Motorcycle Classics

Refined Pioneer: 1921 Reading Standard

1921 Reading Standard
1,173cc (71.57ci) sidevalve 45-degree V-twin, 3.375in x 4in bore and stroke, 16-18hp (est.)
Single 1.25in Schebler Model HX
3-speed hand shift, chain final drive
6v Splitdorf generator, Bosch magneto ignition
Single downtube keystone frame w/engine as stressed member/NA
Dual leg leading-link with single spring front, rigid rear
Independently operated internal expanding drum (right pedal) and external contracting band (right handle grip)
3in x 28in front and rear
Fuel capacity:
3gal (11.4ltr)
Price then:
$375 w/ lighting, $345 w/o

“It has the power of a postwar Harley. It goes faster than it will stop.”
Mike Terry, collector, about his 1921 Reading Standard

Some antique motorcycles are time travelers. They do much better in current conditions than they did when they were built.  One of these is the Reading Standard.

The Reading Standard was built in Pennsylvania for 19 years starting in 1903, long before there were decent roads. Motorcycle frames had to be tough to put up with the era’s bad roads, and the Reading Standard’s frame was not tough enough. Collector Mike Terry, the owner of the 1921 Reading Standard featured here, has six Reading Standards, and the frames on four of them had been broken and re-welded. One had an extra support added. “It’s a keystone frame, with the engine a stressed member. There’s no top motor mount, and I’m not sure why,” Mike says, adding, “the fragile frame must have contributed to bad sales.”

Early days

Many early motorcycle manufacturers were essentially assemblers, using components brought in from different manufacturers. From 1902 until 1907, Indian, one of the most famous among early American motorcycle manufacturers, sourced its engines from the Aurora Automatic Machine Company in Aurora, Illinois. The Indian/Aurora contract provided that Aurora could sell additional engines on the open market. Designed by Indian’s Oscar Hedstrom, these single-cylinder engines were well designed and well built for their time, and powered a lot of early American motorcycles.

One of the companies using Aurora power was Reading Standard, which commenced production in 1903. For the first two years, Reading Standard bikes not only used Aurora engines designed by Indian, they also copied Indian’s diamond frame and the “camelback” tank set over the rear fender. They were, in fact, almost identical to the same year Indian. In 1905 the company changed the shape of the tank, moved it to the top tube in front of the seat and started using standard dry-cell batteries to power the bike’s ignition. The next year, Reading Standard hired engineer Charles Gustafson Sr. and sent him to Europe to study engine design.

At the time, American motorcycles were primarily powered by single-cylinder engines with inlet over exhaust valves. The Hedstrom engine used this top end configuration, which had been developed by the French firm De Dion-Bouton in the late 1890s. De Dion-style engines were better than anything else on the market, and most early bike designers followed the De Dion lead.

Although the inlet over exhaust design emerged as the best alternative available at the dawn of the 20th century, it was widely recognized that it had major drawbacks. For example, valve steel in the early years was pretty marginal. Since valves broke on a regular basis from overheating, it was imperative to keep them cool. Yet with lubrication technology also in its infancy, the accepted way to cool the top end was to leave the valve stems out in the breeze — which meant that oil mist liberally coated the rider’s pants. Additionally, the intake valve on early inlet over exhaust top ends was usually atmospheric and operated via vacuum pressure alone, pulling open against mild spring tension as the piston descended. Among other problems, it tended to get gummed shut.

Following his trip to Europe, Gustafson came back with news of a new top end configuration: the flathead. Also known as a sidevalve owing to the placement of the valves side by side in a pocket next to the cylinder, flathead top ends were a major advance over the inlet over exhaust engines of the day. Using the technology of the early 20th century, it was possible to build a flathead engine that was at least as powerful, more reliable and much cleaner than an inlet over exhaust engine. Most parts on a sidevalve engine could be enclosed, stopping the oil spray and smothering mechanical chatter.

Starting in 1906, Reading Standard began to produce sidevalve singles, and in July of that year three Reading Standards made it to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado — a first for motorcycles.

Reading Standard continued to improve the product. The first twin appeared in 1908, and models with parallelogram front forks and a loop frame were in showrooms in 1909. A 2-speed rear hub was installed in 1911. Indian hired Charles Gustafson away from its smaller rival in 1914, but Reading Standard kept chugging along.

Making them better

A 3-speed transmission appeared in 1915, and a double rear brake was an option in 1916, probably a result of the English requirement that motorcycles have two independently operated brakes as Reading Standard sold a lot of bikes overseas, including Norway, Sweden and Australia. By 1918 the company was building twins with improved parallelogram forks, and optional electric lights were powered by a Splitdorf generator run off a belt around an engine sprocket.

World War I was probably the high point of Reading Standard production. Most of Indian’s motorcycles and quite a few of Harley-Davidson’s were going to support the military effort, and riders who wanted new bikes were forced to look to other brands.

Meanwhile, Indian had switched from inlet over exhaust engines to sidevalves, finding that sidevalves were not only cleaner and more reliable, they were also cheaper to build. In 1920, the Reading Standard twin was redesigned to look more like Indian’s Powerplus sidevalve, with fins around the top, larger valves and fully valenced fenders. The gas tank was now rounder, with no square edges. In 1921, the shift quadrant was moved to the top of the gas tank, and a new straight-through exhaust was introduced.

