The Same, But Different: 1927 Cleveland 4-45 and 4-61 Motorcycles

A pair of 1927 Cleveland four-cylinder motorcycles, a model 4-45 and a model 4-61, together in one place.

1927 Cleveland 4-61.

Photo by Sedrick Mitchell

Content Tools

1927 Cleveland 4-45 and 4-61 Motorcycles
Engine:
45ci (737cc) air-cooled sidevalve inline four, 2-1/4in x 2-13/16in bore and stroke (4-45)/61ci (985cc) air-cooled sidevalve inline four, 2-1/2in x 3-1/16in bore and stroke (4-61)
Carburetion:
Schebler GX-1 (4-45)/Schebler DeLuxe (4-61)
Transmission:
3-speed handshift, chain final drive
Electrics:
6v, magneto ignition
Frame/wheelbase:
Dual-downtube steel cradle/90in (2,286mm)
Suspension:
Double leading link forks with enclosed springs, rigid rear
Brakes:
8in (203mm) twin shoe contracting rear
Tires:
3.85 x 20in front and rear
Weight:
350lb (159kg) 4-45/360lb (164kg) 4-61
Seat height:
27in (686mm)
Fuel capacity:
4gal (15.1ltr)
Price then:
$345 (4-45)/$365 (4-61)

At one point before World War I there were more than 100 motorcycle factories in the U.S. Most of these were gone before 1914, killed off by changes wrought by the Great War then raging in Europe and the popularity of the Ford Model T, but a few soldiered on until the Great Depression.

A surprising number of the products of these early American manufacturers have survived and are now, not surprisingly, valuable collectibles. One highly sought-after motorcycle was made by the smallest of America’s inline four builders — Cleveland.

Although America’s love affair with the automobile, immeasurably sparked before World War I with the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908, had dried up much of the market for commuter motorcycles, a few small, inexpensive machines continued to be popular. One of these was the Cleveland 2-stroke. Built in Cleveland, Ohio, this peppy, fun-to-ride 221cc single built up a following. Introduced in 1915, it was gradually improved over the years, its engine growing to 269cc to cope with increased weight of 195 pounds.

Looking to expand their market beyond their 2-stroke single, in 1923 Cleveland bought rival Reading Standard, which was known for its sidevalve technology and front suspension. Cleveland studied Reading Standard’s twins and built a 4-stroke single, but it wasn’t a success and likely set back company finances. But instead of returning to its 2-stroke single, management decided to build a 4-cylinder motorcycle.

Built for America

The first inline four was built in Belgium by FN in 1905. Perry Pierce, the son of the manufacturer of the exclusive Pierce-Arrow automobile, bought one while he was on a tour of Europe and persuaded Pop Pierce to front him the money to start a factory to build a similar motorcycle. Built from 1909 to 1914, the Pierce failed — it cost too much to build and had only mediocre performance.

Yet American motorcyclists wanted comfortable machines with significant horsepower, and although it ultimately failed, the Pierce showed that an inline four could be built to be (relatively) quiet and very smooth, making an all-day ride fun instead of an endurance contest. In 1912, William Henderson started production of the first of his two excellent inline fours, the Henderson. He followed it up in late 1919 with the Ace.

Fours were more expensive and more complicated than singles or twins, and were by extension purchased by people with more money than the average motorcyclist — and police departments. In 1925, when Cleveland’s directors decided to retool for a Four, many police departments were putting their patrolmen on Henderson or Ace fours. The big, solid Henderson was especially popular with motor cops, although it was heavy. The people at Cleveland thought they could do better.

Cleveland’s first try at a four was designed by L.E. Fowler, and sold no better than the 4-stroke single. It was underpowered and it didn’t handle well. Company finances most likely took another hit. Refusing to give up, the company hired Everett DeLong, an understudy to Arthur Lemon, the chief engineer of Ace, and asked him to draw a four. This bike, the 4-45 (four cylinders, 45 cubic inches), had an inlet-over-exhaust top end. The cylinders were formed by one casting and the top end by another. The transmission housing was cast integral with the lower end, but the gears could be removed through the side of the transmission, a feature unique to this design.

Most bikes of the era had very primitive oiling systems, but the 4-45 had a gear-driven pump from the wet sump that ensured a reasonable supply of oil via splash lubrication to all cylinders. The styling was attractive, and the reinforced double cradle frame and cushion front fork added up to a good handling machine. The bike was very light, weighing 350 pounds when a Henderson Four weighed 455 pounds. To make up for the rigid rear, the seat rode on a pair of springs. Braking was limited to a single band brake on the rear wheel (American manufacturers didn’t adopt a front brake until 1928, when most, including Cleveland, Harley-Davidson, Indian and Henderson, brought them out simultaneously) but as most roads outside major cities were gravel and speeds were low, quick stopping wasn’t as important.

Not enough

The new 4-45 made few inroads into the all-important police market. Next to a Henderson, the Cleveland looked fragile, and the bigger 79-cubic-inch Henderson and 75-cubic-inch Ace (bought by Indian in 1927 and soon to be the Indian 4) were swift enough to run down the faster automobiles of the day. Cleveland engineers went back to the drawing boards, returning with a new, larger machine, the 4-61, which was announced in August 1927. Featuring a rubber-mounted 61-cubic-inch engine, it was rumored to be capable of 90mph. It also featured a side stand, making it one of the first to have one as standard equipment.

About this time the Cleveland company started shopping for a buyer. The various model revisions had used up precious working capital, and financial pressure was growing. Harley-Davidson was apparently interested for a while, but then decided no. Somehow, Cleveland soldiered on, and in 1929 introduced the Tornado. With a lower saddle, magnesium alloy pistons and a higher compression ratio, the Tornado was supposed to be capable of 100mph.

Cleveland engineers designed still another upgraded model, the Century, which was selling in small quantities when the stock market crashed in October 1929. The Century had a special exhaust system with an expansion chamber, larger intake ports, polished exhaust ports, and a beefed-up front suspension. Despite this exciting development, management, disheartened by the state of the economy, threw in the towel and the factory was closed in late 1929 or early 1930. During the 15 or so years Cleveland was in business, it produced about 40,000 motorcycles, most of them the small 2-stroke. It has been estimated that about 2,000 of the 4-cylinder models were built.

Clevelands today

Despite the Depression and the scrap iron drives of World War II, a few people held onto their Clevelands and their stashes of Cleveland parts. In the early 1950s, when most Americans were out buying the latest in consumer appliances and automobiles, a few eccentrics started collecting old American motorcycles. The collectors remained a tiny minority through the 1960s and early 1970s, but as the 1970s progressed, more folks got interested. As increasing numbers of people started buying old bikes in the 1980s, prices started to jump, and today, machines that were worth no more than their scrap iron value for 40 years are now sought-after collector’s items. The lucky owners of our two featured Cleveland survivors are Rick Wolfe and Mike Terry.

Rick Wolfe has been collecting motorcycles since he was a precocious 14-year-old. Starting with a 1969 Yamaha RD350, he gradually built his present collection. “My father tried to discourage me. He rode motorcycles in the Thirties and Forties, Harleys and Indians. It didn’t work. Anyone can have money,” Rick says, “but not cool old bikes!” Rick raced dirt bikes for JAWA for a while, then rode British bikes, evolved into Harleys and then started getting interested in rarities. He also rides a high-wheel bicycle in period costume at events. He was doing a heritage show, riding his high wheeler and displaying his Cleveland single, when he was approached by an older man who wanted to know whether Rick wanted another Cleveland — a four. The bike was, naturally, in a barn, an hour and a half away, but Rick was undaunted and he went to take a look at the four, which turned out to be a 4-61.

“There was a lot of debris around, typical farm junk,” Rick recalls. “We walked into the barn, and there were four pickup trucks with their wheels off. The Cleveland was in a corner, what there was of it — someone had taken the engine out of the frame and used it to power a midget race car. There were some cycle parts along with the engine, but all the sheet metal had gone to the landfill. I bought it and it took 10 years to put a running motorcycle together.”

In contrast, Mike Terry’s Cleveland 4-45 was almost complete when he bought it. Mike was riding and building choppers — until he saw a photo of a 1937 Harley-Davidson UL in Easyriders magazine. “I said, ‘That looked good!” and he decided to find his own classic. Mike spent a lot of time working in a body shop, and has advanced sheet metal skills. He’s also not bad as a wrench. “At the time, no one had any money. I bought two VLs out of a basement, basically I was looking for parts. I put my bike together and sold the other bike and a truckload of parts.” The VL, with its big flathead twin, was just as good as Mike thought it would be. “I just rode that thing everywhere. It always started,” he says, and he still has the VL in his collection.

Mike got his Cleveland from Todd Bertrang, also a committed collector of vintage American bikes. “Todd found the 4-45 looking in Hemmings Motor News. He flew out to where the owner was, but had to scramble for enough money to do the deal. He borrowed some from me and promised that if he ever sold the bike, I would get first refusal. So Todd buys the bike, rents a minivan, tears out the back seat, throws the bike in there and drives cross country.

“Ten years pass. In the meantime, Todd found an actual new-old-stock rear sprocket and brake drum — one of the few parts missing on the bike. Irv Truax put the engine together. It took a year. He started it on the stand and it was still hot when I put it in Todd’s truck. But one day Todd looked at his collection and decided he had five non-running Clevelands, which were too many not runners, and asked me if I would buy this one. I had to sell an original paint belt drive Flying Merkel to finance the deal. It was all there, but in a box.”

Mike did his own bodywork and painting, except for re-soldering the tank, a specialist operation. Early American motorcycle tanks were soldered together, and after a number of years the vibrating engine and general wear and tear can cause the tank to leak. At that point is has to be taken apart, cleaned and re-soldered, and it has to be done right. The Cleveland’s tank was put together by old time collector George Hood.

At the time, Mike didn’t have a proper garage to work in, just a small shed. He only had space to paint one fender at a time, but despite limited facilities, the bike came together. Parts for Cleveland fours are pretty much unobtainable, and Mike was lucky — his four came with all the original parts except for the battery carrier and tool box, which had to be remade from scratch. Pinstriping was done by the one and only Glen Weisgerber, a well-known New Jersey airbrush artist.

Despite the age, value and rarity of these machines, both Rick and Mike ride their bikes. Mike uses premium gas “with just a touch of Marvel Mystery Oil.” It acts as a top-end lube and it’s a product many prewar motorcycle owners swear by. The
magneto was rebuilt by Irv when he rebuilt the engine, and Mike says the hot magneto allied with the engine’s low compression makes the 4-45 easy to start.

Rick gives detailed starting instructions: “My engine was rebuilt by Jim Carson, and it now works like clockwork. You engage the choke and put your finger on the kill button so it won’t fire while you are doing one primer kick to draw gas into the carburetor. Then you release the kill button, put the choke on the start notch — marked on these old Schebler carburetors — and kick it. It will start on the first kick. Then you let it warm up a little and put the choke lever in the run position and you are ready to take off,” Rick says.

Both Rick and Mike say their bikes handle well and have a light, sporty feel to them. “My bike has the sport bars,” Rick says, noting that they give more leverage, and remarking that the seat is actually pretty comfortable and that Cleveland patented the seat suspension. The 1927 Clevelands had rear brakes only, and Rick has improved his with Green Gripper brake lining, an anti-slip material. “It stops as good as it gets for a band brake, but I wouldn’t want to ride it in a rainstorm.” The backrest is a period accessory. As for the engine, Rick loves its exhaust note. “It sounds like a Model T on steroids,” he says, adding, “it’s such a sexy machine. I like the design, the narrowness of the bike. Nice straight aerodynamics. I’ve owned Indians and Harleys — they don’t have the lines.”

“I like that bike,” Mike says. “I’ve had it up to 50mph, with room to go faster. It’s a little, underpowered hot rod, he says. “It’s a cool little bike.” MC