Motorcycles Made in America

Crocker Motorcycle Engine

How many American motorcycle companies can you name? Everyone knows Harley Davidson and most know Indian. The more knowledgeable will list Crocker and then Excelsior and Henderson, but after those, the names usually come more slowly.

Although this may hold true in other countries as well, many enthusiasts here in the U.S. are able to cite British or Italian companies back to the early 1900s yet after the American companies named above, they’re at a loss to come up with any more. I find that odd.

Before the Internet and standard 20 and 40 foot shipping containers, building any product meant manufacturing or sourcing everything within your own country, often within a very limited region and start to finish, the product was “American” or “British” or whatever country you happened to be in. There were a great many companies over the last 100 years producing motorcycles, smaller companies and the numbers produced were often low, but there were quite a few. Unfortunately, most are long forgotten.

There are actually more motorcycle companies in the U.S. today, than you might think, with varying degrees of ties to overseas suppliers and producers. How many of these companies will remain in 10 years and what companies will spring up to take the place of those that don’t make it? How many of those will be remembered?

There were far more motorcycle companies in the U.S. over the last century than most would ever believe, maybe 100 or more. The names may ring a bell as soon as they’re mentioned, but they don’t pop up quickly on demand. Some, you may never have heard of at all.

I think we need to focus on these U.S. based companies, both current and past, to heighten awareness of the motorcycle industry, right here in the U.S. Talking about British bikes or Italian bikes is common and accepted but if someone focuses on American motorcycles you may hear some joke about engineering (usually in the guise of a sideways shot at Harley Davidson) or you might be accused of ignoring the wonders of European bikes or bikes from some other continent. Why is that?

All of the early companies, whether from here or anywhere else, deserve our respect for the simple reason they decided to build something and did. Often at great odds or motivated by a dream the founders started building motorcycles and lived their dream. It would be foolish to ignore their contributions and the bikes they built. I don’t want any of those companies to disappear from our memories and further, many of those bikes were really interesting in both design and technology which makes looking at them again enjoyable, at least if you’re a motorhead like me.

Over the coming weeks and months I’ll be covering some of the less well known names, (we certainly don’t need any more history of Harley). I’m looking forward to it and I hope you get a kick out of it, too.

Related: What Are American Motorcycles?

Comments

  1. HotRodTroy says

    If I like it, I’ll ride it. If I can afford it, I’ll buy it. That’s what riding a motorcycle is all about. If you get hung up on who’s label is on what, you’ll buy a Harley with all the gear stamped Harley.

  2. aaron says

    this is a golden era for american motorcycle manufacturers… the only problem is that the vast majority could be mistaken for a tweaked harley at a distance. even the more creative bikes (ecosse, pantera, confederate) use a motor that the layman could mistake for a harley powerplant. the boss hoss is a refined bike for what it is, but many consider it an oddity for the under-endowed. there are bits of magic out there, though – the MTT milennium superbike and the Czysz along with the fischer and others.

  3. todd says

    It’s not our fault we can’t name more than a handful of American manufacturers. I have motorcycle encyclopedia book that lists off thousands of makes; I don’t expect to remember any of them.

    If a guy builds a prototype bike using off the shelf parts and registers a business name how would I know? How is that special? It would be up to him to find me and tell me about his bike. Chances are I would not be interested and could not afford it until he sold around a few thousand units or so. I don’t want to be someone’s guinea pig. I don’t buy American bikes for the same reasons I don’t buy Chinese bikes.

    I don’t know many American “brands” because they are usually Harley clones and we don’t need more than one H-D. Maybe there is a company out there that is putting together a well-tested 450 sport thumper for $6000. If they can’t secure enough funds to put together a viable marketing scheme then they sure as heck can’t put together enough money for engineering and testing.

    Regardless, I don’t care where their headquarters are located. Just like every other manufacturer, H-D sources its bikes from all around the world.

