The story of Frank Westfall, who rode his 1924 Henderson Deluxe cross-country as part of the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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