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The Flying Merkel – A Very Rare Bird

Three decades have passed since the day the Bari clan of Tillsonburg, Ontario first approached a man about a beat-up motor in his garage. Today, a once-proud and now exquisitely restored Flying Merkel is once again in full wing

flying Merkel vintageMost workshops are festooned with stuff a guy “really needs.” Through the years the inventory grows vast, deep and, each item, thoroughly indispensable. A man could no more bear to part with that ruined chain block because of its still-serviceable hook than he could a single coffee can of jumbled cap screws and lag bolts. Those little red vials of lubricant that came with every new set of points or that vacuum advance unit from God knows what—better keep all of that. You just never know.

So it is that many men could relate to Chuck Walker of St. Thomas, Ontario, from whose own jealously hoarded stockpile a Tillsonburg tobacco farmer named Louis Bari once tried but failed to make a purchase. The object of Mr. Bari’s attentions were the tattered remains of a once-proud engine, a V-Twin constructed in 1912 by the Miami Cycle & Mfg. Co. of Middletown, Ohio. History shows there wouldn’t be many of its kind ever produced. Opinions vary, but if we say here that the final tally was 2,000 units, we’d likely be generous. 

Time has now nearly forgotten the Middletown firm, but not its star holding, the 1000cc Merkel motor, a factory race platform housed in a single loop frame and bolstered by a suspension set-up that was then considered top-of-class. 

The corporate tale is only mildly convoluted, and it begins in 1902 when a young draftsman named Joseph Merkel, fascinated with all the new mechanical marvels of the day, opened a shop in Milwaukee, where he attached small internal combustion motors to bicycle frames. Merkel’s story has, of course, parallels to those other well-known Milwaukee tinkerers, the Davidson brothers and their friend William S. Harley. But in that fertile era of wild innovation, technical growth was rampant and at every corner, it seemed, capable young men were frothing with novel ideas. The Harleys and Merkels were simply men whose time had come.

Racing had emerged on the American scene and captured the imaginations of impressionable builders such as Joseph Merkel, who directed his energy toward the production of race-capable bikes, big Twins intended for reckless board- and dirt- track pilots. 

Nothing lasts forever. In 1908, the Merkel interests merged with the Light Motor Co., and a move was made to Pottstown, Pennsylvania. What followed was an intensely creative period of time for the Merkel factory, with new motor and chassis designs that would challenge the drawings of its top competitors, including Harley and Indian, who by then took their factory-supported race programs very seriously indeed. 

Three years later the corporate entity was again absorbed and transformed. This time, by the Miami Cycle & Mfg. Co. Once more, business operations were moved, this time to Middletown, where Merkel himself stayed with the company, as a sort of legacy, but only until the onset of war in 1914. 

But it was during this third and arguably most technically innovative era of the Merkel company, the Ohio years, that the engine that finally made its way into Chuck Walker’s hands came off the assembly line.

Mr. Bari fell short in his attempt to purchase the long-dormant mill, true, and for reasons at which we can only guess. Perhaps Walker harboured fears  the prospective buyer would press the historic remnant into service as a powerplant, enslave and yoke it to something practical and industrial, on the tobacco farm. Those fears would not have been totally without basis. Louis Bari’s father was himself a tinkerer who had invented, in the 1950s, a sort of crop duster that could be implemented to a tractor and used to top dress either high or low crops.

In hindsight though, a workaday fate would have never befallen the ignobly retired racehorse from the Merkel stable. Though Mr. Bari today is indeed a collector of stationary powerplants, he’s also a skilled restorer of vintage motorcycles, a man with an intuitive feel and natural love for classic machinery. The Merkel motor would fallen into fine hands.

Ironically, where the father failed, the son succeeded. Bari made his offer to purchase three decades ago, a few years before his son Adam was even born. But it was Adam who would revisit the offer, returning this time with a more satisfactory ending to the story.flying Merkel vintage

“My brother and I went to see him and he just gave it to me,” says Adam Bari, a toolmaker by trade, who shares with his father a passion for classic motorcycles. They have worked together on a number of themed restorations, including a 1918 Indian boardtracker. 

