Riding Into History on a 1917 Henderson Motorcycle

Dale Walksler traces the route that Alan T. Bedell took from Los Angeles to New York aboard his 1917 Special Model G Henderson motorcycle.

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

  • 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.

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