Motorcycle Classics

High Achiever: 1916 Excelsior Twin

1916 Excelsior Model 17-3
998cc (61ci) air-cooled IOE V-twin, 3.328in x 3.5in bore and stroke, 6:1 compression ratio (approx.), 15-20hp (est.)
Single Schebler Model HX
3-speed hand shift, chain final drive
Bosch ZEV magneto ignition
Single downtube keystone frame w/engine as stressed member/59in (1,499mm)
Cradle type, trailing link with 5-leaf nickel steel spring front, rigid rear
Independently operated internal expanding drum (left pedal) and external contracting band (right pedal, fully depressed) rear
3in x 28in front and rear
Weight (dry):
275lb (125kg)
Seat height:
27in (686mm)
Fuel capacity:
2gal (7.5ltr)
Price then/now:

Discoveries of really old motorcycles are supposed to involve a barn. There aren’t a lot of barns in the suburban area where Mark Harrigan, the owner of this 1916 Excelsior, lives. But there are good neighbors who help each other, which led to this bike’s recovery. This Excelsior has survived thanks to a little help from many friends.

Once upon a time, there was a telephone lineman named Dick who knew nothing about motorcycles, but liked old things. While out fixing telephone lines one day, he saw a pickup truck headed for the dump, with an old motorcycle and a bunch of parts in the bed. Our hero intercepted the pickup truck — and got the contents of the truck for free. He then stowed the lot in the back of his garage. That was 50 years ago, and just a few miles from where Mark Harrigan lives.

Time marches on

Five years ago, the now-grown children of a neighbor and friend of the telephone man offered to help clean out the garage so as to get a look at the bike. They had been hearing about the old motorcycle their entire lives, but had never seen it. The family ended up with the bike and almost all of its parts in exchange for their help. Son Jason began restoring the motorcycle, a World War I-era Excelsior, and started looking for some missing pieces, but never got very far on the project.

This is where Mark Harrigan and Mike Lynch came in. Mark had started a local Facebook group called “Motorcycle Memories.” The brother of the Excelsior’s then-current owner (who lived only a few miles from Mark) posted some photos of the bike to the group. There were a lot of comments. A few months later, the brother sent another post to the group. Jason had decided to sell the bike, and Mark started thinking about buying the old twin.

Mike Lynch is a neighbor of Mark’s. Talented with a wrench and equipped with a complete machine shop, Mike has made a paying hobby of restoring pre-World War II American motorcycles. He’s rebuilt engines for several Cannonball competitors, and one of the stars of American Pickers currently has Mike rebuilding his Ace 4-cylinder.

Taking a leap

Mark collects motorcycles, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. A vintage twin would be a big leap, but Mike assured Mark he would help. The two went to look at the Excelsior and liked what they saw. Although in pieces, most of the parts were with the bike. The paint, although faded, was mostly there. You could still see the pin striping, the bodywork wasn’t rusted out and the tank didn’t need rebuilding, which can be an expensive job. Old motorcycle tanks were soldered together and often leak, and sometimes have to be taken apart and re-soldered. Mark, assured of some help, signed a check and took the bike and parts home.

Early beginnings

Excelsior was a division of Schwinn (the same company that built your childhood bicycle) and one of the Big Three of American motorcycling during the Teens and 1920s. The company was based in Chicago, Illinois, while Indian’s factory was in Springfield, Massachusetts. Harley, of course, was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so the three were often referred to in the motorcycling press as Chicago, Milwaukee and Springfield.

Excelsior was originally founded in 1907, building 30.5-cubic-inch (500cc) single-cylinder machines. They were well built, with a sturdy frame to cope with the bad roads of the era. The engine was inlet over exhaust, the standard motorcycle engine configuration of the time, with the crankcase a stressed member of the frame. Final drive was via a flat belt, a common drive method during this period of motorcycle development. The front fork was leading link, with a double set of tubes joined by springs and levers.

