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12th September 2016

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American Excelsior

The new history of Excelsior, Henderson and Super-X motorcycles is a substantial offering, as Tim Pickering discovers...

Celebrated motorcycle journalist Dave Minton hit upon a fitting description of the more extreme type of motoring book author, when he reviewed in RealClassic No.83 a book which was devoted entirely to the seemingly arcane topic of the Meriden Triumph factory’s 500cc unit twin track racers of the late 1960s. Minton commented that ‘they write the minutiae of their micro-evolutionary measured histories not for profit but because their addiction allows them no rest, no alternative … it must have involved research, patience and endurance beyond measure over many years.’

That authors Thomas Bund and Robert Turek both fall into this category becomes immediately obvious when their hefty and cellophane wrapped tome about American Excelsior motorcycles arrives in the post and is wrested from its stout packaging. This is one helluva book! If further confirmation about serious addiction is needed, then it’s provided in the Introduction which explains that the point of selling this book was not about how much money could be made, but to minimise the loss of money…

American Excelsior An Autolite distributor cap is here included to show the sheer scale and heft of Bund and Turek’s American Excelsior book

Their choice of topic is a worthy one for any history-minded two-wheeler gearhead. The third of the so-called ‘Big Three’ American motorcycle makers, Chicago-based Excelsior’s contribution to the US and indeed global industry was a significant one. As this new book makes plain, the Excelsior story contains events as dramatic, and personalities as colourful, as anything that originated from Milwaukee or Springfield. If you’ve had even a flicker of interest about where the famous Excelsior and Henderson motorcycles came from, or who were the people behind them, then American Excelsior has the entire story crammed into a single volume.

The story of the Excelsior Motor Mfg and Supply Company is also of interest to anyone fascinated by the history of Indian, now enjoying a renaissance. The two factories charted competing, and at times complementary, courses through the jagged reefs of America’s motorcycle market from the dawn of motoring until the Great Depression. They poached each other’s top riders in board track racing. Excelsior alternated with Harley-Davidson in challenging Indian for supremacy in competition, be it in road races, board track, hill climbs, speed records, or trans-continental endurance efforts. As just one example of these complementary histories; Bund and Turek’s book is the first to finally explain why Indian’s star rider Jake de Rosier suddenly left them in August 1911 to go race instead for Excelsior.

In production of standard road bikes, the two factories traded punches which kept both on their toes throughout this period. The 45ci unit-construction Super-X was a direct jab at the Scout, and way out-classed it until the 101 appeared in response. Indian’s acquisition of Ace was a riposte aimed at the touring and law-enforcement dominance of the Henderson fours. Of the Big Three US factories, Excelsior were first to make the break from the flat-tank era, through adoption of ‘streamline’ styling (picking up on trends initiated by Brough Superior, HRD and Ariel in the UK) which forced HD and Indian to follow suit.

According to the contemporary words of Excelsior advertising, lovingly reproduced in Bund and Turek’s book; ‘the handsome new lines, graceful curves and flowing streamlines strike a new note in motorcycle design and offer the rider beauty as well as service and utility.’ This is the moment when American motorcycles became truly modern, with the triangular themes and teardrop gas tanks that persist to this day in the cruiser offerings of that lone survivor of the Big Three, Harley-Davidson, and in a zillion metric knock-offs. That watershed moment happened first at Excelsior-Henderson, in 1928.

The problem with one-marque histories is that, for reasons of space, the chosen marque is analysed in isolation and they usually degenerate into a dry list of model-year engineering changes. There are those of us who see nothing wrong in that, but it has the likes of Dave Minton running for cover in the opposite direction. His book review of Triumph 500 racers continues ‘quite simply, too much history runs through the people and events and products and technology of any manufacturer to accurately list and describe anything satisfactorily.’

American Excelsior American Excelsior is a social as well as a technical history, which leaves no angle of vintage-era motorcycling unexplored

Bund and Turek have tackled that problem head-on, and solved it. How? Firstly, by making their book 448 pages long. Secondly, by making those pages big enough (at 11 inches wide and 12 inches tall) for a host of photos and illustrations collected over a thirty year period. Thirdly, by interpreting their material via liberal reference to contemporary models and events at Indian, or HD, or Triumph in the UK, where these impinge directly upon the Excelsior story. Fourthly, they published the book themselves, in a small print run, with no compromise on size, quality, layout or binding.

