Joe Wolters Debuting the Excelsior 7, Riverview Motordrome, Chicago, August 1911

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Joe Wolters Debuting the Excelsior 7, Riverview Motordrome, Chicago, August 1911

“Farmer” Joe Wolters debuting the powerful new Excelsior “7” on the boards of Chicago’s Riverview Motordrome in early August, 1911. Wolters had just arrived in the Windy City from racing at the two board track motordromes in Denver, Tuileries and Lakeside that June. Joe had first acquired an Excelsior mount the season prior from the local Denver dealer, and when he discovered that the belt on his ported Excelsior single would slip once it became oily he set about converting it to a chain drive, as such introducing the first chain-driven Excelsior, squeezing 10 mph more out of the machine. This latest machine was Excelsior’s purebred, an all out 7HP factory works racer that in the hands of Wolters would alter the course of American motorcycle racing history. The 61ci competition special with its lightened and ported v twin was combined with a short-coupled racing frame, an extended and braced steering head, dropped handlebars, rigid fork, and Hertz magneto. It was the combination of this machine, this man, and this track in Chicago that would finally deliver a significant blow to dominating Indian factory team. By consistently holding a lead over the boys from Springfield, Wolters demonstrated the superiority of the new Excelsior, creating a scramble to keep up that would unravel the Indian camp. 

Debuting the new machine on August 5, 1911, Wolters quickly established that he would be the man to beat at the newly constructed 1/3 mile motordrome at Riverview, Jack Prince’s 8th such track. By the end of the month Wolters had set new records from 1 to 10 miles, hitting speeds of 87 mph onboard his new “7” and knocking iconic names like Balke, Chapplle, Mitchel, and Graves off of the record sheets. On August 26th, Wotlers trimmed 1/5 of a second off of the mighty Jake DeRosier’s 1 mile record which he had just set at the Brooklands track in England while in the UK for the Isle of Mann a few months prior. DeRosier, having only recently returned was in Chicago to witness the carnage, looking on as the slight man they called “Farmer Joe” blast past his hard fought records at 90 mph, all while on a machine without his beloved Indian script across the tank. The story goes that with genuine concern, DeRosier wrote to Springfield as his No. 21 machine and Balke’s 23 machine were simply not up to the task of keeping pace with Wolter’s new 7 horsepower beast and that they would need the latest out purebreds, the new Indian 8-valves which had debuted 4 months prior on the dirt tracks of New England with riders Frank Hart and Fred Mercer. For reasons that still remain the source of bewildered speculation, DeRosier received notice back from Springfield that if he and an unknowingly involved Charlie Balke couldn’t handle Wolters and the Excelsior with their current machines then they should find rides elsewhere, effectively terminating their contracts with Indian. 

The move came as a shock to DeRosier as he had begun his relationship with Indian almost as soon as the company had been formed back in 1901, and as such had become America’s first racing star with the brand. Possibly even more shocked was Charlie Balke, who it has been reported had no knowledge of his inclusion in DeRosier’s letter to Springfield and now was without a mount as a result. Never the less, Excelsior, now under new ownership, was poised to expand their racing program given the runaway success of Wolters and the new “7.” Immediately the company offered a contract to both men, providing them with their own competition special 7’s to finish out the 1911 season with. On September 7, 1911 in front of a capacity crowd of 20,000 at the Riverview Motordrome, Jake DeRosier, the country’s celebrity speed demon made his grand return to American motorcycle racing after his return from the UK, but now he was onboard an Excelsior. DeRosier initially got off to a rough start with his new machine, but after getting collecting himself he soon found his way back to the top of the sport. Tragically though, it was just 6 months later on March 12, 1912 while duking it out with fellow Excelsior teammate Charlie Balke at the LA Stadium Motordrome that DeRosier crashed and severely mangled his left leg. It would be complications while during his third surgery for that injury that would end the life of Jacob DeRosier, America’s first racing icon within a year’s time.