A 61-cubic-inch (1,000cc) twin was added in 1911. The Schwinn bicycle company, seeking to diversify from the bicycle market, bought Excelsior, building a modern factory on Cortland Street in Chicago to construct new Excelsiors. Production moved to Cortland Street in late 1914. An article in the Jan. 13, 1916, issue of Motorcycle Illustrated described the factory operation, with precision machining assured by “up to date” turret lathes, micrometer grinders and boring mills. There was no assembly line. Components of the motorcycle were assembled in separate departments and then brought to the assembly department, where each bike was built up from the already assembled components.

Art Deco advertising literature emphasized the Excelsior standard of quality control: “All parts and assembled units must pass rigid inspections. Every motor is block tested to perfect adjustments and every finished machine is actually road tested by an expert.” Company brochures trumpeted long-distance racing success and hill climbing trophies, pointing out that many of these victories had been won on stock machinery. “Old experienced riders do not ride Excelsiors for sentimental reasons. They know that the X will deliver the goods and Always Make Good.”


In 1913, the twin was changed to chain drive from belt. In 1914, Excelsior introduced a hand clutch 2-speed planetary transmission and a leaf spring front fork. The next year, in tandem with Harley-Davidson and Indian, Excelsior announced a 3-speed sliding gear transmission. The company also introduced a foot clutch, and a new and attractive rounded fuel tank. The single was dropped for the American market (the twin was more popular), although it was still exported. To replace it, Excelsior brought out a lightweight single-cylinder 2-stroke in 1916.

The 1916 Excelsior Model 17-3 twin cost $265, about $6,000 in today’s money. The valve arrangement was inlet over exhaust (IOE), meaning an overhead intake valve, and an exhaust valve contained in a pocket in the side of the engine. This valve arrangement had been invented by the designers of the best early motorcycle, the De Dion-Bouton of the 1890s. Although they had limitations, IOE engines were popular for years. Harley used this valve layout through 1929.

The factory boasted of an automatic compression release that worked in tandem with the kickstarter, a powerful magneto, a sprung seat and a heavy-duty frame. Early motorcycles required a lot of maintenance. Up until advances in oil production during World War II filtered down to the commercial market, the combustion chambers of all internal combustion engines would regularly get coated with carbon and need a “decoke” in order to run properly. The owner or mechanic would take the top end apart, scrape out the carbon and put it all back together. A period Excelsior brochure suggested this be done every 500 miles. However, just about everything needed a lot of maintenance in 1916, and all that mattered was that a motorcycle was cheaper and easier to deal with than a horse.

Engine lubrication was in its infancy. To make sure the engine had enough oil to do its job, there were two pumps — an automatic pump and a hand pump on the tank, to be used when going flat out or trundling up a hill. Imagine taking a hand off the bars while going 60mph — and the Excelsior twins were good for at least that — to pump oil. Riding early motorcycles at speed required strong nerves. Excelsior continued cranking out motorcycles up through the 1920s, when it started running into trouble. Instead of concentrating on U.S. sales, the company had been exporting much of its production to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and South America, but increased export tariffs in 1930 killed much of Excelsior’s overseas markets. The 1929 market crash had already cut deeply into domestic sales, so in the spring of 1931, Ignaz Schwinn, almost 71 years old and looking to salvage his core bicycle business, decided to close down the Excelsior factory.

Old iron

When it comes to restoration, collectors work on different schedules. For some people, it can take 10 years to get an old bike running, but Mark and Mike did it in 53 days. The Excelsior was actually in amazingly good condition, its frame tubes sound and all its sheet metal present and accounted for — and reasonably rust free. One missing part was the front wheel. “A friend said to contact Dale Walksler, the owner of Wheels Through Time. Dale called me back within a few hours, said he had the wheel I needed and at a very reasonable price; he even packed it himself.” Dale also gave advice as needed to help get the bike sorted out. “That guy is the real deal,” Mark says of Dale.

It didn’t take long for Mark to get into the “club” of old bike restorers and enthusiasts. “I was turned on to a guy in Sweden who makes parts and Benjamin Binns in Australia had literature, including the owner’s manual,” Mark says. With the needed replacement parts located, getting the bike running was a straightforward operation. The magneto had a good spark, but the ignition still needed some minor attention. “I rewired the bike — there isn’t much to the wiring loom — and found new 18mm spark plugs,” Mark says. “I cleaned the gas tank with kerosene and adjusted the intake valves. I adjusted the clutch. It’s all in the owner’s manual.” The motorcycle enthusiast of 1916 was assumed to be mechanically adept, and the owner’s manual was more like a present-day service manual.

