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HOME » VINTAGE BIKES & MOTORCYCLE HISTORY » The Mechanical Light of Perry’s Ghost : Excelsior

The Mechanical Light of Perry’s Ghost : Excelsior

The year was 1920, when Excelsior tasked its engineering department with the development of a high-performance V-Twin for an Excelsior motorcycle to compete on the boardtrack circuit. But, a savage trial session highside killed the factory’s star test pilot, Bob Perry, effectively ending the entire program as every prototype was ordered destroyed in a final act of tribute. Consequently, what might have been a landmark engine has instead lingered in the phantom zone of motorcycling obscurata. Until now.

Paul Brodie’s regenesis of the Excelsior motorcycle is more than just a remarkable feat of reverse engineering; it’s a vindication of the Perry legacy.

Few eras in motorcycle history have seen such rapid development as the second decade of the 20th century. Most “modern” engine design features, like overhead camshafts, multiple cylinders and multi-valve cylinder heads, were tried and either developed, shelved or abandoned. The main limits to development were imperfect metallurgy, low-grade fuels, and an inadequate understanding of the combustion process. In the US, the development lab was the board-track oval. It was here that motorcycle makers battled for racing honours, and by implication, sales.

The Excelsior Supply Company of Chicago started producing bicycles and parts in 1876, expanding into motorcycles in 1905. With 30 years experience of bicycle design, their powered models quickly developed a reputation for ruggedness, and also did well in competition. The company attracted the attention of Ignaz Schwinn, German-born owner of the eponymous bicycle company. Schwinn had considered building his own motorcycle, but understood the financial advantage of buying “off the shelf,” and acquired the Excelsior Company in 1911. Schwinn spurred the company to greater race success, helped by the arrival of two outstanding riders: Jake DeRosier and Bob Perry.

Competition in the prestigious 61 cu. in. class between the “big three” (Indian, Harley-Davidson and Excelsior) was fierce. By 1915, each factory introduced powerful new engines designed to help their riders achieve supremacy. From Aurora, Illinois-maker Thor, H-D hired engineer Bill Ottaway to develop their 11-K engine; Indian produced their remarkable eight-valve OHV design; and Schwinn’s development engineers produced the F-head “Big Valve X.”

Harley soon upped the ante introducing its own “hemi” head four-valve engine with help from combustion guru Harry Ricardo, while Indian decided to work on an improved side-valve engine, which would become the “Powerplus.” 

At Excelsior, Schwinn authorized his top engineer, Jock McNeil to develop a new engine with help from team captain Bob Perry. McNeil chose as a starting point a redesign of the powerful but fragile Cyclone overhead-camshaft V-Twin.

Schwinn regarded Perry, who only ever raced for Excelsior, as his protégé. He sponsored Perry’s attendance at the University of Illinois, and intended that he should become a Schwinn company executive. Perry became almost part of the Schwinn family, and, it’s said, was determined to repay his benefactor’s kindness by helping make the new OHC racer a success.

The new engine proved very powerful on the dynamometer, but the only way to show its true worth was on the track. Perry decided to attempt a new lap record before the first meet of the season at Ascot Park in Los Angeles. 

On Jan. 3, 1920, Perry took his new Excelsior motorcycle out on to the track and ran it “wide open.” The bike went into a skid at an estimated 95-100 mph, unsaddling Perry, who slid off the track, hitting a steel upright headfirst. He never regained consciousness. Bob Perry was 28 years old. 

It’s said that Schwinn, distraught on hearing of the tragedy, took a sledgehammer to all the OHC engines he found in the Chicago works, and subsequently killed the development program. Records show, though, that the OHC racers made a number of further appearances with Joe Wolters, Waldo Korn and Wells Bennett riding. What was missing was Schwinn’s enthusiasm. In 1921, factory support was withdrawn, and the Excelsior motorcycle “team” riders had to fend for themselves. 

The public was also losing interest in board track racing, and Schwinn turned his attention to short-circuit dirt racing and hillclimbing, at which the 1925 Super X excelled. It was the financial collapse of 1929 that finally killed Excelsior’s race program, and also halted motorcycle production. The last Excelsior motorcycle was produced in 1931. No examples of the OHC V-Twin racer have survived.

The Excelsior Motorcycle Reborn

THE OHC EXCELSIOR MOTORCYCLE MIGHT HAVE BEEN CONSIGNED TO THE HISTORY books but for Peter Gagan and Paul Brodie. And as with many great ideas, the plan to recreate the Excelsior motorcycle was hatched on a long road trip, in this case the 2,000-mile drive home from the Davenport, Iowa vintage flat-track event to Vancouver, British Columbia. 

President of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America and founder of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group, Peter Gagan is always looking for additions to his collection—the older the better. Paul Brodie, former vintage racer, tuner, and bicycle manufacturer had helped Peter with numerous restorations. Paul was planning an Indian-based project, but Gagan suggested something more ambitious—a Cyclone. The Cyclone company had a short but illustrious career in board track with its fast but fragile OHC machine, and a number have survived—so those owners might not take kindly to the appearance of replica machines, they decided. That led inevitably to the Cyclone’s progeny: the OHC Excelsior.

excelsior board track replica“Peter didn’t think I was serious,” says Brodie. “There are five old photographs, and they’re all of the right side of the bike. Of those five, only three are of any decent quality. From all accounts back then it was the fastest bike. It just never got to its potential because Ignaz Schwinn pulled the plug.”