Wolters too would have a close call shortly after the Excelsior team left the Riverview track in the winter of 1911, nearly dying in a bazaar collision with a biplane at the Elmhurst Motordrome in Oakland, California, that December. Wolters would recover and continue racing and winning for Excelsior until joining an emerging Harley-Davidson factory camp for the 1915 season. However, it was with the guidance, foresight, and skills of Joe Wolters which helped establish Excelsior as a major competitor in the sport of professional motorcycle racing in America, and as such helped secure the company’s place as one of the top manufacturers for decades to come. Excelsior, along with Indian and eventually Harley-Davidson would hold their dominant positions in an atrophying industry throughout the teens, remaining the big three motorcycle manufacturers in America through the 1920’s. Excelsior continued to innovate both on and off of the track finding further success in competition with their Big Valve machines, establishing an early position of dominance in a new form of hill climb racing, and pioneering the 45 ci side valve platform with the introduction of their Super X series in 1925.  The great decline of both the sport, the industry, and eventually the overall global economy in the late 1920’s proved to be Excelsior’s curtain call however, and in September of 1931 the last of the mighty Excelsiors rolled off of the factory line. It was this photo though, captured in the first moments of their rise that you can see the confidence that a young Joseph Wolters has in his elegant, and immensely powerful new machine, the Excelsior 7.

 

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Orient Motorized Tandem Pacing Machine, 1901.

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Orient Motorized Tandem Pacing Machine, 1901.

As I prepare for my #GeorgiaMotorcycleHistory workshops at this weekend’s Caffeine & Octane show at Jekyll Island I am reconnecting with the origins of not only my home state’s heritage, but the very first days of my own journey in American motorcycle culture. Georgia’s first machine, as well as what could be considered America’s first motorcycle was a motorized tandem pacing machine like this one pictured, a utilitarian experiment for use in the day’s most beloved sport, bicycle racing. 

Inspired by French cycling star Henri Fournier’s motorized pacing machine which he brought to the United States in 1897, companies like the Waltham Manufacturing Company, makers of the popular Orient line of bicycles and tandem pacers began acquiring French made DeDion button engines to experiment with their own motor-pacer designs. Paced bicycle races had grown in popularity leading up to 1900, and with the introduction and application of new gasoline powered combustion engines the pacing machines had quickly become a sensation at the track. It was a rapidly rising cycling star from Atlanta named Bobby Walthour who, in October of 1899 sent for one of the first DeDion powered, Orient tandem pacing machines for his upcoming races at the Coliseum Velodrome in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. It was a machine similar to this Aster-powered Orient photographed in 1901, with its 7 sprockets, 4 chains, and bright red enamel paint which fired up for the first time in the South, giving Georgian’s their first taste of what would become a revolution in both transportation, socialization, industry, and sport. The next day so many people flooded the track to see this new machine that exhibition runs had to be staged on the dirt horse track outside. Within a couple of years the first viable civilian motorcycles were available and began filling city streets and county roads across the country. For enthusiasts here in Georgia though, It was that cold evening in the fall of 1899 which began Georgia’s obsession with motorcycles, initiating a culture that flourishes still to this day.

I hope to see you at Caffeine & Octane this weekend on the beautiful Jekyll Island, and make sure to preregister for the workshops as they are filling up. For those who cannot make but are still interested in learning more pick up your copy of Georgia Motorcycle History today HERE.

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Albany's Own Miss Vivian Bales, 1929.

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Albany's Own Miss Vivian Bales, 1929.

Lace or Leather, no matter your preference today we celebrate your strength, beauty, wisdom, and wit. Happy International Women’s Day ladies.

The eternally lovely, fearless, and unwavering Miss Vivian Bales onboard her beloved 1929 Harley-Davidson Model D, on which she traversed thousands of miles throughout North America at the end of the Prohibition Era. A seamstress and dancing instructor from Albany, Ga., Vivian grew restless in her small south-Georgia town so she picked up her first Harley-Davidson in 1926 and set out seeking adventure. As she grew more confident and resilient her journey’s grew longer, and the petite Miss Bales eventually caught the eye of Harley-Davidson’s co-founder, then acting President Arthur Davidson. Davidson declared Vivian the Motor Co.’s Enthusiast Girl, featuring the 20 year old and her 1929 Model D numerous times in factory’s magazine and she became an icon for female enthusiasts for decades to come. Vivian exemplified the spirit of feminine freedom and equality at a time of wonted subjugation in America, living her life on her own terms with grit and grace.

Read more about the life and adventures of Miss Vivian Bales in Georgia Motorcycle History, available HERE.

