- Chris Price
I'm going to be a taking a bit of a vacation over the next couple of weeks. My lovely lady and I are heading to NYC this week, and then I will be heading back to Wheels Through Time to film a few more episodes of These Old Bikes with Dale. However, being that New York was such an active and important nursery in the earliest days of American motorcycle history, I wanted to post a little something in honor of my upcoming trip.
Ralph Rudolphus Hepburn, a man who could easily be considered one of the greatest ever to tuck in behind the bars of an iron rocket was not only one of the most prolific pioneer American motorcycle racers, but unequivocally one of the kindest. “Hep,” as he was known amongst friends and fans alike, was apart of the second wave of early American motorcycle racers having grown up fascinated with lightning fast dare devils of the American motordrome in the late 1910’s. Born in Sommerville, MA, on April 11, 1896, Hep’s family moved to Los Angeles in 1906, fortuitous timing to be a 10 year old boy in America’s nursery for motorcycle racing.
A true pioneer in every sense, the woman in this photo determined to manifest her own idea of freedom, setting off onto a solo motorcycle journey across the country at a time when such an idea was the polar opposite of normal. The deceptively lovely Miss Della Crewe may have had the appearance of a gentle wife who had hopped out of her husband's sidecar for a quick photo, but the truth of the matter is that this young woman from Waco was in fact as tough as they had ever come. Though she appears well-kempt, Della was a true adventurer and in the midst of an epic 11,000-mile solo adventure at the time that this photograph was taken on the streets of Atlanta in September of 1915.
As we dive into the culture and history of American motorcycling we talk a lot about pioneers, innovation, and heritage. Harley-Davidson was by no means the first, but they found a way to persist throughout the decades and have become synonymous with American motorcycle culture as a result. Indian, arguably the first significant and successful brand in the country dominated both the showroom and the track at the turn of the century, but the prestigious brand disappeared for the better part of the last 60 years. Though the marquee has returned with a mountain of momentum their absence from the overall culture for the last half-century is significant. Excelsior, a latecomer, and early-goer gave the mighty Indian one of the best runs for their money in the early days, but the company never made it out of the Great Depression. Many of the first manufacturers were offshoots or expansions from existing companies within the booming bicycle industry of the late 1800’s. Still, brands like Flying-Merkel, Thor, Reading-Standard, Wagner, and Henderson were among the most successful early manufacturers of motorcycles, some of which grew out of the bicycle industry, but most saw their rise and fall occur all before the first World War. However...
There is an ancient greek tale of a god named Prometheus, an original being known as a Titan who is said to have molded man from clay and delivered unto him the gift of fire which he took from its divine source. Photographed here is a man named Jacob DeRosier, one of the first to ever witness the combustion-powered cycle brought to America by French cyclist Henri Fournier in 1898. An eighteen year old professional cyclist himself at the time, DeRosier pestered his way onboard Fournier’s motorized pacing machine and proved that his bold curiosity was backed by a fearless approach to handling the cumbersome, fiery new machine. As such Fournier hired the young man from Massachusetts to pilot his motor-pacer for the coming season, and the motorized racing career of one of the world’s greatest had begun.
Attrition. One of the major issues concerning the population of capable professional racers which weighed heavy on the era of the motordrome, one of America’s favorite motorsports in the early teens. Having exploded in popularity since its introduction in 1909, by 1913 the dangerous sport of board track motordrome racing was hitting its peak, with around 18 tracks operating around the country and another 9 or so to come in the next 2 years. Thrilling, dangerous, controversial, and lucrative, the sport of board track racing had never been as popular as it was in 1913. The peril’s of the sport though had already claimed the life of a dozen racers, killing a nearly equal number of spectators, and injuring or maiming dozens, and dozens more. Despite the risk, or perhaps as a result of it, the fans still filled the bleachers atop the treacherous saucers leaving promoters constantly searching for new competitors.
Despite the common narrative that Harley-Davidson was a top level contender on the boards of America’s infamous motordromes, the truth the matter is quite a different story. In fact, the legendary Milwaukee motorcycle manufacturer didn’t make their official professional racing debut until the short circular wooden coliseums were all but gone.
From the earliest days, the motorcycle industry in America realized the profitable potential between aligning their products with the sporting young gentlemen who slung themselves around the race tracks. No doubt a philosophy carried over from the good ole’ days of bicycle competition, advertisements which initially touted the brand’s superior technology quickly began to backupsuch claims with their successes at speed trails, reliability runs, road races, and hill climbs. Indian Motocycles, one of the first manufacturers to realize the lucrative relationship between competition success and showroom sales was also one of the first to capitalize on their victories, running ads like Indian’s 1904 “Scalps” campaign which trumpeted their titles back to 1902.
On March 26, 1903, as witnessed by an inaugural crowd of 3,000 Gilded Age elites, the first official races were staged in front of the Ormond Hotel, on the north end of Daytona Beach, Florida. In-between the dunes and the Atlantic, where the hard-packed sand seemingly stretched out to the horizon, three automobiles and a lone motorcycle made record runs for the first time, establishing a long lasting American love affair between speed demons and the beach. The single motorcycle entrant, a young Swedish immigrant named Carl Oscar Hedstrom, a former cycle racer and aspiring engineer, had already established his place in American motorcycle history as one of the cofounders of the Hendee Manufacturing Company, makers of the legendary Indian motorcycle.
After having laid waste to numerous motorcycle land speed records on the sands at Daytona beach in February 1920, Harley-Davidson and their star Wrecking Crew racer Red Parkhurst savored the accolades that poured in from every corner of the country. However, though Parkhurst could claim that he was officially the fastest man on two wheels on the planet, his crown would soon be snatched by a wiry southern boy on a crimson rocket.