First Brodie made a full size drawing to get the motor’s shape and size, scaling dimensions from the tire diameter. 

“After I had the drawing, I started working on a full-size mockup. It’s basically reverse engineering … after I’d got the outside shape right, I could figure out what the inside was like: the pistons, rods, bore, stroke all that kind of thing.” That rather oversimplifies the process; the design phase alone consumed four months.

One of many challenges was to design the engine for larger modern bearings to take the anticipated power.

“It was always my intention to take one of these motors road racing. I tried to make it … with as much potential as I could pack in there.”

“The racer probably had 25 hp—maybe; I’m told I’m going to have around 50 hp because the heads are a more modern design, and I can raise the compression ratio with modern fuels.”

From the mockup, Brodie moved to pattern making, farming the casting work out to local foundries. Of course, the process wasn’t without snags, and Brodie credits especially the help he got from Ron Lacey, Tip Walker, Lance Hayward and Russell Barton. In all, Brodie spent more than two years working on the project, eventually turning away other business and using his own money to finance the project. How close is the finished bike to the original Excelsior?

“I’ve tried to be honest to the original design,” says Brodie. “But I’ve taken artistic licence with the places I can’t see. 

And Brodie is refreshingly candid about how demanding the project turned out to be. 

“I was trying to get everything right first time, which is almost impossible,” he says. “I’ve basically used all my talents on this bike. It’s pushed me. I didn’t have anything extra I didn’t put into the bike.”

excelsior board track replicaThe first official running of the replica Excelsior motorcycle was in July 2007 at Brodie’s BC home in front of an appreciative audience of vintage bike enthusiasts.

“It fired right up. It was a good day. I think we all had smiles on our faces.”

Brodie and Gagan returned to Davenport with the Excelsior in September 2007 expecting just to show the bike and run the engine. But former flat-track star Larry Barnes was keen to take the untested bike on to the dirt track, and Gagan readily agreed. A kill switch was rigged up, and a return “spring” (a section of inner tube) added to the throttle control. Barnes had some concerns about the bike’s 85-year-old “clincher” tires and that there was no clutch or brakes.

“If it was running, you was moving!” he says. “But my only fear was that I would fall over on the beautiful piece of equipment and scratch it up.”

With no clutch or gears, a push start was the only way to fire up the engine, and with three helpers the Excelsior motorcycle roared to life. 

“When it lit, the roar from the two very short manifold exhaust pipes was music,” says Barnes. “The thing ran and handled very well.”

The only reported issue was extreme vibration from the big Twin, pointing to the need for crank balancing.

“My glasses were bouncing on my nose so much I couldn’t see where I was going at anything over half-throttle,” says Barnes. “But half throttle was plenty. Riding the bike gave me a real appreciation and amazement of what those young men in the board track era must have felt. “There was no slowing down if something went wrong in front of you; there was no cutting the throttle and using a broadside to change your position on the track; and hunched over you could not see what was gaining on you from behind. A truly singular experience, you felt alone. Other riders would just be a blur. They sure were to me on this day.”

 To recoup his investment, Brodie is planning a limited run of 10 OHC Excelsior motorcycles: Peter Gagan has claimed the first unit, but the others will all be for sale.

“There’s still a lot of parts to make,” says Brodie, “but I understand the process now. Everything takes a lot of time, there’s no shortcuts really.”

Brodie also plans to build a road racer around the Excelsior engine, which he will ride himself. For about five years, his company—Aermacchi Northwest—was the premier race shop for vintage racing fans of the Italian machines. 

At one stage, he even offered them for hire to weekend racing wannabes under the name “Rent-a-Racer.” His interest in Aermacchis passed when his trailer with race bike, tools and spares was stolen.

“That was the end of Aermacchi Northwest. You can argue things happen for a reason. If the Aermacchi hadn’t got stolen I wouldn’t have put so much energy into the Excelsior.

“I think with a project like this you have to have determination, that stick with it-ness. If you get sidetracked on to something else, I think it would be very difficult to come back with the same kind of energy.”

Brodie also feels a deep spiritual attachment to the Excelsior, and a strong kinship with Bob Perry, the bike’s co-designer and doomed test rider. He believes that his destiny is to continue the work Perry began.

“It took me a while to absorb it, but it kind of makes sense. It made it a lot easier for me to go out on this huge financial limb and turn away all my regular customers and just live off my line of credit, because I believed that that was what I was here for.”

Destiny or not, the recreated Excelsior is a fitting tribute to the memory of Bob Perry.


Speed and Splinters

“Death or glory” is not too strong a term to apply to the heroes of board track racing. They fought wheel-to-wheel on machines that were little more than overpowered bicycles, at speeds that later approached 100 mph, all on steeply banked tracks made of pine boards. They had no brakes, no gears and no clutch—just raw power and nerves of steel. Crashes were common, and injuries often severe. The unlucky rider who hit the boards wearing the customary garb of wool sweater and leather flying helmet could expect to collect a number of sharp splinters as he slid along, many several inches long. The less fortunate might collide with an upright or get hit by another bike. The attrition rate was horrific, but a top rider could win national fame—and big money.

But by the 1920s other forms of motorcycle sport were becoming popular in the US, especially hillclimbing, and flat track racing, with its characteristic wheel-sliding technique. Board tracks were expensive to build and maintain. Many closed or were dismantled. Today, none have survived.

 by Robert Smith Canadian Biker #241


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