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Bike Profile - Posted 23rd April 2012

Crocker V-Twins
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There's a rare chance to see three 1930s American V-twins on display in the UK this month. For most show-goers, this will be the first time they've heard of Crocker motorcycles...

Every motorcyclist can name at least one American motorcycle manufacturer. Most folk can think of two, three, or maybe even four classic bike brands from the USA. Harley-Davidson automatically heads the list, normally followed by Indian, and then… umm… Excelsior-Henderson? Buell, maybe? A strange situation given the size of the US motorcycle market and the accepted wisdom that it was an American, EJ Pennington of Milwaukee, who first coined the phrase 'motorcycle' in 1895 to describe his powered two-wheeler.

Indeed, in the veteran and vintage era before the First World War, bikes were so popular in the States that Indian were the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer. In Europe and the UK at that time there were literally hundreds of small motorcycle marques, all experimenting with the new technology which allowed them to add engines to their bicycle designs. But as the marques consolidated and factories took over from one-man workshops, so America ended up with just two giants on the scene.

Possibly the small=tank model 1937 Crocker

Until 1936, when Albert G Crocker unleashed his big beasts upon the world.

Crocker had worked at Indian as a designer and engineer and then designed his own speedway machines in the early 1930s. Next, he stole a march on the established marques by introducing his overhead valve V-twin roadsters several months ahead of the Harley Knucklehead. Crocker's high-performance mile-munchers were designated as 'Big Tank' and 'Little Tank' models, reflecting the three-gallon or two-gallon petrol tank size, but each bike build depended much more on the customer's requirements than any set model specification.

Flat tyre is extra 1941 Crocker

Everything about the Crocker twin was substantial. The 45-degree OHV V-twin ranged in capacity from 1000cc to 1500cc. So for a long while the Crocker V-twin could claim to be the world's largest production motorcycle, although Crockers were so specialised and built in such small numbers that the definition of 'production' could be questioned in this case. Each bike was hand-built to order. I'm trying not to say that this made them the 'Brough-Superior of America' because that'll set off the cliché-checker on my word processor… but the comparison is an apt one. Crocker customers could choose not just their bike's livery but engine capacity, compression, gear ratios, so forth. Almost all of the components were built in-house, even the carbs, with just wheel rims, tyres, spark plugs and such being bought from external suppliers.

A typical Crocker V-twin could produce around 55bhp at 5800rpm, but with compression raised from 7:1 to 11:1 on a high capacity machine the engine would deliver more than 60 horsepower and give the bikes a genuine top speed of over 110mph.

With near-square engine dimensions, the Crocker revved higher and more freely than the typical long-stroke big twins from the opposition, so it certainly felt faster. This potent performance was managed by a three-speed gearbox with a robust transmission designed to cope with the engine's torque - it probably fared better than the girder fork front end and rigid rear end. There's a reason why the Crockers are fitted with those big fat tyres so typical of the time…

'Indian' motorcycles on Now...

These visually intimidating machines were built like Brunel's ships; massively over-specified for durability and longevity. Crocker offered a refund to any owner who lost a race to an Indian or Harley, and legend has it that he never had to come good on that promise. However, fewer than 100 V-twins were built in the six years of production - just 38 Big Tanks were sold, and rumour has it that Crocker made a loss on every single one of them. The Crocker V-twins were very expensive to make, and the market of the late 1930s couldn't support a bespoke bike building enterprise of this kind. Crocker stopped building bikes when American switched industrial efforts to a war footing in 1942.

Maroon good, chromed girders, not so god? 19437 Crocker

So these machines are now extremely rare. There are just 68 of them known to exist, and when they do come up for sale they tend to fetch big money - typically over $250,000 US. Three Crocker V-twins are being displayed by Bonhams auctioneers at the Stafford Show in April 2012 in the UK, prior to their sale back in the States. Two of these are 1937 bikes while the third dates from 1941. It's very unusual to see even one of these machines on display - and it's likely that they will be split up when they go under the hammer in August 2012 at the auction at Carmel in California.

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Words: Rowena Hoseason
Photos: www.bonhams.com

Stafford Classic Motorcycle Show info: www.classicbikeshows.com

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