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 one brand that has perhaps the most significant pedigree of them all. A brand which resulted from the experience and cultural contributions made during the grand age of the American bicycle. It was a brand which planted the very roots of the American motorcycle industry itself through its efforts in the country’s cycling culture, yet is just another early motorcycle brand which is largely unknown today. The Pope motorcycle, an innovative and unique line of machines introduced at the height of the golden era of motorcycling traced its DNA back to the first two-wheeled machines that the country had ever seen.
Col. Albert Augustus Pope was a Union soldier in the Civil War, a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel who courageously fought in and survived the battles of Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Knoxville, and the gruesome Antietam. At the close of the Civil War Pope had saved a large percentage of his wages, and after successfully investing them in local businesses back home in Boston, he began a new manufacturing venture with his father and a close cousin in 1876. As part of his operations, Pope was one of the first to see the appeal and value of the bicycle, becoming an early importer of the latest mechanical craze from Europe. In 1878 he offered his own version of the British-made Excelsior Duplex high wheel bicycle, cycles which carried his own badge of Columbia. Columbia bicycles became the American standard, and Pope became the godfather of bicycle culture in America. He acquired nearly every significant patent regarding early bicycles, taking a commanding position at the top of the industry. He pioneered country-wide “good roads” campaigns, sponsored and promoted the sport of cycle racing, and was at the forefront of innovative machining techniques, including early mass manufacturing approaches, many of which became the cornerstone of early motorcycle production.
Twenty years later, by 1897 Col. Pope had become a millionaire and had begun investing in experiments with early electric automobiles, an aspect of his company that would continue to captivate Pope until his last days. The result was a variety of Pope branded automobiles over the years, many the result of acquisitions of other makers, many of which bore names reflecting the city that their factories were located, such as Pope-Hartford or Pope-Toledo. As the man at the top of the booming cycling industry and an innovator in the new auto industry at the turn of the 20th Century, Col. Pope was naturally one of the men at the forefront of motorizing bicycles with the new gasoline combustion engines like the French De Dion Buton. By 1902, aside from the Pope Manufacturing Company he also oversaw a trust named the American Cycle Company which produced some of the most popular cycle brands in the country. These same brands would soon begin introducing some of the first motor-bikes, mopeds, and motorcycles like Monarch, American, Columbia, Cleveland, Imperial, and Rambler, each under the Pope umbrella as the new motorcycle industry began to take shape.
Col. Albert Pope was the captain of the American bicycle culture and played a substantial role in the proliferation of the cycling industry as well as the sport of cycle racing in the late 1800’s. With his efforts in both the industry and the culture, Pope had helped create a rich and sturdy foundation for the new motorcycle industry to emerge from in the early 1900’s. Though his first experiments with the motorcycle wouldn’t last much longer than 1905, it was his work with cycles, motorcycles, and automobiles coupled with his passion for the culture that paved the way for his son, Albert Linder Pope to take the reigns of the company in 1909 when his father passed. Inspired, Albert Jr. rededicated the company’s operations to motorcycle production and returned to the culture which they had helped create. In 1911, the very first Pope branded machines rolled out of the Westfield, MA factory into a marketplace now flooded with competition. The Pope Model H was a grey, V-Belt driven, 3HP single, an inexpensive unitarian motorcycle capable of 40 mph and made available for just over $100. Just as soon as the new machines were introduced, and despite the fact that the new Pope motorcycles were only meant for basic, affordable transport, customers began testing their limits at local horse track races and hill climbs with moderate success, and for the first time race statistics across the country featured a new name, Pope.
