The Magnificent Mustang Motorcycles
Uniquely American, Mustang motorcycles were the little small motorcycles that could — and still do.
Today, original Mustangs are highly prized, routinely selling for $10,000-plus in concours condition. Even “beater” Mustangs — when you can find them — typically bring more than $5,000.
Photo By Joe Berk
No one knows with certainty how manufacturing mogul John Gladden, founder of the Mustang Motorcycle Corporation, selected the name. Some say he thought of wild horses. Others say it stems from the P-51 Mustang fighter plane. Both stories make sense, but we like the one about the P-51. Gladden Products made parts for World War II combat aircraft, so it seems logical that the P-51 Mustang could have been part of the calculus that created the Mustang moniker.
Gladden Products had a lot of things going for it, but as World War II was ending, John Gladden knew he needed a new product. Synchronicity struck when he noticed a very unusual motorcycle in the company parking lot. It was scooter-sized, but it was a motorcycle — a miniaturized motorcycle. The bike belonged to Howard Forrest, a machinist and engineer, and a serious motorcycle enthusiast who constructed it using a water-cooled, 300cc 4-cylinder engine he designed and built himself, from scratch.
So this was the time and the situation, Gladden casting about for a new product, one of his engineers riding a personally-designed and fabricated small motorcycle to work, and millions of young men returning from the war. Gladden recognized opportunity when he saw it: His new product would be a small motorcycle.
Gladden challenged Forrest and Chuck Gardner (a fellow Gladden Products engineer and motorcycle rider) to develop a lightweight motorcycle. Forrest’s 300cc engine was intriguing, but would be expensive to build. Gladden wanted a lightweight and inexpensive bike; more substantive than a scooter, but not as big as a motorcycle — a scooter-sized motorcycle. What resulted was a family of Mustang motorcycles.
The first Mustangs
Mustang originally planned to use 197cc Villiers 2-stroke engines, but after building a few prototypes with the 197cc engine, Villiers instead offered their 125cc 2-stroke. It wasn’t what Mustang wanted, but it was the only game in town. Thus was born the first production Mustang — the 1946 Colt. The Colts had leading-link front forks, a hardtail rear end, tiny 8-inch wheels, a peanut gas tank and twin exhausts. Small, yes, but stunning.
Forrest and Gardner weren’t ecstatic about the tiny Villiers engine, however, and Villiers was making noises about cutting off their supply. Gladden recognized that making his own engines would be critical to Mustang’s success, so Gladden did what moguls do: He acquired an aircraft engine manufacturer that included Busy Bee, a maker of small industrial engines. One in particular seemed a good fit for a new Mustang motorcycle. It was a 320cc flathead single-cylinder 4-stroke, and it became the basic engine that would power future Mustangs.
Forrest and Gardner went back to the drawing board. What rapidly emerged in 1947 was the Mustang Model 2, a completely new Mustang and the first with what we now recognize as the classic Mustang appearance. Bigger than the Colt, it had Mustang’s new engine and 12-inch disc wheels. The intake and exhaust ports faced rearward, with a finned exhaust manifold. The cast aluminum primary cover was adorned with the Mustang logo, and it had a 3-speed Burman transmission, a tractor seat supported by big coil springs, a rear brake, a rigid rear end and telescopic front forks. It weighed just 215 pounds.
The Model 2 was not without its problems, however, including rod knocks and noisy timing gears. Mustang handled the issues with special production actions, and to make sure only good bikes left the plant, the production foreman had to personally start, run, listen to and approve each engine.
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