Monday, December 31, 2012

The Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Truck

Once the novelty of an engine-powered two-wheeled vehicle wore off, both manufacturers and enthusiasts were looking for ways to convert motorcycles into commercial vehicles.  Since they were cheaper to own and operate than automobiles and able to travel better on rutted rural roads, many Police Departments and the US Postal service were already relying on motorcycles as an important part of their vehicle fleet.  Harley-Davidson was eager to increase it's foothold in the commercial vehicle market, so in 1913 they announced that they would be producing a new model called the "Motorcycle Truck".

The Motor Company had already successfully tested this concept during the winter of 1912-1913 in a joint venture with the Milwaukee branch of the US Postal Service.  Prototype motorcycle trucks were provided to mail carriers to use on their normal routes.  After surviving a harsh Wisconsin winter, Harley felt they were ready for production.

The motorcycle truck used an F-head v-twin engine which was mated to a two speed transmission.  The transmission was designed for hauling heavy loads, so it used a 10:1 ratio low gear and a 5:1 ratio high gear.  The standard single wheel front end was replaced with a newly designed dual wheel front end.  A cargo container was then mounted between the two front wheels.

Company advertising described the motorcycle truck as maneuverable and easy to handle.  It also boasted a 550 lbs cargo carrying capacity and the front mounted container provided ample space for advertising.  Still, the motorcycle truck was short-lived and by 1915 it had been replaced by the easier to produce Package Truck, much to the disappointment of meat delivering services across the US.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

War Machines - American Motorcycles in World War I

When the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, they brought motorcycles from several US companies to help on the front lines.  The bulk of the motorcycles came from Indian and Harley-Davidson, but motorcycles produced by Excelsior, Henderson, and a few other US manufacturers also made it to Europe.  Indian devoted most of it's production to the war effort, building almost 50,000 motorcycles for the US Military.  Harley-Davidson also upped production, delivering over 20,000 motorcycles to support the war.  

The Indian military model was based on their new PowerPlus Big Twin.  It featured a 61 cubic inch side valve motor which produced 18 horsepower and could reliably carry the motorcycle at speeds of 60 mph.  The engine was mated to a three speed hand shift transmission and the drive train was mounted into a frame with both front and rear suspension.  Lighting was handled by a gas headlamp and there was even a rear brake just in case you needed to stop quickly.

Harley-Davidson based their military model on the their J series motorcycle.  It used a 61 cubic inch F-head motor which produced 15 horsepower, putting it below the Indian in terms of power.  It also used a three speed hand shift transmission and a frame with front suspension.  Like the Indian PowerPlus, the electric headlamp used on the civilian model was replaced by simpler gas version and only a rear brake was mounted for stopping the motorcycle. 

Unlike the WLA's which would be used exclusively as dispatch motorcycles in WWII, the motorcycles of WWI saw action on the front lines.  Motorcycles were outfitted with various sidecar mounted machine guns and placed together in motorized units called "Motor Mobile Infantry".  They were also converted into ambulances, able to carry one or two wounded soldiers on stretchers adapted to sidecar frames.  Like the WLA's they also were used to lead convoys, dispatch messages and general transportation behind the front lines.

This photo actually depicts Corporal Holtz leaving Germany.  He was captured the day before the Armistice and released immediately after it was signed.  Newspapers back in the US wrongly printed this picture as the first US soldier to enter Germany after the surrender, but in truth, Hotlz was leaving Germany to get back to his unit.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Motordrome - Board Track Motorcycle Racing

In the first years of the twentieth century, companies like Harley-Davidson and Indian began producing motorcycles for the general public.  Although there is not an exact date of the first motorcycle race, you can be sure that as soon as there were two motorcycles on the road, there was racing.  As more and more motorcycle manufactures started popping up across the US, motorcycle racing started making it's way to more official venues.    The earliest races were held on dirt tracks used for horse racing or on bicycle velodromes.  These were sufficient for the motorcycles of the early 1900's, but as the sport increased in popularity and the speed of the motorcycles closed in on 100 mph, the need for a purpose built track became apparent.

The board track or motordrome was designed provide this much needed racing venue and was used by both motorcycles and automobiles.  The first board tracks waere constructed in Los Angeles, California sometime in 1909.  At the time, lumber was inexpensive, so constructing an entire track out of wood was not as cost prohibitive as it would be today.   Even so, the amount of man hours needed to build a motordrome must have been enormous, especially considering the length.  The average track was one mile long, but several were twice that distance.  Rough cut 2" x 4" and 2" x 2" lumber was used  to create the tracks' surface.  It's staggering to think of the number of board feet needed to build a one mile track.  The corners were banked to allow the riders to maintain speeds around 100 mph, starting at 25 degrees on the inside of the turn and sometimes reaching a 60 degrees on the outside.  The tracks needed constant maintenance, not only due to damage caused by wrecks, but also due to weathering.  There were no suitable wood preservatives available at the time, so the entire track's surface needed to be replaced at least every five years.  Due to this expense, most tracks were just torn down after a few years of use.