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Vernon H. Jones, Curtiss Twin ca. 1909 (Possibly)

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Vernon H. Jones, Curtiss Twin ca. 1909 (Possibly)

Today’s post takes a look into the process, or the madness, however you would describe it, an attempt in any case to identify an intriguing old photo based on very little information. An Italian collector shared this image a few weeks ago and it immediately drew me in. It drew me in not only because of the very stout and capable Curtiss racer, but because the rider looked so familiar. The information that follows has not been confirmed and could turn out to be the result of my over active imagination, the confirmation bias of an odd niche, however it does allow us to explore a character that we may have never known much about.

The nose and the eyes, they are what jump out with an eerie familiarity, but after tracking down a few potential candidates, no connection to Curtiss could be found. The machine, which was made by American motorcycle and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss dates to 1909 or 1910, a twin cylinder that shares a heritage with the very first American v-twin motorcycle, introduced by Curtiss back in 1902. This 6HP, belt-driven twin was configured for speed with its rigid front end, drop bars, removed fenders, and smaller tank. Since their debut at the turn of the 20th century these powerful yet reliable Curtiss twins were responsible for countless endurance run wins, speed records, and podium finishes. 

Back to the rider, and again the long sturdy nose and piercing eyes remind me of someone, an Ohioan of Welsh decent who became one of the great motorcycle racers America has ever known, Mr. Maldwyn Jones. Maldwyn began racing in 1909 and developed a long lasting loyalty to the brand of his home state, Merkel motorcycles. As Merkel began to lose its foothold in the American motorcycle industry towards WWI, Maldwyn moved on to become a founding and staple member of the Harley-Davidson factory team, a legendary group which would become known as the Wrecking Crew. An innovator, trailblazer, and in his later years a invaluable source of our history, Maldwyn’s legacy is synonymous with early American motorcycle culture. However, what many enthusiast do not realize is that Maldwyn wasn’t the only Jones piloting motorcycles to victory around 1910, his older brother Vernon was also no stranger to the podium. Though the Jones boys were 6 years apart in age, the family’s Welsh genes ran strong and the two shared many features, including their piercing eyes and roman noses. 

Vernon too was born and raised in Lebanon, OH and went on to study art at the Cincinnati Art Academy. It is not yet known if Vernon began racing before Maldwyn, or if he was riding before 1909, though it is no stretch of the imagination to understand that the interests of an older brother are soon adopted by the younger. Whatever the case may be, it is known that Vernon, an accomplished artist and sculptor by that time, was hired to design the graphics and layout of the 1909 Curtiss catalogue, as well as work on the companies lettering and logo which would wind up on the tanks of some production models. A rare photograph of Vernon onboard a Curtiss twin in 1909 appears in Stephen Wright’s The American Motorcycle and offers an intriguing comparison to this photo in question. This then may very well be another image of the iconic Maldwyn Jones’ older brother Vernon, sitting onboard a Curtiss racer while he worked for the company, the very same year that his younger brother first threw his leg over a Marsh single and won his first race.

 

Vernon continued working as an artist and was commissioned in 1912 to prepare a number of sculptures and displays for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.It was while living in San Francisco on June 22 1914, that Vernon’s enthusiasm for motorcycling would come to an end. While riding his motorcycle through the Golden City’s streets Vernon struck a streetcar while attempting to pass another, succumbing from his injuries by the week’s end. At the time Maldwyn had not yet grown into the racing sensation that his is known for today, though he was well on his way, and as such the local papers from their hometown referred to Vernon as Lebanon’s “most promising young man.” In a tragic case of irony it was reported that Maldwyn, an increasingly popular racer received a letter from Vernon a few days after his brother’s death which Vernon had penned just before his tragic accident urging his younger brother “to be careful in his racing,” cautioning him against the dangers of being too cavalier on the increasingly capable machines. 

Though Maldwyn’s legacy is cemented in American motorcycle culture, Vernon’s lives on in the number of sculptures and artworks that remain in museum collections throughout the country. His role in motorcycling history remains unsettled, but may prove to be quite significant as the older brother who lit the way for an icon. Whether or not this is indeed Vernon H. Jones is hard to claim with any certainty, though the little evidence available would suggest that it is, but digging a bit deeper into the live’s of the Jones’ was worth the conjecture.

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