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The Henderson Deluxe Endurance Run

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Last September, Frank Westfall completed his fourth cross-country trip on a Henderson Four, a motorcycle most people wouldn’t consider taking for a weekend ride, let alone a multi-thousand mile trek.
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The Henderson company ceased operation in 1931, not quite 20 years after its first model hit the road in 1912.
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Frank and his fellow enthusiasts have proved that careful preparation of an 80-plus-year-old motorcycle can enable it to survive a coast-to-coast run.
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The left lever is the shifter, while the right lever is a redundant clutch lever.
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In 1998, Frank was back for the second Great Race, this time starting in Seattle and ending in Boston. He built a Henderson special for this event, shoehorning a 1928 engine in a 1924 “long tank” frame.
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The sprung seat, combined with a good lambskin cover, keeps things comfortable.
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“The tortoise beats the hare on an endurance run,” Frank continues. “I told Mark I wanted my motor stock — no hot rodding. I wanted dependability. A lot of the engines on the trip were over-engineered for power."
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Owner Frank Westfall aboard his Cannonball-survivng 1924 Henderson Deluxe.
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1928 Henderson forks run drop-center rims for safety.
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The sidevalve four puts out 28 horsepower.
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Mark Hill rebuilt the engine to stock specifications before the 2012 Cannonball.
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Frank’s routine during the 2012 Cannonball was to get up, ride the course, pull into the evening stop, trade a few stories with fellow riders, and start wrenching.
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The Henderson still runs its original 6 volt electrical system, but with modern bulbs, wire and switches.

1924 Henderson Deluxe
Claimed power:
 28hp @ 3,400rpm (factory)
Top speed: 80mph (stock, guaranteed by the factory)
Engine: 79.4ci (1,302cc) air-cooled sidevalve inline four, 2-1/16in x 3-1/2in bore and stroke
Weight: 400lb (wet, per owner)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 6gal (22.7ltr)/20-30mpg

Last September, Frank Westfall completed his fourth
cross-country trip on a Henderson Four, a motorcycle most people wouldn’t consider
taking for a weekend ride, let alone a multi-thousand mile trek. Accepting the
prize for finishing first in his class in the 2012 Cannonball, Frank announced,
“I will do it again — any time, any place.”
 

Frank’s got some
history in this kind of riding. His first long distance Henderson
adventure was the 1996 Great Race, from Tacoma, Wash., to Toronto,
Ontario, Canada.
That event, which was mostly for antique cars, saw Frank riding one of the few
motorcycles, a 1928 Henderson.
“I finished, back of the pack,” he remembers.

The Great Race was a
challenge and a learning experience. “We were competing on both distance and
time, with undisclosed checkpoints. I realized that I was losing time on gas
stops and I needed a bigger gas tank,” Frank says. And it didn’t help that the
weather didn’t cooperate. “When we left Coeur d’Alene
[Idaho], it
was 39 degrees and raining. It turned to wet, heavy snow before we reached Lookout Pass. I was doing 70mph and was talking
to everyone I knew who was dead, ‘Get me through this day! I promise to be a
good boy.’ The sun came out, and shortly afterwards I sheered the splines on my
clutch plate. We drove to St. Louis
to fix my clutch; I had it back together before midnight and I rejoined the
race the next day. With the pressure off — there was no way I could win after
the breakdown — I actually ran better scores.”

In 1998, Frank was
back for the second Great Race, this time starting in Seattle
and ending in Boston.
He built a Henderson
special for this event, shoehorning a 1928 engine in a 1924 “long tank” frame.
The long tank frame enabled him to install a 6-gallon gas tank, and he also
installed a disc brake for added stopping power, something of a necessity since
he was doing this run with Peg Barber on the back as navigator.

“During the 1998
run, I did an overnight motor job in my hotel in Steamboat Springs, Colo.,”
Frank remembers. “The next morning, there was snow up to my shoulders alongside
the road — it was June. There was hail the size of golf balls, wind and snow.
The wind pushed the bike sideways on the ice coming down the eastern side of
the pass. I made it to Denver, then Kansas. It was 33
degrees, pouring rain turning to snow. Two hundred miles at 50mph for four
hours on I-70. The bike was sometimes running on three or even two cylinders. I
wanted to quit that day. Howard Sharp, driving a 1911 open touring car, came up
to me. ‘Remember Tony Curtis and the boys in The Great Race?’ I snapped
to attention.”

