[small red square] Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing [small red square]

by Daniel K. Statnekov

©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov   
Chapter 15

By 1919, it was evident that Ignaz Schwinn's "Big-Valve X" had reached the limit of its competitive potential.  The other manufacturers had clearly surpassed the Chicago brand on American race tracks.  In two significant post-war events, the Ascot 200-mile Championship and the Labor Day (Marion, Indiana) road race, the contest was between Indian and Harley-Davidson.  Excelsior was relegated to a distant 3rd.

Ignaz Schwinn was not accustomed to finishing so poorly;  indeed, the industrialist's entire career had been a success story.  Born in 1860, in the German province of Baden, Schwinn first learned the machinist's trade before working his way up to designer and factory manager at the Kleyer bicycle works.  In 1891, the 30 year-old bicycle builder emigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago where he resumed his former occupation.

Schwinn was successful, and within a few years he obtained the financial backing of the Chicago financier, Adolph Arnold.  With Arnold's capital the two men formed "Arnold, Schwinn and Company," and by 1911, the new company was manufacturing 100,000 cycles a year.  Sales of the firm's "Admiral" and "World" bicycles were fueled by the racing success of Schwinn's team of racers.  That same year the 51 year-old industrialist purchased Excelsior, a five-year-old motorcycle company that was struggling with financial difficulties.

As with the other pioneer bicycle manufacturers who had gone into the motorcycle business, Ignaz Schwinn's intent from the beginning was to demonstrate the excellence of his product with success on the race track.  From 1911 until the onset of the First World War, Schwinn's Excelsior's were nearly always in contention, setting records on board tracks and dirt tracks alike.  Many of the important early racers, such as Jake DeRosier, Charles Balke, Don Johns, and Ray Creviston, were all -- at one time or another--identified with the Chicago brand.

By the time America entered the First World War, Schwinn had guided the Excelsior company into position as one of the "Big Three" in American motorcycle manufacturing.  After the war, however, it was clear that the Springfield and Milwaukee manufacturers had forged ahead of the Chicago company.  In order to regain a competitive edge, Schwinn instructed his development engineer, John A. "Jock" McNeil, to design a motor that would be capable of reclaiming the glory for his company.

A Scotsman by birth, "Jock" McNeil had been both development engineer and factory rider for Cyclone.  By 1915, McNeil had moved from Minneapolis to Chicago and was under way with his first project, an overhead-valve Excelsior that aspired to compete with the H-D and Indian professional race motors.  When completed, however, the Excelsior overhead proved to be slower than the "Big-Valve X," and McNeil began his next project, a re-engineered version of Cyclone's overhead-cam speedster.

McNeil was convinced that an updated, less fragile version of the Cyclone (that he had helped Andrew Strand to perfect) would run away from anything that either Indian or Harley-Davidson could build.  The engineer's vision was to construct a sturdy, overhead-cam motor with larger valves and improved breathing capacity, the Excelsior features that had been chiefly responsible for the racing success of the "Big-Valve X."

After the war, McNeil's assistant in the engineering department was Robert A. "Bob" Perry, the Excelsior team captain who -- since winning the 1913 300-mile Savannah road race -- had proved himself capable on every sort of race track.  Riding exclusively for Excelsior throughout his career, "Bob" Perry was a "favorite" of the Schwinn's who, over the years, had grown to regard him as a son.

The industrialist and his wife, Helene, encouraged the young man to further his education and paid his expenses at the University of Illinois where the Schwinn protégé majored in mechanical engineering and distinguished himself as a star athlete.  The Schwinn's were proud of Bob's accomplishment and envisioned him an executive in their company. Despite strong protests from his mentors, Bob Perry resumed racing after the war, competing in the 1919 Marion, Indiana 200-mile road race where he placed among the top three Excelsiors.

Finishing behind Harley-Davidson and Indian, however, was disappointing.  More than anything else, the young engineer wanted to win back the glory for the industrialist who had befriended him.  When he returned to Chicago, Perry dedicated himself to helping McNeil in the engineering department, and he was convinced that he could help on the race track as well.