At this point, Indian was still the dominant American motorcycle manufacturer. Excelsior was beginning to make their name on the competitive circuit, and Harley-Davidson was busy gearing up for their Massive new factory at Juneau Avenue. The marketplace, as well as the race tracks, were saturated with successful brands like Thor, Flying-Merkel, and Reading-Standard, so to maintain a competitive edge Pope developed and introduced a new, state of the art technology, the overhead valve engine. Though overhead valve engines were not exactly new, having been utilized in factory racing specials at Indian since the Spring of 1911, as well as in new innovations by Perry Mack at the time, in 1912 Pope became the first and only American motorcycle manufacturer to offer 61ci overhead valve V-Twin engines in their production line up. In addition they also offered a full suspension frame, with a spring fork and rear plunger spring assembly. A handful of models were offered at competitive prices given the level of high-end technology that Pope made available to the consumer, with OHV singles and twins ranging in price from $165 to $250. The company was never a mass manufacturer of motorcycles like their competition at Indian, Harley-Davidson, or Excelsior, but their innovative technology made for steady sales, and their powerful OHV engines provided aspiring privateers racers with a competitive performance platform at the track. Throughout 1913 Pope motorcycle’s were raced across the country, mostly at local horse tracks, road races, or hill climbs. More notable riders like motordrome star Henry Lewis and flat track icon Dave Kinnie began competing on Pope machines, even a young Shrimp Burns is said to have cut his teeth on a Pope, but without any significant factory racing program the larger name riders inked contracts with companies like the mighty Indian or the up and coming, competition centric Cyclone.
Perhaps Pope’s greatest attempt at landing a punch on the “Big Three” at the track came at the inaugural Dodge City 300 road race in July, 1914. Five riders fielded Pope OHV twins for the big event, 2 factory sponsored riders and 3 support riders. The race would also be the debut of Harley-Davidson’s newest factory built racing machine, Bill Ottaway’s 11K, though despite their presence the Milwaukee company had yet to officially throw their hat into the ring of professional motorcycle racing. With temperatures around 100 degrees that day, the 1914 Dodge City race was an all out assault on the men and machines that dared to compete. Of the 36 who entered only 6 actually crossed the finish line on the 300th mile, because of the heat those machines still running after the sixth finisher were told to pit and were credited with finishing. Three of the legitimate finishers were Indian Motocycles, along with two Thor’s and one Excelsior, overall only the Indian and Thor teams could say that their entire field finished. It was Indian’s Glenn “Slivers” Boyd who took home the big prize at that first Dodge City race on July 4, 1914, with Thor’s Bill Brier coming in second, and Excelsior’s Carl Goudy finishing third. To their dismay none of the new Harley’s made it across the finish line, nor did any of the robust OHV Pope machines, most failing to finish due to broken rocker arms or bent valves. Edgar Roy, one of the Pope support riders from Wichita, KS made it 205 out of the total 300 miles which made him the best finishing Pope that day in 19th place. Albert Pope Jr. had hoped that the momentum gained with their production innovations would have helped the company do better against the titans of the motorcycle industry, but unfortunately it was becoming near impossible to compete with Indian, Harley-Davidson, and Excelsior both on and off the track. Discouraged, Pope turned away from the sport of professional racing, and though privateers would continue to compete and win with the rugged and elegant Pope twin for years to come, the company itself spent the remainder of their days vying for market share in a dwindling industry.
The success of the Big Three at the track, their established and expansive dealership networks, and their massive manufacturing capabilities made it difficult for many of the smaller brands like Pope to compete in the industry. Add to this a revolutionary new approach to automobile manufacturing developed by Henry Ford, a war which was devouring Europe, and an ever-shrinking American motorcycle market and you begin to see the writing on the wall for Pope that Albert Jr. saw by the mid-teens. The Pope lineup went largely unchanged in their final years, and by the time American involved itself in the Great War Pope, like so many other American motorcycle manufacturers ceased production and converted their factories into manufacturing war supplies, machine guns in Pope’s case. Within two generations the Pope men had brought American culture from the dark, primitive struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction, into the light of the industrial, modern age. Col. Albert Pope Sr. had helped create the rich culture of cycling in America, laying the groundwork for the explosion which was to be auto and motorcycle culture at the birth of the 20th century. His son, Albert Pope Jr. had taken that legacy and attempted to breath new life into the culture by introducing one of the most innovative, elegant machines offered up until that point. Though today the Pope motorcycle is yet another forgotten early brand hardly known outside of the collector market, it is an all American brand which can trace its pedigree back farther than any other. It is a heritage that in no small measure helped give birth to all two-wheeled culture in America.