Although the Cyclone was never in contention in the marketplace,
it was always a contender on the race track. In its brief appearance
on the American race scene, the distinctive, bright yellow (although
it was sometimes painted a dark, royal blue) machine with its
sophisticated, overhead-cam design, probably aroused more
curiosity and excitement than any other motorcycle in the
history of American racing.
The overhead-cam Cyclone motor that caused the excitement
was designed by Andrew Strand, a Swedish-born engineer who, before
joining the Joerns Motor Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota,
had worked in the American automotive industry. Prior to designing the
Cyclone engine, Strand's experience included working at both the Welch
and Jackson automobile companies, two firms whose automobiles featured
In 1914, the Cyclone made its first major appearance at a Labor Day
race meet in California where the speedster from St. Paul won both
the 5 and 10-mile National Championships. The following month, J. A.
"Jock" McNeil turned a mile at the Omaha, Nebraska motordrome in
35 and 2/5th seconds (101 mph) to break the landmark Excelsior-held
record that had been established by Lee Humiston in 1912.
J.A. "Jock" McNeil
In a follow up speed test, McNeil traveled a mile at slightly better than
111 mph, but the official sanctioning organization refused to recognize
the higher speed, suspicious that it was too high to be true. Nevertheless,
the reputation of the overhead-cam speedster continued to grow, fueled
by its spectacular performance in short distance dirt track events.
In the few instances when the Cyclone did appear in prominent
long distance race programs (such as the April, 1915 Venice
300-miler), it suffered from mechanical failures, leaving many fans
unconvinced. Although Don Johns was a front runner and established
a new track record at Dodge City in 1915, both he and the other
Cyclone entry were forced (again by mechanical failures) to retire
from the prestigious event.
Don Johns and the Cyclone had a destiny to fulfill. Born in Topeka,
Kansas in 1895, Donald Johns was the son of Welsh immigrants who
retired from farming and moved to Los Angeles in 1900. As a youth,
Johns' parents taught him an especially rugged, self-reliant form of
democracy and the boy grew up to be as strong a "fighter" in his
profession as his contemporary, Jack Dempsey, the Colorado prize-fighter.
As chance would have it, the Johns' family home was almost across the
street from where C.W. Risden opened his pioneer Indian agency, which
became the "hang-out" for all the boys in that Los Angeles neighborhood.
From the very beginning, the young Johns was a fixture in Risden's shop.
He spent every free moment waiting for the slightest chance to assist any
motorcyclist who drove in. No task was too menial as long as it would
serve as an excuse to "bum a ride."
Sometimes the older motorcyclists would let him and sometimes, not,
but over a period of time the "little fellow" (for Johns was only about 60
pounds then) learned to ride the motorized two wheelers. In later years,
the legendary racer reminisced that when he first learned to ride he was
so small that he had to climb a step ladder to get on the machine. By
the time he was 12, Johns was ready to race, but the official sanctioning
organization of the day ruled that he was too young to compete.
In 1907, at a competition held at the old Agricultural Park
1-mile track, the disappointed boy stood on the sidelines and watched
Charles Balke win the first novice race of the day on the machine that
had been initially prepared by Risden for Johns to ride. In a
follow-up race on the same day, "Skinny," (Mile-a-Minute) Collins,
the president of the Los Angeles Motorcycle Club, earned the nickname
that he would carry for life when he rode his 5-hp twin Peugeot around the
1-mile horse track in one minute, the first time the feat had been accomplished.
Walter "Mile-a-Minute" Collins
Johns bided his time, learning at his own pace and developing his
own riding style. When Jake DeRosier came to Los Angeles in 1909,
Johns immediately attached himself to the famous rider, volunteering
to assist him in any way possible. The 29-year old DeRosier took a liking
to the enthusiastic 14 year-old, and on several occasions coached him
in racing techniques.
Charles Balke also tutored the teenager and in later years Johns
admitted learning more from "The Fearless One" than anyone else.
When Johns was finally allowed to compete he was already enormously
skilled and ready for the toughest competition. In August of 1909, he
rode his first race in San Bernardino on his 30.50 cubic inch Thor and
won the 5, 10, and 25-mile "strip-stock" class. With constant practice,
Johns became a well-seasoned competitor and throughout 1910
won most of the amateur events that he entered.
On April 7, 1911, the 16 year-old Don Johns, riding a standard-valve Indian,
burst into the national headlines when he shattered all amateur records
from 2 to 20-miles. In the process, he tied Ray Seymour's professional
record for the mile and broke the world record for the 2-mile distance.
