Rare 1912 Henderson Four

Frank Westfall’s 1912 Henderson Four is believed to be one of six still in existence today.

Side view of a rare 1912 Henderson Four

1912 Henderson Four

Photo By Sedrick Mitchell

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1912 Henderson Four
Claimed power: 7hp (claimed)
Touring speed: 40mph
Engine: 58.9ci (965cc) air-cooled sidevalve inline four, 2.5in x 3in bore and stroke
Weight (dry/est.): 300lb (136kg)
Fuel capacity: 2gal (7.6ltr) 

One hundred and two years ago, Carl Stearns Clancy and Walter Storey left Philadelphia by ship, bound for Ireland where they would embark upon a ride around the world on two brand-new, 1912 Henderson Fours. Once in Ireland, Storey crashed his bike on the first day, then suffered through rotten weather before deciding to call it quits in Paris.

Clancy soldiered on, sending telegrams marking his progress to his sponsors, Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review. Eventually he reached Japan, then shipped out for San Francisco. Braving the almost nonexistent roads across the U.S., he reached New York on Aug. 27, 1913. The 18,000-mile trip had taken 10 months.

The coming of Henderson

By 1912, motorcycles had been manufactured commercially for 18 years. Most were powered by a version of the French De Dion-Bouton single-cylinder engine, one of the first commercially viable motorcycle engines. The De Dion had total-loss lubrication, a vacuum operated intake valve (opening from the suction of the piston on its downward stroke) and an exhaust valve that ran off a cam geared to the crankshaft. To start one of these early bikes, you put the bike on the centerstand and start pedaling. Once the bike’s running, you push it forward and away you go. If you want to stop, you have to kill the engine — early bikes have no clutch — and then pedal the bike to restart.

The Henderson that took Clancy around the world was different. Compared to the De Dion-based single-cylinder machines, and even the V-twins (still based on the De Dion single) that were then becoming popular, it was easy to start, quiet, smooth, powerful and reliable. The Henderson was the world’s first real long-distance touring bike: the Gold Wing of 1912.

Prior to the Henderson 4-cylinder, two other fours were available in the U.S. The FN, designed and built in Belgium by Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre, was introduced at the 1905 Paris Cycle Show. It displaced 362cc, had then state of the art magneto ignition, and was lubricated by splash. The intake valves were vacuum operated, and it was the first commercial motorcycle with shaft drive. The first FN Fours had no gears or clutch, but a 2-speed transmission was available on an aftermarket basis in about 1908.

When Percy Pierce, the pampered progeny of a wealthy automobile manufacturer, decided to manufacture a U.S. version of the FN Four he saw while touring Europe, Pop gave Percy a factory in Buffalo, N.Y., for his venture. The Pierce motorcycle, debuting in 1909, was built to the same high standards (and price tag) as Pop’s Pierce-Arrow automobile, but had no clutch and had to be pedaled to start. Like the FN, the Pierce was not particularly powerful, a major drawback on long, rough American roads.

In the meantime, William Henderson, a young man from Scotland, was working as a draftsman for the F. A. Brownell Motor Co., Rochester, N.Y., a manufacturer of automobile and marine gasoline engines. In 1910, he sent a drawing to Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal, showing a heavy duty motorcycle with a long wheelbase and an inline 4-cylinder engine similar to then-current automobile designs. William and his brother Tom decided to build the bike, and the pair raised financing while William perfected his motorcycle. The first Hendersons rolled out of the brothers’ new Detroit factory in January 1912.

The new Henderson was well adapted for the America of 1912. A low center of gravity helped, and the 7 horsepower 934cc four produced enough power to cope with the muddy, rutted roads of the time. Exhaust and intake valves were mechanically operated, and the splash lubrication system provided more positive oiling than contemporary drip systems. A magneto replaced the then-common dry-cell battery ignition.

The engine started with a hand crank at the rear of the crankshaft, and while it only had one speed, it did have a clutch — an uncommon feature on bikes of the period. The first Harley clutch appeared  in 1912, costing $10 extra as an option. The frame was the most striking part of the new Henderson, extending 2 feet in front of the engine. The space between the forks and the engine was occupied by footboards and dual pedals for the rear brake.

The new Henderson was written up in all of the contemporary American motorcycle journals and sold well from the start. Carl Clancy heard about the new bike and decided to try to duplicate the exploits of some bicycle riders who had ridden around the world 20 years before. The Henderson factory either sold or gave two bikes to him and Walter Storey, and Clancy’s successful trip produced a second wave of favorable publicity for Henderson.

William Henderson continually improved the bike. The 1913 models used four bolts instead of two to seal the cylinder head, had better forks, a lower saddle position and a larger brake. For 1914 a 2-speed hub was added, and in 1915 the wheelbase was shortened from 65 inches to 58 inches, improving handling. The 1917 Henderson had three speeds, wet sump lubrication and a larger and more rugged clutch.

By this time, the United States had entered World War I. Many potential customers were in the Army, and material shortages and other problems caused by the war made it difficult for the Henderson factory to fill orders it did have. At the same time, industrialist Ignaz Schwinn, owner of Excelsior Motorcycles in Chicago, saw potential in the Henderson as a police motorcycle. Schwinn made the Henderson brothers an offer they could not, given their financial problems, refuse.

