Riding Into History on a 1917 Henderson Motorcycle

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Photo by Neale Bayly
Wheels Through Time Museum's Dale Walksler makes a point of giving the Henderson a regular workout.

1917 Henderson motorcycle

Total production: 1,000 (est., standard Model G)
Engine type: 4-stroke, in-line four-cylinder, inlet- over-exhaust L-head
Displacement: 60.40ci (1000cc)
Bore and stroke: 2-17/32 x 3in
Claimed power: 12hp
Top speed: 78mph
Weight: 295lb dry
Price then: $325
Price now: $35,000-$50,000 (standard Model G)

The snapshot Scotch taped into the black, plastic photograph holder shows a lonely, wet road stretching away into the distance, before disappearing into a rain-filled sky. Center frame, a lone rider in brightly colored raingear is crouched forward on an old motorcycle, riding toward the horizon with an apparent sense of urgency. The photo has been taken through the windshield of a car. A small dot in an obscure American landscape, the pictured motorcycle is the subject of a fascinating adventure that began nearly a century ago.

The year is 1917, and a young American road racer by the name of Alan T. Bedell, affectionately known as “the stalwart Californian,” sits astride a 4-cylinder Henderson motorcycle in Los Angeles, Calif. As the hands of the clock make their way toward 11 p.m. Bedell waits in quiet contemplation of the journey that lies ahead. With the media describing it as “the most spectacular long distance motorcycle dash the world has ever known,” Bedell is ready to make history as he attempts to break the current transcontinental record — a record held by living legend Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. Ahead of him are 3,296 miles of hard, unsupported riding across America. It’s a ride he predicts will take him nine days.

An eager crowd is on hand to wave him off, even if the folks back east are scornful of his attempts to wrest the record from the invincible Baker. “Where’d he dream that dope?” one newspaper reads, but Bedell is undeterred and roars out into the night. Seven days, 16 hours and 16 minutes after his departure, Bedell rides triumphantly into New York to claim his record. “Dust covered, with the grime of 12 states on it, the machine looked and sounded as fit as its rider for another battle against father time,” a newspaper quips.

The Henderson had made it: It suffered just one flat tire, went through three sets of Champion spark plugs and used three Duckworth chains. Bedell suffered just one crash, which somewhat damaged his knee, on a wet road in Indianapolis and averaged 17.89mph. Using the stock 3.5gal gas tank, Bedell’s only changes to the machine were the addition of a Mesinger air cushion saddle and a Carlton generator to power the original Coffman spotlight.

Unfortunately, the young Californian was not to make or break many more records, as tragically his young life ended a short time later when he fell victim to the influenza epidemic of the First World War. Alan T. Bedell was just 19 years old.

Enter Maldwyn Jones

And that might have been the end of the story, had it not been for an amazing series of coincidences. In Ohio, on the seventh day of Bedell’s ride, he was joined by another young racer of the day, Maldwyn Jones. Shortly after Bedell’s record-breaking trip, his young peer was preparing for a record of his own.

“I believe it was in 1917 that I got the rather foolish idea that I’d like to try for the 24 hour record, then held by ‘Bake’ on an old Indian,” Jones told one interviewer. Jones chose a 1917 Henderson motorcycle, similar to the machine ridden by Bedell, and a 2-mile board track in Cincinnati, Ohio, to make his bid for the record books.

The Henderson motorcycle was suitably modified with a Schebler carburetor, a special side-draft intake manifold and a 5gal gas tank that featured a quick-fill cap. These modifications gave him more power and promised greater distances between fuel stops. Next, all the control levers were shortened, and an extra foot peg was added so Jones could lie down and make himself as small as possible to the oncoming wind.

Unfortunately, lady luck was not on his side. During the night, as Jones blasted around the wooden 2-mile board track, someone moved one of the spotlights, thinking it would help Jones navigate more easily. The move caused Jones to miss his line and crash heavily on the rough wooden boards, nearly destroying the Henderson in the process. Thankfully, Jones was not badly injured, and he went on to live a long and fruitful life, passing away at the grand old age of 96 in 1987: He was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame in 1998 for his achievements and commitment to motorcycling.

