The story of Crocker motorcycles has been obscured by tall tales and myths since the very day they were introduced, first as Speedway racers, then big V-twins, and finally a scooter, all built before official US involvement in WW2 put a halt to civilian motorcycle production.  Wading through the murk around this famous American name, one bumps against vested interests and fast-held opinions, but enough facts emerge to which we can anchor our tale.

Paul Bigsby, Sam Parriot, and Albert Crocker at Muroc dry lake in 1940; Parriot recorded  136.87 mph on June 19, 1940 with the ‘parallel valve’ engine

Albert Crocker, born in 1882, had an engineering degree from Northwestern University’s Armour Institute‘, an engineering school. His first job was with the Aurora Automatic Machine Co, builders of Thor motorcycles, and Crocker not only developed Thor engineering, he was a keen and successful racer during 1907-09.  In the natural course of a racing career, he met and conversed with the pioneers of motorcycle manufacture and racing in those early days, including Oscar Hedstrom and Charles Hendee, the chief engineer and owner of the Hendee Manufacturing Co, makers of Indian ‘Motocycles’.   Al Crocker developed a friendship with the Indian camp, and soon joined Hendee.  While working at the Wigwam, one of his supervisors was Paul Bigsby; their roles were reversed many years later.

Rider Sam Parriot with Al Crocker at Muroc Dry Lake

By 1919, Crocker had opened an Indian dealership in Denver, Colorado, and there met, and eventually married, Gertrude Jefford Hasha, widow of Eddie Hasha, a famous ‘Board Track’ racer involved in the most notorious motorcycle racing disaster of the era.  On Sept.8, 1912, four schoolboys were killed (along with Hasha), and ten spectators injured, when Hasha’s 8-Valve Indian went out of control, slid along the top safety railing on the banking, and clouted the four boys, who were craning their necks over the railing for a better look.  Spectator deaths generally mark the ‘end of an era’ for races (just as with the Mille Miglia).  Crocker surely knew Eddie Hasha, given his employment at Indian at the time.  Gertrude and Al had one son (Al Junior), in 1924, the year they were married. 1924 was a big year for Al Crocker; with a new wife and infant son, he took over the Kansas City Indian dealer/distributor, but by 1930, the call of the West could not be ignored, and he sold his dealership to ‘Pop’ Harding, then purchased the Freed Indian dealership at 1346 Venice Blvd in Los Angeles.  This address would become legendary as the home of Crocker motorcycles.

The Crocker ‘conversion’ engine, from an Indian Scout, in a Rudge speedway frame

In 1931, the staggeringly famous American dirt-track rider Sprouts Elder, who had been ‘Thrilling the Millions’ from England and Australia to Argentina, brought the sport of Speedway to the US, and it rapidly gained the same popularity as in the rest of the world, as the best-attended and most lucrative sport of all.  In response, Crocker put his engineering skills to the test, building a speedway frame to accept a ‘101’ Indian Scout engine 45cu” (750cc).  This proved satisfactory, and in 1932, Crocker set about producing an OHV conversion for the Indian motor; the bolt-on cylinder and head echoed Indian factory racing practice of 1925/6, when their OHV Indian ’45’ was timed at 126mph, running on alcohol. These first Crocker OHV conversions had a 500cc (30.50cu”) capacity, and when tested in the Crocker-built speedway frame, proved satisfactory in power output, out-performing the Rudge engines which were then dominant in Speedway.  A few Crocker OHV kits were apparently sold to the public.

The Crocker 750cc OHV conversion for the Indian Scout motor

In 1933, Crocker and Paul Bigsby next developed a single-cylinder 500cc (30.50ci) OHV Speedway racer, undoubtedly in response to the lighter weight of single-cylinder engines vs. the Crocker OHV v-twins.  A side note here; while rumor considers Bigsby (later famous for inventing the ‘Whammy Bar’ or tremolo for electric guitars) to be responsible for the Crocker engine design, Al Crocker was a trained engineer who had worked in motorcycle engineering for decades with Thor and Indian, as well as being Bigsby’s employer…and while Bigsby was known to ‘blow his own horn’, certainly the Crocker motorcycles had input from many quarters.

The 1934 Crocker Speedway catalog

The Crocker Speedway racers first appeared on the Emeryville CA speedway track on Nov 30, 1933, and won 9 of 12 heats in one evening, prompting The Motorcyclist (Dec 1933) to rave of their début, “…two spotless and keen pieces of racing equipment surely worthy of the best the country had to offer as their pilots. The first race was ridden by Jack Milne…speedman par excellence…and Cordy Milne….Two American-built night speedway racing engines swept the boards…9 first places and 3 second spots out of 12 starts…The call came suddenly for the builder, for Al Crocker who was in the pits…[He] came to the microphone. His speech was short, brief; just the sort of thing that the situation called for…He was glad that they [the bikes] were good…They would be better.”