Schwinn moved production to Chicago and started to beef up the Henderson to make it more attractive to police departments. This upset William Henderson, who envisioned his motorcycle as a light, sporty ride. In 1919, the Henderson brothers, who had accompanied the sale of Henderson, decided to leave Excelsior. Tom went into the export business and William found other backers for a new motorcycle, the light, beautiful and sporty Ace. Schwinn continued Henderson production until 1931.

First four

The first year of anything is often prized by collectors, and the 1912 Henderson is no exception. Frank Westfall, the owner of our feature bike, thinks there are six left in the world including his bike, which is probably the only one that runs on a regular basis.

A custom leather designer and tailor by trade, Frank is an antique American motorcycle enthusiast by avocation. Although he likes all old bikes, he has a special regard for inline fours built between 1909 and 1942 by Ace, Indian, Cleveland, Henderson and Pierce.

Unlike many collectors, Frank rides his old iron, sometimes cross-country. He has twice participated in the Great Race, a competition for motor vehicles more than 45 years old, riding a 1928 Henderson DeLuxe. He competed in the 2010 and 2012 Cannonball, winning his class in 2012 aboard a 1924 Henderson. Frank plans to ride in the third Cannonball Run in 2014, again aboard a Henderson.

“I don’t want to be like all the Harley guys,” Frank says, before adding, “And I don’t want to be like all the Indian guys. There are a lot of Harley and Indian guys. I want to be different. I was 12 years old when I first saw a restored Henderson at the New York State Fairgrounds. I have loved them since.”

Frank’s acquisition of the 1912 Henderson was anything but straightforward. “It all started with a rear wheel,” he explains. “A friend brought me an old wheel with an odd hub. It came off the back of an ice racer. I knew it was off a Henderson, but I had no idea what year, so I brought it to the big Oley, Pa., antique meet, figuring someone would know.”

Well-known motorcycle restorer Mike Smith came in from Oregon and ran over. “Mike saw the wheel and tried to snatch it from me. He wouldn’t tell me what year it was, he just kept begging to buy it. Bob McClean was walking by and I shouted to him, ‘What is this?’ He took one look and shouted back, ‘Twelve Henderson.’ 1912 Henderson. A 1912 Henderson is the Holy Grail.”

Frank and Mike ended the wrestling match over the wheel when Mike offered Frank a pile of parts that Frank wanted. Mike carried his prize away, and that was the last Frank heard about the 1912 Henderson for two years. Frank was at another swap meet, enjoying the ambiance at an after hours beer party, when Mike turned up. Mike mentioned that the 1912 Henderson he had been working on was almost complete and was for sale. The price was high, but Frank decided he had to have it. He sold five bikes from his collection to raise the cash. “I’m cash poor and metal rich,” he quips.

The Henderson was traveling with the Guggenheim Art of the Motorcycle exhibit and Frank had made several payments on it when he got the word that Mike had died of a heart attack. “It was a handshake deal. I had nothing in writing. Luckily, Matthew, Mike’s son, knew about the deal and upheld his father’s end of the bargain,” Frank says. When the Guggenheim exhibit was over, Matthew delivered the Henderson, serial number 440, to Frank.

Still ticking

The striking red and black Henderson has been judged by the Antique Motorcycle Club of America and has earned an almost perfect score of 99.5 points. Yet despite its rarity and its value, Frank rides his treasure. “I ride it through mud puddles. I don’t care how much something is worth, if I can’t ride it, I don’t enjoy it. It’s more fun to ride than to look at.”

The hand crank is on the bike, but Frank Westfall doesn’t use it to start the Henderson. “The boss for the hand crank cracked when the bike was at the Guggenheim show. It’s fixed now, but I don’t want to break it a second time. I put the bike on the centerstand and prime the Schebler carburetor. There’s a tickler on the side of the carburetor. I turn the magneto off, give it full choke and pull on the rear wheel. I turn the throttle down, engage the mag and pull on the wheel some more. It always fires up,” Frank says.

One weak point of the 1912 Henderson is the small clutch — operated by a hand lever — which has a hard time coping with the powerful engine. To get the bike rolling once started, you disengage the clutch, hit the brake pedal to stop the rear wheel from spinning, pull it off the centerstand and CAREFULLY re-engage the clutch. “It’s a tricky situation, but such a treat when you’ve learned it,” Frank says.

Another weak point is the small flywheel. “It doesn’t have a lot of inertia. When you’re going up hills, you have to keep the rpm up,” Frank says. However, the brake — there’s only one, on the rear wheel — works surprisingly well for a coaster brake. Frank says it helps that the whole outfit weighs less than 300 pounds, lessening the load on that sole brake.

Unlike a lot of motorcycles of its era that chug along at 20mph, rattling and banging, the Henderson moves. Frank says it idles along at 40mph, sounding like an antique automobile. “It’s very smooth.” Frank also insists that his Henderson “handles nice, even with the long wheelbase and the tiller bars. The low center of gravity really helps.”

So the rear wheel from the ice racer has ended up as part of a very striking, 102-year-old motorcycle that can actually take its rider somewhere. It is one of the oldest practical motorcycles still in existence, and Frank gets great enjoyment from riding it. “To me it is heaven.” A bit of heaven we’d all like to enjoy. MC