From that time on he was known as the "man to beat" wherever he
raced, and the old-timers who knew him and raced against him agreed
that if he wasn't the greatest dirt track racer of his time, and perhaps of
all time, there never was anybody around who could prove otherwise.
Don Johns at Playa del Rey in 1911
In those days, racing was not a gentlemanly sport. It was a rough-and-tumble
affair, full of flying fists, elbows, and consequently teeth. The crowd
paid to see a brawl as much as a race, and Los Angeles boasted that
the western riders were the roughest of the lot. To the riders of the day,
the "brawl" of racing was just part of the game.
So when Johns, 16-years old, weighing around ninety pounds, and
standing about four-feet ten-inches tall, was beating the Los Angeles
crew of hard-fighting competitors such as Morty Graves, Charles Balke,
Ray Seymour, and "Crazy Horse" Verrill, it is apparent that his stock
of courage and grit was more than adequate.
In 1912, at the Hawthorne track near Chicago, Johns won the 2-mile
national dirt track championship uncontested. He had battled out nine
firsts in that same meet against stiff competition; by the time the 2-mile
event came up, no one would race against him.
Continuing with Excelsior, the nationally-acclaimed rider set
an official world record for the mile on the Playa del Rey board track.
Despite a wind that "would snatch the fillings from your teeth," Johns
turned a 39 and 2/5th-second time for the distance, replacing his former
mentor, Jake DeRosier, as the title holder. Mostly though, Don Johns
preferred to barnstorm the 1-mile dirt track circuits of California and the
Midwest, gaining experience as well as a reputation as the "hardest
fighting" rider in the "no-holds-barred" game.
By 1914, Johns had improved to such an extent that the Excelsior
could not hold him. He would ride the entire race course wide open,
throwing great showers of dirt into the air at each turn. Often, his
machine would disintegrate under him. At the 1914 Dodge City race,
Johns competed with the much faster Indian 8's that had been
entered by the Springfield factory to dismantle the competition. At
about the 70-mile point most of the components on Johns' Excelsior
had come loose, even his gas tank fell off.
So when the Joerns Company offered him a job (after the Dodge City
race) to introduce the new Cyclone on the dirt tracks, Johns accepted.
He debuted the bike at the 1914 Labor Day races in Stockton, California
and chewed up the competition, including the Indian 8's. In
the process he won both the 5 and 10-mile Championships and beat the
track record held by his recently deceased mentor, Charles Balke. Johns'
performance threw the crowd into such a frenzy that after the race they
almost tore his machine apart to take home souvenirs.
Don Johns on a Cyclone
The Cyclone held up better under Johns' violent riding, but he still rode
beyond the machine's capacity. News clippings from all over the United States
bulge with frantic adjectives trying to describe Johns' wide-open style
of riding the "speed demon" Cyclone. The meet at the Phoenix State
Fair in November of 1914 is especially interesting. With a great amount
of flurry and publicity, the trade papers discussed the upcoming meet
in which $1,000.00 was offered for the fastest mile of the day whether
by a "horse, airplane, or baby buggy."
By virtue of having won the Los Angeles to Phoenix race, Barney Oldfield
had been declared the "champion driver of the world." Oldfield also held
the Phoenix track record at 48 seconds and was so sure that no one
could beat it that he bet a local man that neither Johns nor anyone else
could better 47 seconds. Furthermore, Oldfield wagered, if anyone did
beat 47 seconds, then he would beat the new record.
The pioneer aviator, Lincoln Beachey, flying an airplane powered by a
Curtiss V-8 engine, was one entry and Don Johns on his bright yellow,
overhead-cam speedster was another. Oldfield watched pop-eyed while
Johns hurled the Cyclone around the track in a record shattering 46
seconds. Beachey was far behind at around 50 seconds.
The "champion driver of the world" was at the wheel of a 300-horsepower
front-wheel drive, 4-cylinder Christie, but even with massive amounts
of brute horsepower available to him, Oldfield could not match his previous
record. His best time turned out to be 48 and 4/5th seconds, and he lost
both of his bets. Don Johns was in his glory and the Cyclone had prevailed.
In 1915, mechanical failures sidelined all of the Cyclone entries in both
of the important long distance road races (Venice, California and Dodge
City) held that year. Suffering yet another breakdown at a Sacramento
race in late July, Don Johns abandoned the St. Paul company and signed up
to ride for Indian.
Unfortunately, the Cyclone's innovative engine design and exceptional speed
did not insure its survival. The motorcycle proved to be too expensive to
build and sell at a competitive price, and the management of the Joerns' firm
was unwilling to underwrite further development. By the end of 1915, production
was halted, but in Andrew Strand's grand attempt....a legend had been born.