Breathing new life into the Merkel motor and surrounding it with the era-correct framework of the factory’s 

repli-racer “Flying Merkel” would be no small challenge. The motor was very nearly a ruin, its flywheels and pistons were pitted and rutted beyond service, while the intake manifold and spec-built Schebler carb were completely missing in action. Schebler was an official supplier to the Merkel factory and sourcing that item would involve some looking. As obscure replacement parts often do, this one surfaced at a swap meet in Davenport, Iowa. “I knew roughly what I was looking for,” says Adam, “but I got lucky.” That same luck would hold when he also discovered a complete manifold on eBay.

He then set to work crafting cables for its various operating requirements: throttle, spark and a decompression lever, which is found on the right-side bar. Though there are crank pedals which theoretically spin the engine over for a compression ignition start, the old-time racers would either be pushed by crew members or even towed down the track, reaching a certain level of momentum before dropping the lever, says Adam, whose own start-up routine varies slightly. 

He simply slides a set of rollers under the rear wheel, then rotates the tire till he feels the pistons have traveled to the right part of the stroke and then gives the wheel a spin. The motor then settles into a lumpy but undeniable V-Twin lope while the rear wheel, the final end of a direct drive system, is allowed to cycle on the rollers. The procedure can actually be observed on You Tube:

Adam also made the downturned pipes, the pedal crank assembly, the rear fender and the coiled lines for the total loss oil system—a system that is primed by a glass-and-steel-bodied hand-pump mounted on the combined oil and fuel tank.

He also made every fastener for the 200-pound nickel-plated bike and somehow talked the curator of a motorcycle museum in Davenport into allowing him to measure the lettering on that facility’s displayed Flying Merkel. These measurements were turned over to Tillsonburg painter, JS Collision.flying Merkel vintage

Fitted to the emerging Flying Merkel were reproductions of the machine’s famed forks, which appear at first glance to be rigid but are actually mounted on sliders with eight-inch springs enclosed inside the frame neck to allow for 1.5 inches of travel. These “Merkel-style forks” were highly innovative for the era, and frequently found their way into the works machines of other race teams. Today, the Merkel front suspension is considered to be an early precursor to the modern telescopic fork. 

The internals, though, would require fabrication, and for that the mill was sent to Competition Distributing, of Sturgis, South Dakota, where its owner, the former drag racer Lonnie Isam, specializes in manufacturing parts for pre-1930s motorcycles made in the US. Isam’s expertise is targeted to competition machinery from vintage eras. “We knew he had done Merkels before,” says Adam. “Twelve or 15 of them.” 

Which is not to suggest there are Merkels hiding behind every barn door. There may in fact be only two Merkel models known to reside in Canada, and the Bari bike is the only Flying Merkel. 

When Adam sent the engine to Isam’s shop to be overhauled, the result was a mild 50cc overbore. While critics might bemoan this deviation from factory specifications, their nit-picking does raise a larger issue and an interesting question. What is the true nature of a vintage bike? 

In the case of the Bari Flying Merkel, what is now an exquisite rendering of a period piece began as little more than an incomplete engine around which an entire chassis was first researched for historical veracity then entirely fabricated from scratch using contemporary tools and materials. 

So, if only the engine is original, then is it fair or even accurate to consider a production such as Adam Bari’s a true vintage machine, from a purist’s perspective? Certainly this is a conundrum that has faced motorcycle show judges, especially when they are presented with marvelous handiwork such as Vancouver resident Dan Smith’s ultra-rare 1936 AJS V4, which he created entirely as a re-engineered project with only a brief folder of dated photos to serve as a guideline. There were, literally, no original parts.

At a show ‘n’ shine last year, judges resolved their dilemma by placing Smith’s bike in the “Special Interest” class, where it claimed first place.

A consultation on the matter with Canadian Biker’s Vintage Motorcycles Editor Robert Smith was an extended session in which it was concluded that there are as many grey areas in the realm of vintage bikes as there are bikes themselves. To disqualify this or that machine from possessing vintage status because not every single part is an OEM fitment would be beyond ridiculous. At the end of the day, there is a delicate shared illusion between enthusiasts that allows the vast majority of quality restorations to pass as genuine vintage representations as long as there are enough significant original parts in  place and provided there has been due diligence in the technical research that accompanies the remanufacture of components. This combination of the contemporary and the antiquated then, as presented in the Bari Flying Merkel, does not preclude authenticity. History has simply been given a brisk brushing to make it more presentable.

John Campbell, Canadian Biker #252


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