 of 22 races.

The Honda RC161

Semi Downdrafts and DOHC

Wandering the galleries one experiences surprise after surprise, and sees layer upon layer of motorcycling history, competition and artifacts.

There are multiple examples of pioneering motorcycles and early motorcycle engineering breakthroughs. Pioneering motorcycles, of necessity, will include the bikes made by William Harley and Arthur Davidson, who along with their partners, William and Walter Davidson Sr., are all members of the Hall of Fame. Representing the Milwaukee brand is a 1914 Pocket Valve factory racer — one of HD Engineer Bill Ottoway’s early attempts to develop a seriously hot rodded speciality flat track racing machine. Eventually, that first step down the hot rodding road would result in the Infamous 8 Valve, but the first step was a pretty big one for a company that had once declared “”We do not believe in racing. We do not employ any racing men. We build no special racing machines.” The Pocket Valve was a serious and special racing machine — bigger valves, serious porting … and overhead valves and rockers that were so high lift that the right side of the fuel tank needed to be modified with pockets so that the tank would clear the valve gear.

1914 Harley Davidson Pocket Valve Racer

We know HD today because of their iconic V-Twin powerplants. HD’s original motors had all been singles, however, which were only dropped from the line in 1918 after greater sales of the twins had determined that strategy. Fittingly, the AMA itself caused HD to do a rethink when, in 1925, they introduced Class A racing — a class built around 21 cubic inch single cylinder motorcycles — and Harley didn’t have one.

The result was the Harley Davidson BA — a 350 cc road going single that broke new engineering ground for Harley. The BA was the first HD that featured a removable cylinder head — up to this point Harley’s cylinders and heads had been cast in unit. This engineering advance meant it was trivial to sell the BA with two different valve configurations — and hence engine outputs and pricepoints. The lower output and lower priced BA Model A was a sidevalve flathead, and its low price meant it exceeded sales expectations. The Model B — such as the one pictured below — offered an overhead valve head and 50% more power, but the price was too close to that of the twins, so B models became the rare beasts. Rare, unless you were going Class A racing.

A Motor To Go Racing With

Production Class A racers removed fenders and other racetrack useless stuff and went racing. Harley itself took the OHV motor, and further developed the cylinder head to use twin exhaust valves and ports, put the resulting motor into a lightweight frame that had no fenders, no brakes and no transmission. The result was the Model S ‘Peashooter’, a 215 pound flattrack war machine.

 

***

 

Harleys and Davidsons were by no means the only motorcycle pioneers, and their motorcycles are by no means the only pioneer motorcycles in the currently displayed collection. The lower level ‘Garage’ contains several significant early motorcycles donated by AMA members.

Among the most intriguing is a 1914 Triumph TT — a 500 cc, single cylinder cycle that was still started by bicycle pedals. Stopping, while riding, meant killing the motor and then bump starting again to get back going. The TT predates transmissions, clutches and other modern niceties — drive from the sidevalve single is by leather belt, saddle is a Brooks leather bicycle saddle, and what braking there is is provided by another bicycle refugee stirrup rim brake. The TT’s front end does feature a lovely springer fork. A little searching of the internet revealed several British enthusiasts that still have these cycles licensed and street legal in the UK. AMA’s Triumph TT is running, restored example, and is both truly lovely to look at, as well as a little portal into the earliest days of powered cycling.

That You Or I Should Be In This Kinda Shape at 104 Years Old

 

Another member-donated denizen of AMA’s ‘Garage’ is a nicely restored 1919 Cleveland.

Quite The Crankshaft, Indeed

The Cleveland was designed to be reliable and affordable transportation. What is intriguing about the Cleveland is the design of its driveline.

Most single cylinder motorcycles of the late 19 teens were in-line engine layouts, where the engine flywheel rotated in-line with the motorcycle’s wheels. Power made by the engine was then transferred, either via belt or via chain, either to a separate transmission case, or directly to the rear wheel.

