History of USA Excelsior Motorcycles

A 1919 Excelsior board track racer. Paul Brodie @ flashbackfab.com

The name Excelsior has always caused a little confusion for some folks, at least when applied to motorcycle history. The problem is that this name was used by three separate companies, one in the UK, one in the US and one in Germany (Excelsior Fahrrad Motorad-Werke). The British company operated from 1896 to 1964, while Excelsior in the USA (later to become Excelsior-Henderson) produced motorcycles from 1905 to 1931.

Excelsior USA

As with many future motorcycle manufacturers, Excelsior started out producing bicycles. Actually, they produced bicycle parts before producing entire cycles. The cycle business was booming towards the latter end of the nineteenth century with group rides, rallies, races, and even hill climb.

Excelsior motorcycle production started at Randolph Street in Chicago in 1905. Their first motorcycle was a 21 cu inch (344-cc, 4-stroke), single speed machine with an unusual valve configuration known as an 'F' head. This configuration has the inlet valve located in the cylinder head, but the exhaust valve was located in the cylinder (side valve style). Final drive was via a leather belt to the rear wheel. This first Excelsior had a top speed of between 35 and 40 mph.

The 'X' Series

In 1910, Excelsior introduced an engine configuration they would become famous for, and one they would produce until 1929: the notable 'X' series. The engine was a V-twin measuring 61 cubic inches (1000 cc). The bikes were designated model letters 'F' and 'G' and were single speed machines.

As Excelsior motorcycles gained popularity with their excellent performance and reliability, another Chicago company considered entering the motorcycle market - The Schwinn Company.

Ignaz Schwinn's company had been producing cycles for some time, but the downturn in cycle sales around 1905 (due in part to the popularity of motorcycles) forced him to look at other markets. However, instead of designing and manufacturing their own products, the Schwinn company decided to make an offer to buy Excelsior Motorcycles.

Schwinn Company Buys Excelsior

It took another six years (1911) before the Schwinn Company completed the purchase of Excelsior for $500,000. Interestingly, 1911 was also the year another motorcycle manufacturer, that would become synonymous with the Schwinn company, made their first motorcycle. Henderson motorcycles producing their first inline four-cylinder machine that year.

By this time, motorcycles were taking over from cycles in competitions, too. Many races took part between cities, state borders and even on motordromes. The motordromes, originally for cycle races, were high-banked ovals made from 2" wide wooden planks. (Imagine the splinters!)

To publicize the brand, Excelsior entered many competitions and set a number of world records. Factory riders such as Joe Walters set new records on the ovals, such as the first motorcycle to average 86.9 mph over six laps of a one-third oval track, completing the distance in 1m-22.4 seconds.

The First 100 mph Motorcycle

Another record set at this time went to the Henderson Company when rider Lee Humiston recorded a top speed of 100 mph. This milestone was achieved on a board track at Playa del Ray California. This record helped the Henderson company boost sales in the US and also to export machines to England, Japan, and Australia.

By 1914 the Excelsior brand was proving to be one of the most successful manufacturers of motorcycles in the world. As production had increased to meet the demand, a new factory had become necessary. The new factory was state of the art at the time, and included a test track on the roof! The factory also offered their first 2-stroke that year with a 250-cc single cylinder machine.

The Big Valve 'X'

A year later, 1915, Excelsior introduced a new model with the Big Valve X, a 61 cu inch V-twin with a three-speed gearbox. The company claimed this bike was the "fastest motorcycle ever."

Nineteen sixteen saw the Excelsior brand used by numerous Police forces and even the US military during Pershing's campaign in Mexico.

Excelsior Buys Henderson Motorcycles

Due to financial reasons and shortages in raw materials, the Henderson Company offered to sell out to Excelsior in 1917. Schwinn eventually accepted the offer and transferred production of the Hendersons to the Excelsior factory. Some three years later, Will Henderson broke his contract with Schwinn and left to set up another motorcycle manufacturing plant with partner Max M. Sladkin.

In 1922 Excelsior-Henderson became the first motorcycle manufacturer to produce a bike that covered a mile in 60 seconds on a half-mile dirt track. This same year also saw the introduction of the Excelsior type M, a single cylinder machine which was basically half of the twin engine. In addition, a new Henderson called the De Lux was introduced sporting many engine improvements and bigger brakes. Sadly, this year also saw the death of Henderson founder, Will Henderson, in a motorcycle accident. He was testing a new machine.

Police Buy Hendersons

The Henderson machines continued to be a favorite with Police forces in the US with more than 600 different forces choosing the brand over such bikes as the Harley Davidson and the Indian.

Record breaking in the early days of motorcycle manufacturing was common place. And the Excelsior and Henderson brands took many of the records. One record that still stands was achieved by Henderson rider Wells Bennett.

Bennett rode a Henderson De Lux from Canada to Mexico in 1923 and set a record of 42 hours 24 minutes. He then added a sidecar and passenger - Ray Smith - and rode back to Canada breaking the sidecar record.

The last, and one of the most successful Excelsior was the Super X. This bike, introduced in 1925, went on to win many board races setting many world records in the process.

The Super X was restyled to become a modern cruiser in 1929, but it was also the last of the Excelsior-Hendersons as the company abruptly closed on March 31st, 1931 due to the depression after the Wall Street crash. Although the company had many orders from Police forces and dealers alike, Ignaz Schwinn decided that the depression was going to get worse and so he decided to quit while ahead.