With fresh oil and gas, the Excelsior was ready to start for the first time in 50 or more years. “The back two-thirds of the tank hold gas and the front holds oil. You open the two oil valves. One goes to the manual pump on the tank and the other to a little pump that works off the crankshaft. The compression release engages when you engage the kickstarter. You advance the spark, turn on the gas tickler on the side of the fuel tank [it feeds gas directly into the combustion chamber], get the kickstarter up on compression and kick,” Mark says. After five kicks, the Excelsior started. The first time Mark tried riding the bike, however, he nearly ran into his wife’s Buick — he had the brakes hooked up incorrectly. The brakes now work, and can lock up the rear wheel.

Owning and riding a 100-year-old bike involves a learning curve. Mark tried using 10w40 oil, but the engine smoked like a locomotive and leaked. But when he switched to Valvoline 50 weight racing oil, the Excelsior stopped leaking and smoking. Once the Excelsior was running properly, Mark got a nice surprise: The bike is actually fun to ride. “I thought it would just be something beautiful to look at, but now I want to jump on it and ride it,” Mark says. “I took it to the DMV and got it registered and tagged, so it is street legal. The Highway Patrol had to give me a blue sticker number, since they didn’t have the Excelsior in their database. I have to have it on me when I ride the bike.

“All major parts other than the front wheel are from this original bike,” Mark marvels. “All the decals are still there — faded, but still there. The cloth wrapping around the fork spring bolt and the original rubber bumpers are still there. Even the seat is in good condition. It’s a rideable, 101-year-old motorcycle.” MC

Excelsior Redux: Sometimes, you don’t want your dreams to come true

Dan, Terry and Tom Hanlon dreamed of building their own motorcycle. In 1993, after securing the Excelsior and Henderson trademarks, they designed a V-twin cruiser. A prototype was ready by 1995, featuring a double overhead cam, 4-valve, fuel injected V-twin engine, anti-dive front suspension and a rigid, low-slung frame. The brothers raised $100 million and built a factory in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. The non-running prototype first went on public display at Sturgis 1995, and was brought to Daytona the following year. A repeated question at both rallies was, “Why don’t you fire it up?” FIREITUP became the company rallying cry.

Bikes started rolling down the assembly line in 1999. The first model was the Super X, named after the iconic midsized speedster of the 1920s. The Deadwood, a limited edition version, appeared in 2000. Unfortunately, it all came crashing down almost as quickly as it started. Funding completely dried up and the brothers were forced into bankruptcy after only some 1,950 bikes had been made.

When the company folded, enthusiast and collector Mark Harrigan bought the entire inventory of the local dealer. “I bought everything from his last two bikes to the banners strung around the dealership,” Mark says, adding, “I bought anything he had with the Excelsior name on it.” Mark ended up selling those two bikes, but kept everything else. In April 2000, he bought a special edition Deadwood from Golden Gate Cycles in San Francisco, California. “At the time, everyone was building choppers around an S&S engine. I wanted to buy American, and I saw the Excelsior/Henderson as unusual and unique.”

Mark visited the factory in July 2000 when the Excelsior-Henderson owners group staged its first annual “X-Ride” there. “At the time, there was hope that production could re-start. It was like everything was just frozen in time, with bikes halfway down the assembly line, it was almost like an episode of the Twilight Zone,” Mark says. “I met the Hanlon family (including mom) and a few of the remaining factory technicians — great people, all of whom had poured their hearts and souls into a dream that ultimately was not to be.”

There were a few glitches, but the owners group (there’s a very active Excelsior-Henderson community) has invented fixes for the problems, the worst of which involved the transmission and oiling. But once these issues are dealt with, owners say, the bikes are as reliable as just about any on the road.

An investment group has expressed interest in the Excelsior-Henderson brand, and it is possible the company may see a rebirth. In the meantime, Excelsior-Henderson still exists to support its many enthusiasts, like Mark Harrigan. — Margie Siegal

  • Published on Jun 13, 2017
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