Unfortunately, the
weather cooperated even less than it had during the 1996 event, and the Henderson broke down 50
miles short of the finish line after hydroplaning on the freeway during yet
another rainstorm. “I threw in the towel,” Frank says.

Twelve years later,
Frank was ready to go again. This time, the event was the 2010 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, a two-week event for pre-1916 motorcycles starting in
North Carolina and ending in Southern
California.

Frank’s mount was a
single-speed 1915 Henderson.
He ran it off the road in Arkansas
but escaped with cuts and bruises and was back riding shortly afterward. Frank
finished the run, but his accident dropped him to 21st place out of 45 bikes.

It’s all in the prep 

The Henderson company ceased
operation in 1931, not quite 20 years after its first model hit the road in
1912. Its surviving products, while not especially rare, are prized antiques.
And while most people would expect Hendersons to
be museum display pieces, Frank and some fellow Henderson enthusiasts ride these old machines
on all sorts of roads through all sorts of weather.

Frank’s latest
adventure started Sept. 7, 2012, when he, 14 other Henderson
riders and 54 riders of other pre-1930 marques lined up in Newburgh, N.Y.,
for the start of the second Motorcycle Cannonball. Two weeks later, Frank,
riding his 1924 Deluxe, was one of seven Hendersons
that crossed the finish line in San
Francisco with a perfect score, having completed all
3,956 miles of the coast-to-coast run.

In the process of
this lunacy, Frank and his fellow enthusiasts have proved that careful
preparation of an 80-plus-year-old motorcycle can enable it to survive a
coast-to-coast run, especially if the bike was intended for long distance
travel in the first place.

Hendersons set long distance records before there was
even an interstate highway system, so they are a natural choice for intrepid
old-bike enthusiasts intending to head out on the highway with their antique
iron. Other old bikes that have done well on long distance runs are Model JD
Harleys, Excelsior twins, Indian twins and BMWs.

Frank is quick to
point out that careful preparation of the rider is as important as overhaul of
the machine. The original long distance record breakers, including Erwin
“Cannonball” Baker (the Cannonball Run is named in his honor), Alan Bedell, Roy
Artley and Wells Bennett, were young men in excellent shape. 

“Riders have to hold
up to the abuse of long days aboard a constantly vibrating machine,” Frank
says. “It might not seem like much of a problem if you ride for a few hours.
But it’s like taking an egg and holding it in your hand and shaking it and
shaking it, hour after hour, for days. How long is that egg going to hold up?” 

Beginnings of Frank’s Deluxe 

Frank found his 1924
Deluxe around 1990. With several bikes in his collection it mostly sat unrestored,
but after deciding to ride the 2012 Cannonball, Frank went through his bikes
and picked this Deluxe.

He wanted to run a
pre-1925 Henderson
for the event because of the longer space for the tank on pre-1925 Deluxe
frames. The extra space would allow him to run a 6-gallon gas tank, but the
machine needed a complete rebuild.

Frank sent the
engine off to Henderson engine guru Mark Hill
(“He does top notch motor work,” Frank says), who was organizing a group of Henderson enthusiasts to
take part in the 2012 Cannonball. Mark found that Frank’s Deluxe was in
excellent shape, barely broken in, with at most 500-1,000 miles on it. “I put
more miles on this bike during the run than it had on it when I bought it,”
Frank says.

“The tortoise beats
the hare on an endurance run,” Frank continues. “I told Mark I wanted my motor
stock — no hot rodding. I wanted dependability. A lot of the engines on the
trip were over-engineered for power. The Deluxes fared better than the KJs [the
next generation Henderson
engine] because people over-engineered the KJs. The lower end and bearings were
not designed for making that much horsepower.”