The 1921 twins had 71.57-cubic-inch (1,173cc) engines, among the largest motorcycle engines built at the time. Like most contemporary motorcycles, the lubrication system was total loss, with an auxiliary hand pump to deliver extra oil for climbing hills and fast riding. The transmission was a 3-speed with a hand shift and the large clutch was made by Eclipse. It was operated by a foot pedal and an auxiliary hand lever, which was especially useful on hills. Like all motorcycles of the time, the R-S twins had a manual spark advance, but R-S’s advance had a return spring. Mike Terry says the stock setup lets the advance go wide open if you let go of the grip. He has modified it so that the spring closes the advance mechanism instead.

Although R-S had been making its own engines for some time by this point, many components were outsourced, standard practice then and today. In addition to the Eclipse clutch, the solo seat was made by Mesinger, a well-known motorcycle and bicycle seat manufacturer, the magneto was built by Bosch, the generator by Splitdorf and the carburetor by Schebler.

A big reason that the R-S made as much power as it did was the engine’s Ricardo heads. English engineer Harry Ricardo had conducted experiments with internal combustion flame propagation, and discovered a way to shape the flathead combustion chamber that sped up combustion and allowed higher compression ratios. This was known as the “squish” principle, which involved concentrating the combustion chamber area over the valves and minimizing the area over the pistons. Ricardo sold licenses to use this technology and Harley-Davidson purchased a license from Ricardo when it started to build flathead singles in the mid-1920s. Reading Standard did not buy a license from Ricardo, and so did not use his name in advertising.

Concerned that the company was falling further behind Indian, Excelsior/Henderson and Harley-Davidson, Reading Standard management decided in 1921 to field a race team. The company hired well-known speedster Ray Creviston and invested a lot of money in resurrecting and upgrading a Cyclone overhead cam racer. Unfortunately, the engine was never properly tested and developed, and Creviston suffered through breakdown after breakdown. The race team that was going to put Reading Standard on the map turned into an expensive liability.

Reading Standard’s racing debacle happened at the worst possible time. America suffered through a mini economic
depression in the first years after World War I. Although it had made it through many challenges in the preceding 10 years, Reading Standard wasn’t performing well enough to survive this downturn. The last blow may have been Indian’s introduction of the wildly popular Scout. Reading Standard went bankrupt in 1922, and the remains were purchased by Cleveland, another smaller motorcycle manufacturer, in February 1923. Cleveland sold Reading Standards for the 1923 and 1924 seasons before ending production to concentrate on building an innovative 4-cylinder machine.

Reading Standard motorcycles faded into obscurity until the post-World War II era, when enthusiasts interested in early American motorcycles started searching the barns and garages where old bikes had been stored and forgotten. One of those early collectors, Harry Buck, found this bike. When he died, Steve Geiger inherited Buck’s collection and sold both this R-S and a 1918 model to Mike Terry. Mike was not content to admire his new acquisition. He wanted to ride it.

Mike Terry’s R-S

Mike is not the first person to decide that a Reading Standard can be an enjoyable bike on a country road. Other restorers and collectors of vintage iron have discovered that R-S twins are reliable and relatively quiet; they’ll even idle nicely if you set up the Schebler carburetor correctly. Reading Standards are relatively rare, but not so unique as to cause friends to wonder about you if you take one out and ride it.

The first step to restoring this bike was to locate a correct engine for the 1921 frame. The engine that came with the bike (Mike says it was in boxes) was from 1917. Lonnie Isam Jr., part of the family that puts on the epic Cannonball coast-to-coast run, located a correct engine that was being sold from another collection. “It looked good, but had a bad main bearing,” Mike says, noting that Reading Standard crankshafts ran on plain bearings, unlike other manufacturers’ offerings that used ball or roller bearings. Well-known restorer Mike Lange did the machine work and the bottom end assembly, leaving Mike to do the final assembly and installation in the frame.

The headlight was missing, and the correct headlight, a Victor Doughboy, is a very rare item, yet Mike managed to find one. “I was looking at eBay and there it was,” Mike recalls. Excited at his luck finding the correct unit, Mike executed his best bidding strategy and ended up with the light, complete with a working bulb and all needed parts. A restorable taillight came with the bike, as did the Corbin speedometer and the Splitdorf generator. One feature of the R-S was its extensive (for the time) set of instruments, including an ammeter. Mike happens to be good working with sheet metal and made the toolboxes himself.

With all necessary parts located and restored, Mike put the bike together, painting it himself in his backyard under a tree. Glenn Weisgerber did the intricate pinstriping. Finally, this great piece of American history was ready for some fun. 1921 R-S’s had a kickstarter, and Mike claims it starts first kick if you follow the Starting Ritual, which involves tickling the carburetor, retarding the spark, and tightening the choke.

Out on the road, the Reading Standard surprises. “It handles really well, and if you hit a bump it will straighten right out,” Mike claims, although he notes that the brakes are, not surprisingly, not up to today’s standards. “It has a lot more power than most bikes of its time,” Mike adds. “I really enjoy riding it, not because it is this old, rare bike, but because it is just fun to ride. I also like how the bike is laid out. I like the old-style streamline design with the tank supported between the rails. It’s pleasing to the eye.”

Indeed it is. Beautiful when new and still today, Mike’s 1921 Reading Standard is a reminder of the quality and uniqueness of American motorcycles “back in the day.” MC

  • Published on Aug 8, 2017
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