The Crocker Speedway racer of 1934

With limited production facilities, only 31 of the Crocker Speedway models were built; Crocker even built a pair of experimental chain-driven OHC engines in 1936, which were intended to counter the new JAP Speedway motor, with 42hp.  It was clear the Crocker Speedway engine would need further development to remain competitive, but rather than continue with Speedway racing, Al Crocker turned his attention to the project which would hammer his name in stone; the big V-twin.

Not a sanctioned Speedway outfit; the Crocker Speedway machine

Designed during 1935, the Crocker big twin was intended as a durable and powerful, yet fast and nimble machine.  Its 45degree V-twin engine had hemispherical OHV cylinder heads, and a nearly ‘square’ bore/stroke (3.25″x3.62″ – 62 cubic inches displacement), with an incredibly robust 3-speed gearbox.  While Bigsby made the patterns, most castings were subcontracted, then machined in-house.  The first models (the ‘Hemis’) used HD valve gear, Indian timing gears and brake shoes, plus occasional HD or Indian headlamps and ancillaries, leading to later rumors that Crockers were built entirely from Indian or HD parts, which is of course untrue. The heavy steel gearbox formed part of the lower frame, its case being brazed in place, its 3-speed gears and shafts so overbuilt that damage is unheard of even today.  Their most unusual feature was a pair of cast-aluminum fuel/oil tanks, holding 2.5 gallons initially (the ‘Small Tank’ models).  Most ancillary parts were purchased from standard motorcycle industry suppliers like Autolite (electrics), Linkert (carbs), Messinger (saddles), Splitdorf (magnetos), and Kelsey Hayes (wheel rims).

Al Crocker in 1936 with an early customer, ready for speed!

Introduced in 1936, there was no ‘standard’ Crocker, as every customer, echoing Brough Superior practice, could specify the state of tune and displacement of the engine; the cylinder barrels were cast with extra thick walls, and could be extensively overbored; engines were built from 1000cc, to 1490cc, in the most extreme case.  The ‘typical’ 62cu” Big Twin produced ~55-60hp, which exceeded the current sidevalve Indian and HD models by 50%.  So confident was Al Crocker in the superiority of his twins, he offered a money-back guarantee for any Crocker owner who was ‘beaten’ by a standard HD or Indian, and of course, no such buyback was necessary.  Crocker had built the fastest production motorcycle in the US, with speeds over 110mph the norm.  Harley Davidson introduced their first OHV v-twin – the model EL ‘Knucklehead’ – 6 months after the Crocker, but it was at least 15mph slower.

Rider Homer Wood at Muroc dry lake with his 1936 ‘Hemi’ Crocker

If not the fastest production motorcycle in the world, the Crocker was certainly in the same league as the HRD-Vincent ‘Series A’ Rapide, and much faster than a Brough Superior SS100.  While the Crocker’s 3-speed gearbox and rigid frame were technically inferior to the Vincent’s advanced swingarm and 4-speeds, the Vincent’s bought-in Burman gearbox and clutch were unable to cope with that v-twin’s power.  Conversely, one cannot imagine a Crocker racing at the Isle of Man!  ‘Horses for courses’, it seems…

The 1936 ‘Hemi’ Crocker engine, with exposed rocker and valve gear

The first 17 Crocker twins had hemispherical combustion chambers and a lovely ‘Crocker’ embossed rocker arm housing.  Known as the ‘Hemis’, their performance established the Crocker legend, although there were problems with valve train wear, as the exposed valves/guides/springs were vulnerable to grit and dirt.  Crocker redesigned the cylinder heads with parallel valves and enclosed springs, and what is effectively a ‘squish head’ combustion chamber.  Crocker continually developed his cylinder heads, and two different ‘Hemi’ castings were used (even on such a short production run), with four changes to the parallel-valve casting over its 5-year run.

The 1940 ‘Big Tank’ Crocker which sold at the Bonhams Quail Lodge Sale for $302,000

To give his Crockers an extended range, the size of the cast-aluminum fuel tanks was enlarged in 1938, making all earlier models ‘Small Tanks’, and later models ‘Big Tanks’.  Crocker continued to develop his motorcycles through his limited production of perhaps 72 total V-twins, but eventually ran into problems with ancillary suppliers, as the US geared up for WW2.  By 1942, ‘war work’ restrictions meant Crocker could no longer produce motorcycles, and he chose not to resume production post-war.

13 Crocker Blue Vintagent Image 13.jpg

The Crocker has rightly become a coveted and very expensive machine, deserving of its place on the Olympus of Motorcycles, with the Brough SS100, Vincent Series A Rapide, and Zenith Super 8; the world’s first 100+mph production motorcycles.  All were big, impressive V-twin Superbikes built in small numbers for a very discerning clientele…and all are very, very expensive today.

The red 1937 ‘Small Tank’ Crocker which sold at Bonhams, also at $302,000
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