The stated aim of their book is ‘to provide information from the enthusiast for the enthusiast about the history and the heritage of the American-built Excelsior, Super-X and Henderson motorcycles.’ Up until now, no one else has bothered to do this. Except Thomas Bund himself, who has done it before but he wrote it in German.

Back in 2010 while researching our own book Franklin’s Indians for the influence Excelsior had on the Indian model line-up of the 1920s, I became one of many who’ve emailed Thomas to ask ‘is there an English version available?’ Earlier this year Thomas emailed me back to say ‘yes, now there is’. Via the internet he joined forces with Robert Turek, an American who had independently embarked on the same exercise but in the English language.

Books about Harleys and, to a lesser extent, Indians, have been around for years. Why has there been nothing about Excelsior-Hendersons, until now? I suppose the main explanation is that their production didn’t survive into the post-WW2 era (apart from the ill-fated Hanlon episode). So they have not been part of anyone’s present-day ‘my dad / grandad had one of those’ nostalgia trips. Consequently it would be a commercial insanity to undertake the task of researching, writing, and publishing such a work.

American Excelsior This line-up of four-cylinder Hendersons at the New Zealand Classic Motorcycle Museum shows how Excelsior-Henderson led the US manufacturers away from flat-tank styling (centre machine) to a triangular streamline look that characterises American cruisers even today.

Bund and Turek have tackled that problem head-on, and solved it. How? Firstly, by making their book 448 pages long. Secondly, by making those pages big enough (at 11 inches wide and 12 inches tall) for a host of photos and illustrations collected over a thirty year period. Thirdly, by interpreting their material via liberal reference to contemporary models and events at Indian, or HD, or Triumph in the UK, where these impinge directly upon the Excelsior story. Fourthly, they published the book themselves, in a small print run, with no compromise on size, quality, layout or binding.

How fortunate for us that Mr Bund and Mr Turek can now tick both of these boxes, (i) non-commercial, and (ii) insane, by writing this book about the history and heritage of the American Excelsiors. To paraphrase Mr Minton, I can say right here that the authors have ‘listed and described it satisfactorily.’ It is loaded with information on all aspects. Yet their book does not come across as tediously text-heavy, and is a very visual work. It’s like a huge scrap-book, copious in illustration and detail. The nearest other book I can think of that uses a similar style and content is ‘Black Ariels 1926-1930’ by Dave Barkshire (reviewed here) which is also a visual feast, and also self-published in small numbers.

The illustrations to text ratio is about 2/3 to 1/3, which would make for a threadbare narrative in a book of less than 100 pages but is amply sufficient for 422 pages. It is not dry text, either. This is a social history of the company and its products, which focusses on personalities and events rather than just on model-year changes. It sets the Excelsior-Henderson products within the context of their times, and their competitors. It makes the engineering come alive and gives it relevance. This approach to history recognises that motorcycles were designed to be ridden. By people. Who used them to perform incredible feats of bravery and skill.

Don’t take this book along with you to read on an aeroplane, or at the beach while on holiday. Its bulk surpasses even that of Stephen Wright’s American Racer. You’ll want to carefully take it down from its shelf, dip into it from time to time, and savour it from the comfort of a big leather armchair.

Don’t wince at the price either. The book’s authors are making a loss, remember? If you love motorcycle picture-histories, and you already have a $750 eBay copy of American Racer plus Jerry Hatfield’s Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story (one of the most under-appreciated tours de force of motorcycle publishing ever) then you should also buy American Excelsior. Do it now, before they run out of copies.

So, why did De Rosier leave Indian to race for Excelsior?

Sorry, but I’m not telling. You’ll have to buy the book.

RC reviewer: Tim Pickering

American Excelsior: The history of Excelsior, Henderson and Super-X motorcycles by Thomas Bund and Robert Turek is a limited edition hardback, ISBN 978-3-00-050680-2, available only from the authors at www.american-x.org



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