Pure Madness: 1914 Militaire

Part car and part motorcycle, the Militaire was marketed at traveling gentlemen who owned a large automobile and desired a lighter vehicle to get around economically.

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by Phil Aynsley

1914 Militaire
Engine: 68ci (1,114cc) air-cooled IOE inline four, 2-11/16in x 3in bore and stroke, 11-1/2hp
Top speed: 30-40mph (est.)
Carburetion: Single Schebler updraft
Transmission: 3-speed w/reverse, shaft final drive
Electrics: Bosch magneto ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Channel steel frame/65in (1,651mm)
Suspension: Cantilever leaf spring front, adjustable cantilever coil-sprung seat rear
Brakes: 7in (178mm) external/internal contracting/expanding drum rear
Tires: 3in x 28in front and rear
Weight (dry/est.): 770lb (350kg)
Seat height: NA
Fuel capacity: 3gal (11.4ltr)

Is it a motorcycle? Is it a car? Is it a Militaire or Militor? We crack a cold case that spans a war and five bankruptcies.

Motorcycling’s history involves so many myths and legends. Militaire, which spans the years 1910 to 1922, is a classic case of both. It is a myth that the Militaire was designed purely to meet America’s World War I demand for a battlefield motorcycle. But it created a minor legend by trying (unsuccessfully) to mate the virtues of both two- and four-wheeled transportation.

In the pre-World War I era, there were literally dozens of motorcycle manufacturers in the U.S. But whereas many of them were simply bolting outsourced engines into their own frames, the various incarnations of Militor/Militaire made 80 percent of its product in-house. Quite an achievement.

The radical design was first displayed as a prototype in 1910 and put into production in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1911 with the name Militor. Over the next two decades, it was always marketed with a narrative extolling the fact it was a motorcycle with car-like qualities. The original version ran a single-cylinder, 480cc engine cooled with a fan. The drivetrain was a combination of shafts and chains, with a friction-drive setup at the back of the engine driving a chain and sprocket for the rear wheel. And instead of handlebars, the front forks were turned by a steering wheel!

The rider didn’t have to put his feet down at intersections because two small so-called “idler wheels” could be lowered by a pedal as the “autocycle” slowed. The effect was similar to today’s Piaggio’s MP3 scooter. The Militor pre-dated the similar and more commonly found Ner-A-Car by a decade and helped sum up an era that pushed the boundaries of innovation.

Mystery man

Little is known about charismatic businessman Norman Sinclair, who is an integral part of this story. Some credit him with being the brains of the original operation. Others say he came in when the business first went bankrupt. Certainly, he skillfully pulled the strings in a project that would chew through another four investors.

The original design was licensed to The Champion Motor Car Co. in St Louis, Missouri, which sold it for a short time rebadged as a Champion. These were volatile times for the motor industry, and when Champion went bust soon after, Sinclair ended up with the rights and assets, setting up the Militaire Autocycle Co. in Buffalo, New York.

By now the Militor had been radically redesigned. As well as being renamed the Militaire Autocycle, it was now powered by a car-like, inline, 1,114cc 4-cylinder engine with the crankcase also acting as a stressed member of the frame.

In a time when most motorcycle engines ran a total-loss, drip-feed system, the Militaire had a gear-type oil pump. This pressure-fed oil from the crankcase reservoir to the main bearings, then through a tunnel in the crankshaft to the connecting rods.

The engine employed the then-popular inlet-over-exhaust configuration, sometimes called the “pocket valve” (which predated the flathead design). The intake valves were located in the cylinder head, with exhaust valves in the cylinder block.

The clutch and brakes were foot operated and the gearbox (three speeds forward and a reverse) was controlled by a hand lever in a car-like H-gate shift pattern. Final drive was by shaft and a differential. It didn’t have a “kickstarter,” but rather a “stepstarter,” a pedal at the rear of the running board that activated a set of linkages to the flywheel.