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In consort with the other manufacturers, Harley-Davidson had also withdrawn from factory-supported racing in 1917 and 1918, but the Milwaukee company did not stop work in their engineering department. During the war, Bill Ottaway began development of yet another race motor.  Based on the smaller (1914 and earlier) H-D crankcase, the new design employed the use of two separate cam shafts to operate the valves.  The new setup allowed the use of shorter cam followers than were possible in the standard, single cam shaft design.

The goal of this change was to reduce the reciprocating weight of the valve train in order to increase power by increasing maximum rpm.  The shape of the timing chest that contained this new cam and lifter configuration resembled a "banjo" and the motor was referred to as a "banjo, two-cam."  Both 8-valve overhead, and standard pocket-valve versions of the new race motor were produced.  The Banjo, two-cam, however, would not make its full-fledged debut until the 1920 racing season.

In 1919, the sanctioning organization that oversaw motorcycle racing in the United States banned competition on the short motordromes.  Henceforth, board track racing would take place only on tracks that were one mile or longer in circumference.  Jack Prince jumped back into action, rebuilding several of the larger board tracks that had deteriorated during the war years.  Additionally, Prince built new tracks, of the now sanctioned 1-mile or greater distance, adjacent to some of the larger cities.

The most important board track meet of the year was held in October at Sheepshead Bay Speedway in Brooklyn, New York.  Four National titles were contested on the 2-mile wooden oval, including a 100-mile Championship.  As an added attraction, the Brooklyn track featured the newly sanctioned, crowd-pleasing spectacle of motorcycles with sidecars careening around the race course.  On the program, for the finale at Sheepshead Bay, was a 25-mile sidecar Championship.

Otto Walker led off for Harley-Davidson, winning (in a triple-photo finish by just 1/5th of a second) the two-mile dash around the race track against two Indian contenders, Gene Walker and Teddy Carroll.  Gene came back in the 10-mile Championship, piloting an Indian-8 to victory at a speed of over 90 mph.  In the combined 50 and 100-mile feature event, Ray Weishaar set a new world record for the 50 mile distance before his Harley-8 ran out of gas at the 68th mile.  Albert "Shrimp" Burns and Maldwyn Jones then took over the lead, and stayed there for the distance, winning 1st and 2nd place honors for Milwaukee.  Indians placed 3rd and 4th.

In the 25-mile sidecar finale, Teddy Carroll brought home the bacon for his Springfield employer and won for himself his first National Championship.  Eugene Walker, piloting another side-valve Powerplus, captured the 2nd place honors for the Wigwam while "Shrimp" Burns and Otto Walker followed on Harley-Davidsons in 3rd and 4th place, respectively.

The two major hillclimbs of 1919 did nothing to clarify whose equipment held the advantage.  In April, at the 4th annual running of the San Juan Capistrano climb, Dudley Perkins, the Harley-Davidson dealer from San Francisco, won the "free-for-all" (open to both amateurs and professionals) and fastest time of the day.  While on the east coast, Orrie Steele, the Indian dealer from Paterson, New Jersey, won the featured Thanksgiving Day hillclimb held in Washington, D. C.

In Springfield and Milwaukee, the factory's publicity departments had a field day claiming their respective victories.  For the two company's engineering departments, the results were less ambiguous.  Both manufacturers' 8-valves were about equal and the outcome of any given race depended on whether their machine and rider would stay together to the finish.

As far as the so-called "standard" motors were concerned, the H-D pocket-valve was slightly faster than the new Indian side-valve, but the Powerplus held the advantage for pulling the weight of a sidecar and passenger around the race track ahead of its competition.  At least this is how it "stacked up" at the conclusion of the first year of racing after the war.

Webmaster:  Daniel K. Statnekov

Page installed: Nov. 15, 1996   
Page revised: June 28, 2003