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
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.
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
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.