Pat Murphy painted
the sheet metal, and when the engine came back from Hill, Frank put the machine
together himself in Murphy’s garage. “I have to know my bike,” Frank says.

Frank also improved
the electrics and replaced the original front end with one from a 1928 Henderson.

Prior to 1928, no
American motorcycle had a front brake. The perception of many riders was that
front brakes would be dangerous. Considering that  most roads outside of major cities were dirt
(or mud during rainy spells), this perception had some basis in reality.

Yet by 1928, roads
had improved enough (and motorcycle speeds had increased enough) to mandate a
front brake. Interestingly, the three major American motorcycle brands came out
with front brakes at the same time.  

“Updating” the forks 

Replacing the
original front end with 1928 forks allowed Frank to run Henderson
drop-center rims and Avon tires. “Clincher
tires, like on the 1924 original, are dangerous — they can come off the rims if
you get a puncture. Avon 4 x 19in tires are
the best — the soft compound gets you through snow and ice. They have really
good traction. Most of the Henderson
guys were running drop-centers, except for one German guy [Andreas Kaindl] who
was running clinchers. He came in second in class,” Frank says.

Electric lights had
been available less than 10 years before the Deluxe was designed. Its 6 volt
electrics were as bright as anything then on the market, but modern wire, bulbs
and switches add reliability and brightness. The Cannonball event did not
expect riders to operate their machinery after dark, but Frank says it’s always
best to be prepared for emergencies and bad weather. The final modification
Frank made was to swap the stock carburetor for a more efficient and tuneable
Linkert M16 WL sidedraft from a 1922 Henderson
flat tracker.

Daily maintenance 

Like all the bikes
on the 2012 Cannonball, the Deluxe had a rigid rear end. Early attempts at rear
suspension had not gone well, and many motorcyclists believed that rear
suspension (such as used on the Indian Powerplus) broke drive chains. Others
thought that bikes with rigid rears handled better than bikes with rear
suspension.

Work on the Henderson did not end
with the start of the run. Old bikes do not stay together without constant
maintenance. Frank’s routine during the 2012 Cannonball was to get up, ride the
course, pull into the evening stop, trade a few stories with fellow riders and
start wrenching.

“I changed the oil
every day. It’s cheap insurance,” Frank says. “I used Spectro 50 weight.
There’s a recycling pickup on the inside of the case, which allows you to check
for engine wear.” Frank explains that it is important to check for shavings and
chunks of metal in the oil. “I checked every day, but I never saw anything.
This trip was one of the few times everything was running very smooth.”

Frank also checked
all eight valves and went over the bike checking for loose bolts before he
would allow himself a well-deserved dinner and some rest.

“These old engines
do not have the best lubrication system, and it is important to keep the engine
as cool as possible.” Frank checked the spark plugs every time he gassed up to
make sure the engine was not running too lean, especially at high altitudes. “I
wanted a nice happy medium for the bike,” he says.

Thanks to a good
initial build and daily maintenance, Frank had very few problems on the
Cannonball. Of the problems he did have, one was caused by a slow-speed
tip-over in Yellowstone. “I was making a right
turn and caught my foot between the tank and the wheelbarrow-long handlebars. I
thought, ‘Over I go!’ There was no damage except I pinched the gasket on the sidedraft
carburetor. I had to remove the carburetor, turn the gasket around and apply
lots of gasket sealant.”

The other problem
Frank experienced was a broken drive chain. “Luckily, one of the chase guys had
a half master link. I made it to the lunch stop at a Harley dealer and bought a
new chain.” The Harley chain was the subject of some ribbing at that night’s
stop, since the Harley riders and the Henderson riders had a friendly rivalry
going.

So why ride long
distances on ancient American motorcycles? “What a way to see America!” Frank
says enthusiastically. “Life is about adventure. Why do you climb the mountain?
Because it’s there. It’s fun, and the camaraderie is fantastic — the people you
meet are so grand. You are going to school — learning about yourself and your
machine. You run into different variables — weather, terrain and the physical
endurance of body and machine. After a while, I was running by the sound of my
machine. It’s a steep learning curve, but it gets better and better.” MC 

Published on Apr 8, 2013

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