By Cleveland Motorcycle Manufacturing Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Unique Kind of Unit Construction

The Cleveland, however, was notable in that its two stroke engine — by itself somewhat unusual — was oriented with a transverse flywheel, which allowed power to be transmitted directly via an extended crankshaft to a unit construction gearbox, which was driven off the crank via a worm gear.  The crankshaft then continued past the 2 speed, pedal shifted gearbox to drive the motorcycle’s magneto.  The resulting drive unit was light, simple, economical to manufacture and strong.  This driveline was a concrete engineering example of creative and elegant problem solving. That elegance was of little solace when, like the vast majority of US motorcycle manufacturers, Cleveland was bankrupted in 1929 by the Great Depression.

***

I have an admitted weakness for all the 4 cylinder motorcycles that were made in the US in the early part of the twentieth century. These motorcycles — the Pierce, the Ace, the Henderson and the Indian 4s were all attempts to drive motorcycle performance, comfort and sophistication forward. With the exception of the Pierce, all these motorcycles were the designs of William Henderson, who, along with his brother Tom were inducted into the Hall in 1998.

The Hendersons originally built motorcycles under their own name — long graceful cycles with inline air-cooled 4 cylinder engines. After selling their company to Ignatz Schwinn — who sold the bikes as Excelsior-Hendersons — William Henderson went back into business with another more developed 4 cylinder — the Ace. After William was struck by a car and killed testing a new Ace model, the company went out of business shortly thereafter. Indian purchased the Ace intellectual property, and produced that essentially unchanged motorcycle, called the Indian Ace for its first year, and then subsequently swapped the Ace’s front ends’ leading links for Indian’s trailing links, and Henderson’s Ace became the Indian 4.

These examples of fiercely creative engineering all came a cropper at the foot of Henry Ford, whose assembly line methods – at around 1914 — made it less expensive to manufacture and sell an automobile than to sell a premium motorcycle such as these. The potential market for such machinery was reduced from people looking for practical transportation to motorcycle police — who valued being able to run down anything on the road — and motorsport enthusiasts, and with that reduction one saw the sadly expected series of bankruptcies, acquisitions and commercial failures.

AMA has a few prime examples of these high-speed thoroughbreds, though.

The Ace

One of William’s Motorcycles

This 1924 Ace would have been one of the last Aces built before the company was sold off – first to Michigan Motors Corporation — who failed to build more than a few examples — and subsequently Indian, who moved production to Springfield, Massachusetts and sold the bike as the Indian 4.

Another One of William’s Motorcycles

This 1930 Excelsior Henderson was also one of the last ones of its type built. Ignatz Schwinn, with the Depression coming up on the pipe, made a management decision to exit the motorcycle business as a method to save the bicycle side of his conglomerate. Looking at the two motorcycles back to back, it is pretty easy to see that they sprang from the mind of the same designer. The fact that they both share similar paintwork – royal blue paintwork with gold striping and yellow crème wheels — seems almost but not quite coincidental. The engines have the same Inlet Over Exhaust F-head design — the timing case is almost identical — the placement of the carb and intake manifold is the same — the Magneto is the same — even the transmission lever and linkages are almost identical. The Ace company was quick to point out that not a single part was interchangeable between the two motorcycles

Henderson’s contract with Excelsior provided for protection of all of Excelsior’s designs and intellectual property. Looking at the two engines, it’s clear William Henderson stuck to the letter, if not the spirit, of that contract.

 

***

 

End of Part 1… To read Part Two, Click Here

 

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2 thoughts on “Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros

  1. An inviting write-up, especially of the AMA Museum. I haven’t been there since the days of an old friend, Ed Youngblood. The Museum used to do curated shows in addition to displaying a rotating selection of their rich collection. The last time I was there, Ed had curated a special show honoring a hundred years of Harley Davidson (as I recall). My late pal, John Ryan, and I were favored by a personal tour by Ed. Those curated shows just had to be costly, but Ed Youngblood is a master of the art and history of motorcycles. Perhaps AMA now just shows a rotating sample of their trove?

    Your essay compels me to return. It’s a one day round trip ride from where I hangar my helmet. And spring is almost upon us in Ohio.

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