By the 1915, there were at least half a dozen board tracks operating across the US.  This partial list shows some of the tracks and their years of operation:
  • Playa Del Rey, CA 1.0 mile 1910-1913
  • Elmhurst, CA 0.5mile 1911-1913
  • Chicago, IL (maywood) 2.0 miles 1915-1917
  • Des Moines,IA 1.0 mile 1915-1917
  • Omaha,NE 1.25 miles 1915-1917
  • Brooklyn,NY (Sheepshead Bay) 2.0 miles 1915-1919
  • Uniontown, PA 1.125 miles 1916-1922
  • Cincinnati, OH 2.0 miles 1916-1919
  • Tacoma, WA 2.0 miles 1915-1921
  • Beverly Hills, CA 1.25 miles 1920-1924
  • Fresno, CA 1.0 mile 1920-1927
  • San Carlos, CA 1.25 miles 1921-1922
  • Coati,CA 1.25 miles 1921-1922
  • Kansas City, MO 1.25 miles 1922-1924
  • Altoona, PA 1.25 miles 1923-1931
  • Charlotte, NC 1.25 miles 1924-1927
  • Culver City, CA 1.25 miles 1924-1927
  • Salem, NH (Rockingham) 1.25 miles 1925-1927
  • Laurel, MD 1.125 miles 1925-1926
  • MIami, FL (Fulford-by-the-Sea) 1.25 miles 1926-1927
  • Amatol, NJ (Atlantic City) 1.5 miles 1926-1928
  • Woodbridge, NJ 0.5 mile 1929-1931
  • Akron , OH 0.5 mile (no dates)
  • Bridgeville, PA 0.5 mile (no dates)

There is no doubt that board track racing was an incredibly exciting event to witness.  The motorcycles were capable of speeds over 100 mph and represented all the marques of the day.  Manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior all had factory racing teams with custom built factory race bikes.  Legendary racers such as Jim Davis, Otto Walker, Albert "Shrimp" Burns and many more made their names racing on the board tracks during the 1910's and 1920's.

Nothing adds to the excitement of racing like danger, and board track racing had plenty to spare.  Safety seemed to be of little concern to the riders, especially considering that the motorcycles were not even equipped with a braking system.  The standard riders "uniform" consisted of a leather helmet, wool sweater, leather gaiters, pants, gloves and boots.  Even if the rider walked away from the crash, he was likely to come away riddled with wood splinters.

The spectators were also not immune from the dangers of the race track.  Since the viewing stands were usually built at the top of the track, it was not unheard of for a rider to crash directly into the crowd.  The most infamous of these wrecks happened in 1912, when Eddie Hasha lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into the crowd, killing himself and four to six spectators.

By the late 1920's, board track racing was rapidly approaching it's end.  The Great Depression had an obvious financial impact on the races, but it was the number of deaths that was the greatest contributor to it's demise.  Several famous riders lost their lives, causing the press to nickname it the "Murderdrome".  Albert “Shrimp” Burns died in a 1921 crash in Toledo, Ohio, Eddie Brinck was killed in a race in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1927 and Ray Weishaar was a 1924 casualty in a race in Los Angeles.  Weishaar was part of the Harley-Davidson racing team nicknamed the "Wrecking Crew" and was often photographed holding the team's mascot, a pig.  It is believed this is where Harley's nickname "hog" originated.

Deluxe Ride put together the following video which includes a lot of original board track racing footage.  It's set to music and also includes some interesting facts about the motordrome...

Motordrome - Board Track Motorcycle Racing in the US from Deluxe Ride on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Crater Camp

During the 1940's and 1950's, Southern California was a hot bed of motorcycle activity.  If you were into any type of motorcycle racing, whether it be offroad desert racing, hill climbs, dirt track or TT, you could find something going on almost every weekend.  One of the best places to check out during that time was Crater Camp.  It was located near Malibu State Park in Los Angeles in the undeveloped hills outside of town.  Crater Camp Field Meet, as it came to be known, was an informal weekend gathering of motorcyclist which featured a variety of amateur racing events.  All you had to do was ride out there, strap a paper plate over your headlight with a number on it and you were ready to race.  Check out this vintage footage from Elrod Racing.  It's only a couple minutes long, but it gives you a good feel for what it must have been like on an average weekend at Crater Camp. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

1950's Catalina Grand Prix

Since it began in 1907, the Isle of Man Grand Prix has been one of motorcycling premier racing events.  In 1951, race promoters from California decided they would like to bring an Isle of Man style race to the US.  A small island located 22 miles of the coast of California was chosen for it's varied terrain which was similar to that of the Isle of Man.  Catalina Island provided the necessary blend of city and mountain riding, making for an exciting 10 lap/100 mile race.

Motorcycles were shipped over via barge and the participants and spectators took a short ferry ride from LA to reach the island.

The Catalina Grand Prix was an incredibly popular race during it's 8 year run.  Many marques built bikes just for this race.  BSA built a motorcycle called the Gold Star Catalina Scrambler which could be purchased by the public as well.  

Harley-Davidson introduced their new "K" model in 1952 and had three K models in the top ten for both 1953 and 1954.  Also riding for Harley-Davidson was Ray Tanner who rode a classic 74 cubic inch motorcycle complete with tank shift and floor boards.  He was very successful with this combination, making the top ten five times, his best a second place finish in 1954.  Tanner's success was attributed to an interesting technique in which he would slide the motorcycle sideways into a turn and then drag the floorboards to slow down enough to stay on the road.

Even with Harley-Davidson's success, the predominate motorcycles used in the Catalina Grand Prix were British.  Triumph, BSA and Velocette were popular among the racers, but you could also see BMW's, MotoGuzzi's, Matchless', Ariel's and a few other marques running around the course. 

Special sidecar rig built for filming the race
 So why did such a popular event only last for 8 years?  Turns out that one evening after racing was over for the day, the mayor of Avalon (which was the city the race course went through) was mugged on his way home.  He was able to then convince the Chamber of Commerce to cancel the races.  It wasn't until 2010, that Catalina Grand Prix was finally held again, after a 52 year hiatus.