By this day 100 years ago nearly half of humanity had been tearing itself apart across Europe for nearly 2 years, trapped in the desolation of the world’s first global conflict, the war to end all wars. Death had kept busy ushering millions near the tranquil waters of the Marne and the Somme, and from the once peaceful pastures at Ypres and Verdun to their doom, but on this day, April 9, 1917, he extended his necrosed arm across the Atlantic and drew the United States into the carnage. It was century ago today that the United States Congress reluctantly declared war on Germany, though it found itself woefully unprepared. At the that time America was not the super power that it is today, it had been only 52 years since the Civil War and upon the declaration of war the country had a paltry 126,000 men in its standing Army, the French Army alone had lost over 160,000 at Verdun the year before. The country mobilized, frantic though it may have been at first, and by war’s end the United States mustered nearly 4.3 million. The staggering level of destruction and casualties in WWI was the result of a number of factors, one of which being the abundance of men from which countries were able to rally with new cries of nationalism, only to then feed them into the meat grinder. However, quite possibly the most responsible catalyst for the unrelenting carnage was the new mechanization of warfare, this was an “Engineers war…” to quote the Captain of the US Army’s Motor Transport Corps, “and our success depends on the ability of our engineers to design better machinery and devices than the enemy.” The motorcycle, now in its adolescence developmentally speaking, was to be one of those superior machines to rise out of America industry, one which would be indispensable throughout the war.
Versatility was what made the motorcycle such an asset to military maneuvers during its debut as a war machine in WWI. Mounted motor infantry, machine gun units, scouting detachments, convoy and MP implementation, medical and munition supply, and casualty extraction were all roles in which the motorcycle played a vital role. However, it was the lack of reliable communication equipment at that time that made mounted dispatch riders such an invaluable tool, as such the role is where most motorcycles wound up. Having already successfully experimented with military motorcycle units in the conflicts and skirmished at our Southern border, the United States military had already fixed an eye on the motorcycles potential for war by 1915. With the success of British deployments of motorcycle units since 1914, which required astronomical new production numbers from British manufacturers like Douglas, who produced 70,000 motorcycles for the war effort, the US war department knew that it would take the country’s entire motorcycle industry to meet the production demands. With no end in sight for the entrenched forces of Europe, US military leaders began taking bids and testing models in late 1916.
The great explosion of motorcycle manufacturers in America that occurred as the machines were first introduced had already subsided in the years before the war. For companies that remained on the margins, the strained supply and increasing cost of materials, coupled with a lean wartime economy spelled the end to many beloved brands like Yale, Pope, Merkel, Sears, Dayton, Thor, and Cyclone. The “Big Three,” Indian, Harley-Davidson, and Excelsior would secure the available government production contracts, but each companies involvement in the war, though vital, would dramatically alter the state of the industry, the reverberations of which we still see today. Excelsior had done well in the years leading up to the war, building a strong sales and distribution network, as well as a successful racing program, as such it was one of the major US manufacturers of motorcycles to be consider by the War Department. Excelsior secured the smallest military contract and provided upwards of 3,500 of its 61ci, IOE “F-Head” Series 19 v-twins, a favored machine of the Italian Alps divisions. Excelsior also provided engines and components for the US’s developing aviation programs, but as the smallest of the big three companies it had a hard time with sustaining production and civilian distribution during the war, losing a lot of the momentum that it had been building in the early teens. Coupled with the difficulty of integrating their newly acquired Henderson company during wartime material shortages, as well as the split focus of maintaining production of their popular line of Schwinn bicycles, the Excelsior company found itself in a struggle against the mighty Indian and emerging dominance of Harley-Davidson after the war and they struggled to maintain traction until production ultimately ceased in 1931.
Without question the most prolific, successful, and dominant motorcycle manufacturer in the world before WWI was Indian. Though not the first American motorcycle brand, they were the first of any consequence and had built a sturdy two-wheeled empire by 1917, as such it was Indian who secured the largest contract for the war. Their newest machine, a 61ci side valve v-twin beast known as the Power Plus was a perfect fit for any military application, it was rugged, reliable, and capable. The initial contract was signed for 20,000 motorcycles at $187.50 a piece, an extra $47 for a sidecar rig. Efficiency would be the key to all successful wartime industry in America, but it was a lesson that had yet to be learned or tested. As the Indian factory panicked under the demand of such a huge production requirements their original engineer and co-founder Oscar Hedstrom was reluctantly coaxed out of retirement in order to tighten things up at his old company. However, Indian’s pre-war position of prestige which had earned the company the largest military contract would prove to be a double edged sword, ultimately setting the company back considerably after the war. Initially the cost per unit bid would work, but as the material costs increased Indian found itself trapped in a production cost loss. Not only did Indian find itself making 20,000 war machines at a loss, but the contract also meant that virtually all of its production capabilities were strained to meet the requirement. In the Spring of 1918, after having filled their initial contract Indian was given a chance to renegotiate a new contract for another 25,000 machines, but as the war ended later that year the deal proved to be of little help to the struggling manufacturer. As a result of producing over 40,000 machines for the war, civilian availability of their new Power Plus models was extremely limited at first, and after the war their distribution network had severely atrophied. Perhaps even more damaging longtime customers found it nearly impossible to get the spare parts they required, as the government contract had devoured everything the Springfield company had to offer. The once mighty Indian emerged from the war broke and significantly destabilized, though they would certainly rebuild and introduce some of the most significant and iconic American motorcycles of all time, the company never seemed able to regain their position at the top after significantly contributing to America’s involvement in WWI.