Hub-center myth

Many historians refer to this motorcycle as having “hub-center steering.” It doesn’t. Steering was by a type of girder fork (with stiffening and leaf springs at the bottom) connected to an articulated steering neck through which the axle ran. The featured 1914 Militaire shows the front fork arrangement, with the girders part of the frame and the wheel pivoting through a curved axle. Company literature always described “a pivoted front axle (patented).”

Another unusual feature was the cantilever seat arrangement, whereby the entire rear subframe is basically a suspension system. Of course, the car-like, channel-steel chassis allied with this innovative approach to suspension had the side effect of creating a very heavy motorcycle. This 1914 model (No. 114) uses acetylene held in a pressurized tank for the lighting, but electric lights were fitted the following year.

Add in the artillery wheels and the complete package weighed over 770 pounds (350kg). However, the overall dimensions were no more excessive than the popular Henderson 4-cylinder motorcycle. The 11-1/2 horsepower engine could propel the Militaire Autocycle to about 30mph, pretty fast for the day.

Sales spiel

There was no holding back the confidence of the relaunched Militaire company in 1914, the year of the model featured here, which is on display in the National Motorcycle Museum in New South Wales, Australia. “The Militaire Autocycle is not an experiment,” the sales brochure trumpeted. The brochure listed N.R. Sinclair as president of a company that claimed to have $250,000 in capital.

“Model after model has been built, weaknesses located and eliminated one at a time until the machine is mechanically perfect,” the brochure continued. “This process has been expensive but the result is a machine which will stand up as well and as long as the highest grade automobile.” It was also claimed that the company was backed by “some of the wealthiest and most conservative businessmen and financiers in New York State.”

But what of some of the wacky design features, such as wooden wheels, in a time when spoked wheels were a proven product? “The use of the artillery type of wood wheels for motorcycle purposes has proven their value,” the firm stated, speaking of adopting them “only after the most severe and gruelling tests.” “They are made of selected second-growth straight grain hickory,” the firm added, making wood sound like some exotic material.

Reality bites

Sales were slow. Some claim fewer than 200 Militaires were sold. But the company seemed undeterred, exporting to private buyers around the world. It was marketed at travelling salesmen and gentlemen “who own a large car and desire a light vehicle to get about at times quickly and economically.”

Another sales target was “young men of refinement to whom formerly motorcycles never appealed … no peddling or straddling with feet on the ground.”

Perhaps the biggest potential was for military and police use. Various companies were vying for lucrative government contracts as the U.S. geared up to enter World War I. When the U.S. Army went to Europe in early 1917, it took a few Militaires along. They were a complete disaster, sinking to their axles in the mud of the Western Front.

Soon Sinclair had gone belly-up financially and a new company was formed, now called the Militor Corporation of New York. Amazingly, a sales poster of this time described the Militor as being “built upon U.S. Army specifications for war purposes.” Perhaps it was being more truthful when it also claimed it was “the motorcycle that is built and drives like a car.”

The business struggled along until 1919, when Sinclair managed to get the project under the wing of carmaker Knox Motors Co., of Springfield, Massachusetts. But not much came of that liaison and the rights and assets were acquired by the Bullard Machine Tool Co., Bridgeport, Connecticut, again with Sinclair in a lead role.

Sinclair must have been a slick corporate salesman. The Bridgeport factory began a small run before the bike died a natural sales death in 1922, after which Sinclair drifted off into historical oblivion. By this time the engine had grown to 1,306cc in sidevalve form, and then became 1,434cc with overhead valves. It had also abandoned the “idler wheels” and was being sold as a complete sidecar rig. The green 1920 Militor show here is on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

Incredibly, five different investment groups lost money on this amazing machine between 1910 and 1922. Probably only two dozen exist now as complete motorcycles. One of the very few in running order is owned and ridden by Peter Thomson of Thomson’s Motorcycle Museum in New Zealand. It was a brave idea, and perhaps an even braver decision to try and market such a wacky two-wheeler. MC

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