The response of the US government to the declaration of war against Germany in April 1917 was astonishingly rapid.  Virtually overnight, 4 Million men were drafted, and military contracts handed out to every likely contributor to the war effort, including the motorcycle industry.  By 1917, after the ‘terrible ‘Teens’ leveled the majority of American motorcycle factories (due to rising material and labor costs), only the Big 3 (Excelsior-Henderson, Indian, and Harley-Davidson) were able to supply motorcycles in large quantities required. Smaller brands also supplied machines (like Cleveland’s little two-stroke single) in miniscule quantities.

“Women’s Machine Gun Squad; Police Reserves, New York City. Pracitising with Lewis machine gun to be sent to the front. The killing range of this gun is two miles, and it fires about 500 shots per minute. Capt. Elise Reniger, manning the gun, Miss Helen M. Striffer on the rear seat, and Mrs. Ivan Farasoff driving” [National Archive]
The Excelsior and Henderson brands had both been incorporated under Ignaz Schwinn’s two-wheeled Chicago empire by October 1917 (read ‘The Big X and the Big 3’ for more) but at the start of the war only Excelsior was under Schwinn’s control.  The Henderson Motorcycle Co. was struggling with a red balance sheet and was unable to capitalize on military contracts to stay afloat a few more years, although after the Schwinn takeover a few Henderson 4s were adopted for military use.  When US inspectors documented the factory and testing regime at Schwinn’s Chicago factory, only Excelsior v-twins were built there, and these are the machines documented in the National Archive.

“Demonstration of the Excelsior motorcycle” [National Archive]
These photographs – to the best of our knowledge – have never been published previously (except in our  Excelsior-Henderson story here), and document mostly the testing regime of the day: find a nasty place to ride, and have at it!  Excelsior V-twins are very tough motorcycles, and were faster than both their Indian and Harley-Davidson rivals in 1917/18 in production form, so would have been the bike to have in WW1!  While the British rode Douglas, Triumph, and Trump singles and v-twins, an Excelsior of this era would have walked away from them all.  Enjoy the photo series!

“Manufacture of motorcycles for the US Army at the plant of the Excelsior Motor Manufacturing and Supply Co., Chicago Ill. Assembling Department.”  Note the massive new reinforced concrete factory, built by Schwinn in Chicago as the home of his newly acquired Excelsior brand. [National Archive]
“Manufacture of motorcycles for the US Army at the plant of the Excelsior Motor Manufacturing and Supply Co., Chicago Ill. Motorcycle engine testing department. Capacity 100 motors per day.” [National Archive]
“Motor cycles for the Army manufactured by Excelsior Motor and Equipment Co, Chicago, Ill. Testing for uphill on rough rocky ground.” [National Archive]
“Photo shows an Excelsior motorcycle with the side car, used by the New York National Guard. 1917.” [National Archive]
“Demonstrating the Excelsior motorcycle.” [National Archive]


Related Posts

100 Years Ago: Inside the Indian Factory in 1918

The USA was a very different place…

The Vintagent Trailers: White Knuckle: The Story Of The Motorcycle Cannonball

Ride along with Hot Rod Builder and…

Art and the Motorcycle

The Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter