Every motorcyclist dreams of hearing the magic phrase: “You know, I know where there’s this old bike that’s been sitting at the back of this garage for years …” With those momentous words, the hunt begins. Too often the machine revealed is a worthless Hondazukimaha pile of hopeless oxidation, but sometimes, it’s a collector’s dream: a genuine classic motorcycle. The Vincent in the Barn (Motorbooks, 2009) by Tom Cotter offers 40 stories of motorcycle-hunting dreams come true. In this excerpt from Chapter 6, “Rare Birds,” Dale Axelrod tells the story of restoring a Curtiss motorcycle to its original splendor.
Dale Axelrod became interested in Curtiss motorcycles years ago. It’s actually a dual fascination for Axelrod. He loves old motorcycles, but he also loves vintage aircraft. The retired diving instructor and paramedic from Middleburg, Florida, explained how his two passions are contained in this one bike.
“Just like the Wright brothers, who went from building bicycles to airplanes, Glenn Curtiss went from building bicycles to opening a bicycle factory, then motorcycles, and finally airplanes. Interestingly, it was Alexander Graham Bell who talked Curtiss into becoming involved with flight.
“The Wright brothers also built bicycles, but I’ve never found one. That’s why the Curtiss motorcycle is so interesting to me.”
Glenn Curtiss was an early aviation pioneer, who later was actually in competition with the Wright brothers.
“The Wright brothers always criticized Curtiss for sneaking out and watching them fly their early airplanes and stealing ideas,” he said. “While they were alive, there was bad blood between them, but when they died, the government merged the two companies to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
Well before that merger, though, Glenn Curtiss manufactured very interesting motorcycles, ones that used engines designed for aircraft. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In 1992, Axelrod attended an Antique Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA) swap meet in Harmony, New Jersey. He had spread the word to his friends about his interest in a twin-cylinder Curtiss, but because of the bike’s rarity, he didn’t really expect to hear about one anytime soon. So when his friend came up to him at that swap meet and said there was a Curtiss frame for sale, he got excited.
“There are so few of these bikes left,” he said. “Four, five, maybe six twin cylinder bikes remain in the world. I paid $500 for a rotted 1907 frame and an original-paint gas tank.”
He retained the tank, but the frame turned out to be for a single-cylinder engine, so he built that bike up with a proper engine that he already had and sold it to support his twin-cylinder project.
“That bike is beautiful,” he said. “It got third place at a big show.”
Over the course of many years, Axelrod kept collecting other parts for his main project: leather handlebar grips, a leather seat, and a tool bag. He even found a 1907 motorcycle license plate.
“And I found a period leather V-cog drive belt, which had been sitting in a guy’s flooded basement,” he said. “So I dried it out and [now] display it on the handlebars at shows.”
But the discovery that Axelrod is most excited about is the engine he discovered—a twin-cylinder Hercules originally built for a dirigible.
“I looked for probably 15 or 20 years for an engine like this,” he said. “They built so few of them. They are a terrific engine that was manufactured near the south end of Lake Keuka, part of the Finger Lakes region, in Hammondsport, New York.
“I had heard about an aviation collector in Kansas City who had a Hercules engine. I had heard it was a four-cylinder, but it turns out that it was a two cylinder, which was even better.
“At first he wouldn’t sell, but we kept talking, and finally he told me he’d take $20,000 for it. I bought it without ever even seeing it. I wouldn’t have taken $100,000 for it after I bought it.
“I was told the engine was N.O.S. (new old stock) when I bought it, but it had a bent connecting rod in it when I received it, so it was locked up and wouldn’t turn over.”
Axelrod explains that the Curtiss engine was of the I.O.E., or intake-over-exhaust, design similar to early Harley-Davidsons. Also called a pocket-valve design, a small lobe was used to open each cylinder’s exhaust valve, but the intake valves used an atmospheric system. The intake valves were opened and closed by engine vacuum.
“Harley struggled with the pocket valve, but they could never make it work properly,” said Axelrod. “They eventually gave up the design.”
So Axelrod had all the major components—engine, gas tank, small accessories—but he was still missing a frame. It turns out that he had a friend with a correct Curtiss frame in his basement, so Axelrod went to look at it. He discovered it was still wearing its original paint.
“Great! All the Curtiss motorcycles 1908 and older were painted black, so now I had an original black frame, original black gas tank, and many other original parts in their original finishes,” he said.
This was quite a discovery, according to Axelrod. “Think about what people rode on 100 years ago,” he said. “It was all deeply rutted dirt roads from the wagons that traveled on them. Motorcycles got beat to pieces in those days. To have no dents or rust on the sheet metal gas tank or fenders is amazing.”
Axelrod took six or seven years to restore the Curtiss. Even though he didn’t paint any of the major components, he did paint, plate, and polish many of the smaller bits. He takes great pride in the fact that he does all the restoration work himself, even nickel plating nuts, bolts, and other hardware to resemble the original finish.
“I only make what I absolutely have to,” he said. “I want to keep it as close to original as possible. For instance, I still need a battery and a fender, but I won’t resort to making one. I’ll just wait and hopefully one will turn up at a swap meet.”
Now, except for the fender, the Curtiss project is basically completed. Axelrod takes it to motorcycle meets and rides it around the field. He is deservedly proud of his rare machine.
“There is only one other original-paint twin Curtiss in the world that I know of,” said Axelrod. “It belonged to a member of the San Francisco Motor Club, and when he died in 1926, his son donated it to the Club. It’s been sitting in the clubhouse ever since.”
Its rarity means the bike’s value must be substantial. “I wouldn’t take anything less than $250,000 for it,” he said. “One sold at auction a few years ago for $160,000 and most of it was remade with new parts. The good news to me was that I was able to buy a box of authentic Curtiss parts that were taken off that bike.”
For Axelrod, it’s all good.
More from The Vincent in the Barn:
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Vincent in the Barn, published by Motorbooks, 2009.