    -todd

  4. kneeslider says

    Current companies and companies from the past are different. If a new company hasn’t done a good marketing job, there’s no reason someone should know about it. But older companies like Simplex, the “other” company from New Orleans, or Merkel or Pope or any of the other early bikes, deserve a second look.

  5. says

    Hopefully you are citing “American motorcycle companies” as “manufacturers” who produce their own engine (not 2nd or 3rd party) as part of the packaging itself. I was a big fan of the Cannondale effort awhile back — just lack of funding killed it. Ditto for the Kenny Dreer / Norton effort.

  6. says

    yeah, I was (and still am) a fan of the Cannondale effort. We will continue to see some great stuff from them, even if it remains only in bicycles.

    interesting — the bicycle cross-over 100 yrs ago is now being repeated in another form. Cannondale could add a lot to motorcycle chassis & suspension design.

  7. Steve h. says

    Yes, the early manufacturers do deserve the attention you will be giving them. Good work.
    I can only say “Thank God” for Erik Buell and Michael Czysz! Two guys who went at the bike guy’s ultimate dream from different points and have succeeded brilliantly and are very close, respectively. To look back on what Buell has done is a study in intelligent tenacity that few can match. And the effort at MotoCzysz is very nearly as impressive.
    By the way, thank you for this very good website.

  8. Steve h. says

    Also, in response to Mark Savory – the engine in the Canonndale was designed and prototyped in Sweden by Folan, suspension by Ohlins. I was briefly involved with introducing a suspension system that Mario Gallaso (Cannondale Motorcycle Manager)wanted instead. The company failed due to the expense of relocating all hardware from Sweden to Pennsylvania due to hard feelings in design esoterics, funky fuel injection and not having a complete retail function completed before the money ran out – which almost sank the bicycle company. Not a happy situation.

  9. Brian says

    Wait a minute….. There seems to be some ambiguity about what makes an American motorcycle “American”. On the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, I’m reminded how silly it sounds to hear people still complain “the Russians did it first”. But I guess it goes back to the WWII era of “Buy American, buy a Ford”.

    Things like that shouldn’t matter now. If it weren’t for Sputnik, The Kneeslider may not exist today and that would be terrible.

    Step outside the motorcycle world for a second and think in terms of cars. There’s a Honda car plant in Alabama who makes every component for the Odyssey and Pilot, including the entire V6 engine castings and all, completely in-house. All 4,500 workers were hired and trained locally. Is THAT American? Ahh, but where were the vehicles designed? Exactly. Japan. Even if they used California Art Center grads, it’s still a Japanese product, right?

    Therefore, a U.S. led company having mfg facilities overseas, or foreign suppliers, shouldn’t make it any less American. It shouldn’t matter what nationality is behind the Buell-Rotax motor. It’s a bad-ass motor, and it just makes sense. Buell is probably kicking himself for not doing it sooner. What makes it American is Erik Buell.

    There’s an inventive spirit that still exists in this country, I’m certain of it. We need to celebrate it. Like Apple. Made in China, designed in Cupertino, CA.

    I think once you make the choice that HOW and WHERE a product is made is no longer relevant, you can begin to hone in on what is at the very core of a design. And that’s how it functions, how it looks, and whether it solves the problem.

    Also, all 5 original Cannondale prototypes are currently sitting in the Barber Motorsports Museum, along with over 1000 other makes of bikes from 1901-2007. Including something as rare as a New Orleans Simplex. And if you’ve never seen a 100-year-old board-racer ridden on a modern track, go there. The Vintage fest is Oct 19-21. It’s motorcycle Mecca.

  10. olds_cool63 says

    Makes no difference to me where the bike comes from. I like what I like and ride what I ride. I tend to stay away from the “big names” anyway. But, as much as I like some Hogs, I can’t ever see myself actually ever owning one. If Victory put a much smaller engine in the Vegas 8-ball getting superior mpg’s, I’d be all over it as a daily commuter. The fact that it’s an American company has no bearing on anything for me (yeah,it’s a “big name”, but not as common as the others).

    BTW, don’t forget American Motorcycle Company, which began in 1902!