As the death toll from board track racing mounted in the ‘Teens, and public condemnation of the sport grew, two new styles of racing took over in the 1920s as the most popular moto-sports in the USA.  While dirt track racing was by default the original American competition venue (as there were hardly any paved roads in the USA until the 1930s), so-called dirt track racing on half-mile ovals echoed around the world in the mid-1920s, and became the most popular sport of all.  American racers like Sprouts Elder became racing ambassadors in Australia, and in the early 1920s the sport became enormously popular there, drawing crowds in the tens of thousands.  Soon, a global dirt track circuit emerged, with professional riders moving from the USA to Australia and South America to race, circling back to England for year-round racing that was extremely lucrative.  With regular race attendance of 50-80,000 people, both promoters and riders got rich, and spectators loved the newly developed art of broadsliding.

A Harley-Davidson ‘Peashooter’ racer, with 350cc OHV motor, is better known for its dirt track prowess, Here one is modified with chains on both wheels (!) for hillclimbing. [Jeff Decker Archive]
But another, peculiarly American form of competition emerged in the 1920s: hillclimbing. American hillclimbing was completely different than the rest of the world’s understanding of the term, as point-to-point racing up a paved hillside road.  As paved roads were nonexistent, American riders found it plenty entertaining to find the steepest nearby hill, and challenge themselves on who could make it to the top, and make it in the shortest time. Given the crude suspension of the day, hillclimbing more resembled bull riding in its requirement of strength and agility for the rider: the basic strategy was the pin the throttle and wrestle your machine up the best path.

The view from the bottom: how fast can you get to the top, if you make it? [Jeff Decker Archive]
As the sport developed, hillclimbing began to attract big crowds, at times equalling dirt track with tens of thousands of spectators crowding what became National Championship events.  Starting around 1925, the Big 3 factories (H-D, Indian, and Excelsior) developed specialized, alcohol-burning hillclimbers, with increasingly long frames and riding positions that perched the jockey directly over the engine for better control. These were essentially uphill dragsters, and what had been board track racing engines were installed into freakish hillclimb chassis that were useful for only one event, and bore no resemblance to road machines.

One mean machine: a factory Indian A45 750cc overhead-valve hillclimb special, capable of 125mph on alcohol. The rider looks as tough as his bike! Note the abbreviated exhaust stacks, the huge rear sprocket, at the chains around the tire. [Jeff Decker Archive]
Plenty of amateur riders loved hillclimb competition, and modified their ordinary road bikes for competition.  In the 1920s that meant simply stripping down a machine with no lights or front fender, and an abbreviated rear fender, with chains around the rear tire for traction. As the sport developed in the 1930s, racers stretched their wheelbase with longer rear subframes, in an echo of factory practice, and today a hillclimber is a wildly specialized machine that resembles no other motorcycle.

A factory Harley-Davidson DAH overhead-valve 750cc racer, in what is likely a factory promotional photo. The DAH was a very rare machine, built for a purpose, with 25 built between 1929-33. They took the National Hillclimb Championship starting in 1932, with riders Joe Petrali, Windy Lindstrom, and Herb Reiber. [Jeff Decker Archive]
This collection of photos from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s was originally part of John and Jill Parham’s personal collection (the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa Iowa), which have recently passed into artist Jeff Decker’s archive.  They’re from the water-damaged photo albums associated with a Portland motorcycle dealer, East Side Motorcycle Co., and include a mix of Brownie snapshots and professional photos by the likes of Bill Hupp.  Sadly, it’s almost impossible to distinguish who shot what, as the albums have disintegrated, and only selected photos survive, but what we have is still a spectacular chronicle of a poorly documented era of American riding and racing.

A home-built hillclimb special Harley-Davidson JD, with 1200cc motor, and specially modified cylinders. Crude but effective. [Jeff Decker Archive]
As the bulk of the machinery pictured was manufactured by Harley-Davidson, I’ll assume East Side Motorcycle Co was an H-D dealer.  There are Indians and Excelsiors in the mix too, but the variety of Harley-Davidsons is striking, from modified JD twins and single-cylinder Peashooter racers, to factory special FH twin-cam and DAH overhead-valve hillclimbers that were built in very small numbers from 1923 onwards. Among the Indian machines is a very special overhead-valve alcohol-burning overhead-valve 45ci (750cc) racer, a factory job of which only about 25 were built in 1926, and which dominated hillclimbing until 1928, when Excelsior built a few very special machines that took the National Championship from 1928-30 under the likes of Joe Petrali and Gene Rhyne.

Rider Chuck Ferrier aboard his Excelsior Super X hillclimber special, likely an early F-head model circa 1928, before the Big Bertha F-head and OHV factory racers in distinctive green livery. Chuck gives a smile and a thumbs up! [Jeff Decker Archive]
The factory specials from the Big 3 are among the most interesting and rare racing motorcycles of the 1920s, and not enough has been published on them.  These hillclimbers were the most potent racing motorcycles of the era, and their development in the hands of factory designers and tuners made them the equal of any motorcycle in the world at that date.  As an example, a factory Indian A45 racers built only in 1926/27 had a 15:1 compression ratio and produced over 60hp from their 750cc motors.  That was serious power in 1926, and proof of concept was provided at El Mirage dry lake in 1928, when Jim Davis was timed at 125mph on his unstreamlined A45. To put that speed in context, the motorcycle World Speed Record in 1928 was held by O.M. Baldwin on a Zenith-JAP 1000cc OHV racer at…124.27mph.  But the American governing motorcycle sports body of the era, the FAM, was having a spat with the ‘global’ motorcycle sports agency (the FIM) at that time, so American companies didn’t bother with FIM certification of speed records. But that’s another story…clearly these were badass machines for backwoods racing, in the crazy sport of hillclimbing that’s still popular today.

The Indian team from the Seattle dealer with their special A45 racer. Note the rabbit’s foot on the dealer’s belt! [Jeff Decker Archive]
Another Harley-Davidson factory hillclimber, a circa 1925 FH racer with twin-cam engine and F-head cylinders, the precursor to the roadster JDH. [Jeff Decker Archive]
A view from the top, with a professional sports photographer crouched for action, but in the way. [Jeff Decker Archive]
Stuck in the muck! An Indian Altoona sidevalve 61ci hillclimber. [Jeff Decker Archive]
A Harley-Davidson Peashooter hillclimber with extra wide handlebars for full control. [Jeff Decker Archive]
Oops! Hillclimbs are spectacular for this reason – amazing aerobatics, and riders are rarely injured. [Jeff Decker Archive]
Ladies out for a day at the races circa 1930. [Jeff Decker Archive]
The track. Getting traction on a raw surface like this is half the battle. [Jeff Decker Archive]
A home-modified Harley-Davidson JD model. Note the extra reinforcing strut on the forks. [Jeff Decker Archive]
An Indian rider on what looks like a factory special. [Jeff Decker Archive]
The cars are lined up on the road, and the full track can be seen. It’s a long way down! [Jeff Decker Archive]

 

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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