Vintage Bikes: Everything From Zero To Four Cylinders

Since I can’t readily find a single-cylinder car, we’ll have to spend some time with its two-wheeled brethren, and quite happily at that. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on vintage bikes, but I sure do love looking at them. There’s just nothing more elemental (in the selp-propelled vehicle category) than a stark and simple motor hung between two wheels, regardless of how many cylinders it has.

Our stop at America’s Miracle Museum yielded quite a surprisingly large collection of vintage bikes. And the fact that they’re mostly in original or semi-finished condition adds to the appeal. I didn’t shoot everything, but here’s a few of the more appealing ones. These two, a Harley and Excelsior, were used by members of the Outlaw Flat Tack Racing Association, and look to be, well, pretty close to a hundred years old. Mean machines.

A German WW2 BMW R71 captured and put to use by the Allies? No, but a very convincing imitation, by Harley Davidson, no less. The Army put out the call for some new bike designs that would work well in the hot deserts too, where the traditional American V twins suffered, because the rear cylinder was out of the air stream, and tended to get hot. So both HD and Indian designed shaft drive bikes, with Harley’s XA being the more BMW-esque of the two.

Indian took a similar, but slightly less ambitious direction. Whereas the boxer twin HD was a clean-sheet bike, the Indian’s V twin was essentially the 45 cubic inch Scout motor, but now mounted transversely, to keep both those cylinders cool. Only about 1000 of the HD XAs were built, and even fewer of the Indian 841. The Army decided that the Jeep was a better solution for the most part anyway, and stuck to the conventional HD WLA for the bike needs.

What’s interesting about the Indian is that it foreshadows the arrangement that Moto Guzzi adopted, and used ever since. And if you’re interested, here’s a 1942 Pop Science article on these two experimental bikes that led to nowhere, at least for their makers.

Here’s a Whizzer, a kit to motorize a bicycle, available from the late thirties through 1965. I’m seeing a lot of similar kitted bikes around again.

Unlike many oddities of the times that had dead ends, this Smith Motor Wheel created quite a legacy. Originally developed in 1910 by Arthur Wall in England, the US firm A.O. Smith purchased the rights to it in 1914, and initially sold it as an add-on powered wheel for bicycles.

Smith then added it as the powered fifth wheel to a buck-board type contraption, and the legendary Smith Flyer was born. The result was the most inexpensive new car ever sold ($125, about $1500 adjusted). Ah, the good old days…

Briggs and Stratton bought the Motor Wheel in 1919, and improved its performance to a whopping two horsepower. And this engine became the progenitor to the whole Briggs and Stratton line of small engines that continues to bring such joy to lawn mower owners everywhere. Here the Motor Wheel as been adapted by some clever locals (lots of snow in Montana) for winter sports fun.

Sadly, this one is out of focus, because the legendary British J.A.P. one cylinder 500 cc engine utterly dominated the sport of dirt track bike racing for eons. The sound of one is unforgettable.

One of its main competitor in later years was the Czech Jawa, which went on to be a dominant force in Speedway racing.

Here’s something a bit slower. Looks to be a Cushman scooter, adapted for the military.

Here’s a bike that I totally forgot about: the 1949 Sunbeam S7. A very ambitious design, with a 500cc OHC twin mounted in-line, and shaft drive too. Was it the end of the line for Sunbeam bikes?

Speaking of ambitious, few bikes were as advanced (for their time) as the Scott. British Alfred Scott was a highly gifted engineer, and pioneered the two cycle engine for motorcycles. With their water-cooled engines putting out power levels well above similar-sized four strokes, their speed, refinement, and low center of gravity made them formidable competition machines, as well as tourers.

Dang, another out of focus shot. But keep in mid that this “Squirrel” was designed in 1922, at a time when most American bikes looked like bicycles with motors hung on them. The Scott may have looked a bit unorthodox, but then many modern bikes do too, with their fairings removed. The 500cc twin later spawned 750 cc and 1000 cc triples, but by this time, just after WW2, the force was no longer with Scott, and it soon disappeared.

Simplex was a popular name, and used by at least one European motorcycle maker. But there was an American Simplex, built in New Orleans, no less. The idea was to keep it simple, and this bike from 1952 does look more like it was from 1922, in terms of its direct belt drive. But later versions like this one did have an automatic centrifugal clutch, and its two stroke single cylinder engine had a rotary valve, quite advanced for its time indeed.

Even without any cylinders, we can’t overlook this shaft drive bicycle. It’s a Columbia, and labeled as being from 1890, but that’s probably a bit off. Wiki says that…actually, they say two different, contradictory things. But what is known is that both an Englishman and an American filed patents for it very close to the same time, in 1891. And Columbia bought the rights to produce it, starting a few years later.

As enticing as the shaft drive bicycle was, and still is, it had, and still has certain limitations. Back then, the cost to produce high quality bevel gears was high. And shaft drive bikes were not quite as efficient as a chain. But they’re still available, and with the introduction of modern and efficient multi-speed rear hubs, a certain contingent in Europe still goes for shaft drive.

Here’s a pre-cursor to the modern snow mobile, the Edison Motor Toboggan. Looks like an Indian 45 motor up front. BTW, this museum has what has to be the definitive collection of snowmobiles, but out in a barn on high “shelves”, like a warehouse.

Can’t bypass the Ariel Square Four, a rather brilliant approach by the legendary Edward Turner to mate two vertical twins into a single compact package. The y were made form 1931 through 1959, and with 997 cc, it was an unusually large and powerful motor for a British bike.

Someone’s having a bit of fun here, but with what is obviously a snub at the then-nascent Japanese motorcycle industry.

In case you really need to know…

Now that I think of it, there are plenty of European bikes here, like this Austrian Puch moped (sold here as the Sears Allstate), and a Jawa, but no vintage Japanese bikes anywhere. Hmmm. Well, this place does have a very decidedly ethno-centric world view.

Scooters were big in the US once upon a time, and in addition to the dominant Cushman (on right), even Harley Davidson (left) got in the act. American scooters were as different as the European kind, like the cars were back then, or more so. These were big, tough but crude affairs, with big high-torque industrial one-cylinder engines.

No Indian artifacts anywhere in this museum, but plenty of Indian bikes, including this superb big four from the forties. Still had chain drive, despite the in-line four engine.

Yes, a Japanese bike; but out in one of the many outbuildings scattered on the grounds., But finding this one meant a lot to me, as it’s a dead-ringer for my first bike: a Bridgestone 90. The Japanese tire company jumped into the bike bandwagon with a ranges of two-strokes, which were quite advanced in that they had rotary valves. Mine was bright red…and I must have looked pretty funny on that, especially when an equally tall friend of mine hopped on the back. Haven’t seen one in decades. Ran like the proverbial top, until a cylinder stud pulled out of the case.

It would top out at about sixty, and I actually took it on a few short-ish highway trips, but at that speed it felt like I was on a bicycle going down a very big hill. Not exactly big enough to join the group of Iowa Citizens that drove their BMWs down to Mexico every winter…sadly. How I longed for an R75 with a Vetter fairing.