Picking up the pieces

Maldwyn Jones’ 1917 24-hour endurance race Henderson motorcycle was badly damaged, but not destroyed, and it is not clear what happened to it after the failed record attempt. What is known is that Dale Walksler found the bike in 1993 in good, unrestored condition, having been laid up in storage for many decades. Walksler sent the neglected Henderson to restoration expert Steve Huntzinger in California, where it spent the next 18 months undergoing a thorough rebuild.

Getting inside the engine, Huntzinger found the Henderson’s bottom end was supported by three regular bushings coated in Babbitt. Using technology found in old racing airplanes, Huntzinger triple align-bored the cases, replacing the bearing inserts and coating them with 0.010in of Babbitt. The crankshaft was balanced, and the original connecting rod bolts were replaced with stronger, modern items. Huntzinger also discovered the crankcase was warped, so it also underwent repair.

Back in 1917, the 60.40ci (1000cc) Henderson didn’t have an oil pump and only held one quart of oil, so Huntzinger upgraded the system by chamfering the rods to enhance the oil splash while channeling oil to them. On the top end, Huntzinger bored out the cylinders and installed a new set of aluminum pistons made by JE Pistons. These feature friction-proofed skirts, heat dispersing ceramic tops and use two compression rings with a three-piece oil ring. The originals were cast iron and used two rings. Huntzsinger opted for stainless-steel valves, and he added a third bushing in the center of the camshaft for extra support.

1917 was the first year Henderson used a three-speed transmission, and Huntzinger made sure the gearbox was as well treated as the rest of the engine, fabricating and installing new bushings and bearings. To guarantee all the power from the rebuilt engine made it to the gearbox he also added new clutch plates. Before the bike was re-assembled the frame was straightened, and replacement rocker studs were installed in the forks before the forks were shipped out to be painted Henderson blue.

As the restoration proceeded, Walksler started making plans to enter the bike in the Great American Race, with racing legend Wayne Stansfield pegged for the ride. To this end, a six-inch drum brake was sourced and laced into a set of new clincher rims. These were then fitted with modern Avon Gripster tires to keep the rims off the ground. The replacement rims were chosen out of necessity, as the originals had a bad safety record in the event of a blow out, the tire usually leaving the rim.

As the Henderson was going to be ridden on public roads, Walksler had a modern 12-volt battery mounted, although with no charging system it would need replaced at regular intervals during the planned ride. Next, a modern headlight bulb was wired into the original carbide lamp and a taillight added.

It was during this period, and after studying old motorcycle magazines, that Walksler became aware of Bedell’s transcontinental record. Reading those magazines, Walksler learned that the 80th anniversary of Bedell’s cross-country trip was approaching, and when the Walksler/Stansfield entry into the Great American Race was denied, Walksler realized he had a new opportunity. Knowing the motorcycle they were restoring was the original Maldwyn Jones 24 hour racer, Walksler changed plans and shifted his efforts.

Cross-country run

Departing Los Angeles on June 5, 1997, exactly 80 years to the day of Bedell’s departure, Walksler headed out to break Bedell’s record. Following in the famous racer’s tracks, Walksler did his best to keep to the original route. That wasn’t always possible, as modern roads and bridges now span the rivers Bedell had crossed in small boats.

Covering the distance in six days, one hour and 22 minutes, Walksler rode into New York where he was received by a large crowd for an appearance on the Today Show with Al Roker. “I kept thinking to myself the whole time, ‘how did he do it?’ It’s just unbelievable,” Walksler told Roker. Walksler had finally broken the record.

The ride itself passed without too much drama, and taking some advice from Bedell’s notes Walksler wore corduroy pants for long distance comfort. He also used a bit of modern technology to help his rear end with the addition of a modern gel seat. Over the six days he suffered one blow out, but as testament to Huntzinger’s work on the 80-year-old Henderson, not a single mechanical problem.

The ride was not without extended benefits. Walksler billed the ride as the Heritage Challenge, and through mileage pledges he raised $35,000 in support of American Dirt Track Racing. He also raised a great deal of awareness in vintage motorcycles.

The incredible 1917 Henderson currently resides at Walksler’s Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, N.C., where it is regularly ridden. I am sure Maldwyn Jones and Alan Bedell are both smiling. MC

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