Harley-Davidson however, seemed to only continue their rise to the top of the American motorcycle manufacturing food chain during the the Great War. Initially the Milwaukee company was awarded a more sensible contract of around 7,500 machines, though by the end of the war Harley had provided upwards of 18,000 motorcycles for the war. Their machine was also a sturdy and capable 61ci v-twin of the f-head, IOE type like the Excelsiors, and was deployed throughout Europe. However, with their total war contributions only totaling over a third of their 1917-1918 production capabilities, the Motor Co. found themselves in a much more stable, if not preferable position after the war was over. Having built a reputation for reliability and strength before the war, continued to grow and expand upon their already dealer distribution network throughout, and established new customers across Europe during the war Harley was poised to take the majority market share when the ceasefire was signed. Further, though Harley had only officially entered into the sport of professional racing about the same time that the war first began in Europe, the company allowed the racing department’s Bill Ottaway to continue development throughout the war years despite the suspension of professional racing. It was at this time that Harley’s first experiments in overhead valve design began, resulting in a post war racing program overflowing with established talent and high performance OHV machines. For Harley-Davidson, the handful of years after WWII could be considered its own crowded hour, the age of the legendary Wrecking Crew, the Milwaukee company was hitting its stride at the peak of the Class A racing and continued nurturing a growing culture of recreational riders around the globe. It could be argued that the actions of both Harley-Davidson as well as Indian during the First World War are largely responsible for the proliferation of Harley-Davidson in the decades that followed, and its ubiquitous nature as the American motorcycle brand.
In all the Great War fundamentally shifted the nature of the human experience across the globe. Obviously the effects of such a devastating affair were felt the deepest across Europe, but the ramifications of WWI reached far and wide across the planet, setting in motion a number of events which would run the gamut from disastrous to liberating, each historic in its own right. Four monarchies crumbled, empires fell to colonial revolts from the Middle East to Asia, republics gained a dominating position in global politics, the world saw the rise of Fascism and Communism, and with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 the foundations for both the Great Depression and World War II were laid. Though it is often overlooked given the magnitude, viciousness, and familiarity of WWII, the First World War also holds a tremendous responsibility in forming the America that we know today. The United States emerged from WWI as a new leader on the world stage, our robust manufacturing infrastructure, intact workforce, newly acquired production efficiency, and immense military established the country as a new major force in both the restructuring global economic and political theaters. Having played a vital role in the war effort, the American motorcycle industry too had gone through an abrupt transition and the Great War marks a turning point in the culture, drawing to an end the first great era. The “Big Three” were almost all that remained of a marketplace which once had included hundreds of brands. Manufacturing had become more streamlined, more efficient thanks to the war, and standardization was the name of the game. The sport of professional racing soon fired back up in the Spring of 1919 as those former iconic racers returned from their tours of duty, but now sanctioning had shifted to a new governing body, the M&ATA, the predecessor of the AMA. The age of the thrilling motordrome was gone too, replaced by big money Class A dirt track and speedway events, though such high level, factory-backed competition wouldn’t last the decade. Off of the track, the marketplace itself had changed, America had entered the age of the automobile thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line of 1914 and more people found practicality in cars that were now just as affordable as motorcycles. The federal government and local municipal departments still had a need for motorcycles, but over the next two decades the role of the machines began to evolve. New innovations were introduced, iconic machines debuted, and new sports took shape in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, the rise of the recreational life of the motorcycle took hold. It was the years between WWI and WWII that a great transformation happened, a period in which the motorcycle transformed from a necessary utility into a beloved member of the family, a recreation vehicle with a devout culture to sustain it, but a lot of what we recognize today as American motorcycle culture can be traced back to those tumultuous years around WWI, one hundred years ago today.