Art Deco was an innovative and distinctive style of design that spanned the boom times of the Roaring Twenties and the bust of the Depression-ridden 1930s. It was the style of the flapper girl and the office typist, of the factory worker and daredevil car driver.
Art Deco was avant-garde. It celebrated the newly mechanized modern world, yet embraced everthing from everyday manufactured products to exclusive works of art. It was everywhere, from cinemas to skyscrapers, from luxury ocean liners to exotic automobiles — and, yes, to some motorcycles, too.
What is arguably the most resolutely Art Deco motorcycle ever built emerged in the United States in 1935 as the one-off creation of a Michigan-based metalsmith employed at the Oldsmobile car factory. The bike was based on his 1,300cc 4-cylinder 1930 Henderson KJ Streamline model. His name was O. Ray Courtney (the O was for Orley, which he preferred to ignore), and though little is known of him, he built a handful of completely innovative custom motorcycles during his life, their style evoking the idyllic sense of optimism prevalent in the early 1950s, of a nation basking in the contentment of the postwar era.
Ray Courtney rode his first motorcycle in 1908 at the age of 13, and acquired his first proper bike — a 1916 3-speed Excelsior V-twin — before joining the Army Air Corps to fight in the First World War. On his return home as a young man, he found work at Central Manufacturing in Connersville, Indiana, making body panels and fenders for luxury cars such as Duesenbergs. Later he moved to Lansing, Michigan, where he worked for the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors. He spent his life shaping metal for the prototypes coming out of these firms’ design departments, in the process acquiring a feel for the forms and styling that he’d try to adapt to two wheels. While working with metal was his forte, he also worked the drawing board pencil, making a significant contribution to the body design of the 1933 Oldsmobile F-33, today a highly collectible automobile.