The Excelsior Supply Company was founded in 1876, as a maker of bicycles and bicycle parts. Many manufacturers began as makers of bicycles, which served as forerunners to motorcycles. While some manufacturers focused on improving the nature of the two-wheeled machines, others developed alternative powered versions of cycles.
Prior to the existence of the Excelsior Supply Company, independent developers created a steam-powered two-wheeled vehicle called a Velocipede. Other engine types were developed concurrent to the emergence of the Excelsior Supply Company, such as the 4-stroke combustion engine. The first use of motorcycles in America was as pacers, providing draft for bicycle racing. The earliest motorcycles had the same features as standard bicycles, but were faster, as touted as a better way to ride a bike, without all the pedal work.
In 1905, Excelsior built its first motorcycle, after over 30 years of experience in the business of manufacturing bicycles. It was this prior knowledge that gave them advantage over other emerging motorcycle manufacturers of the time. The first Excelsior allowed riders to travel at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.
By 1906, motorcycles had evolved from using the typical diamond-shaped frames typical of manual bicycles, and began using spring frames, magneto ignitions, and spring-mounted seats. Tires had become sturdier to withstand the heavier frames and engines, and harder wear.
In 1910, Excelsior offered the first two-cylinder model, and by 1913 the single-cylinder was no longer produced. Excelsior bikes were popular among emerging motorcycle and racing clubs.
1911-1917: Excelsior took advantage of the popularity of the racing clubs, and put competitions riders on the payroll. This allowed for product name to get out in front of spectators, and provide potential for new customers. Each winning model or design modification was later seen on road models available to the public, and Excelsior became a name to contend with among other manufacturers in the industry.
1912 – The Schwinn bicycle company purchased The Excelsior Supply Company, and all of its assets, patents, and names. The price of Excelsior motorcycles was made more affordable due to increased factory output, and in 1912, Excelsior became renown for producing a motorcycle officially capable of a speed of 100 mph. Also in 1912, William Henderson began making motorcycles in Detroit, after almost 18 years in the automotive industry, working under his father who was Vice President of Winton Motors. Although Winton Motors would not indulge in William’s design for a four-cylinder motorcycle, his father advanced him the money to create a prototype.
The first Henderson was an unusual vehicle for the time – it was a single speed with no need for clutch or gearbox. It featured a chain drive, and eliminated the pedals and complicated starting procedure typical of other motorcycles. It was a well-received vehicle for its extraordinary performance in a multitude of environments such as mud, sand and hills and was redord-setting in long distance and endurance competitions. The Henderson Company soon began receiving orders for product from around the world.
1913-1915: Both Excelsiors and Hendersons continue to set and break records in endurance and speed, as well as win championship titles. In 1914, Excelsior relocated to Cortland Street in Chicago, to a manufacturing facility designed throughout for the most efficient and economical production of motorcycles – even down to a test track on its 6th story roof!
1915: The Henderson Company secured a contract to provide vehicles to Italy. With World War I in progress, British and German manufacturers were unable to supply anywhere other than the War efforts within their own Countries.
1916: Excelsior motorcycles became the preferred vehicles for many American law enforcement agencies nationwide. The War Department also procured a number of Excelsior bikes for use, as did railway companies, and the Post Office Department.
1917-1919: The United States entered World War I. Excelsior refrained from the racing scene, and produced all models for those years in military olive green. Simultaneously, despite the European contract, and endorsement from the likes of Henry Ford, the Henderson Company experienced financial difficulties severe enough for them to present the Schwinn and Excelsior Motor Manufacturing and Supply Company with a proposal for the sale of the Henderson Company to Excelsior. Excelsior’s plans for a 4-cylinder coincided with the design of Henderson’s 1920 Model K 4-cylinder, adding to the appeal of a contract between the two companies.
1920: This year marked the death of William Henderson, as he was hit by an automobile driver while taking a new model out for a test run. The production did not stop with his death, however. The 1920 Henderson boasted another industry first – a reverse gear.
1921-1928: The Excelsior X-Twin became available. For the next few years, racing records were again broken by Excelsior riders. In 1922, Maldwyn Jones rode Excelsior on both dirt track and in hillclimbing, and took victories in each race in which he competed during a two-day event in South Bend, Indiana. By 1924, Hendersons were used exclusively by over 600 police departments throughout the United States, and sales were in the record numbers.
1928-1930: Excelsior-Henderson changed its competition focus from racing to hillclimbing, where they gained a reputation for excellence in the sport. 1928 was the last appearance of a Henderson in the long-distance record books.
1931: In the face of the looming Great Depression, Ignaz Schwinn announced the end of production, and the dismantling of the motorcycle operation began immediately. Despite a large quantity of on-hand orders, especially to police departments, no back orders were filled. This created a shock to dealers and owners alike – Excelsior-Henderson ceased production at a time when the company was a leader in the industry, making what were regarded as the finest machines available.
We have a selection of Excelsior, Henderson, and Excelsior-Henderson models on display: both touring and hillclimbing.