1917 Excelsior

The Excelsior was built by the Excelsior Motor Manufacturing and Supply Company of Chicago, Illinois. This Excelsior company was founded in 1907, and in 1911 the company came under control of Ignaz Schwinn, the bicycle maker. The earliest factory location was 233-235-237-Randolph Street, and this site was used as late as 1910. The factory was moved then to 2246 Union Avenue, where operations remained until late 1914. Finally, a huge new factory was built in late 1914 at 3703 Cortland Street.

The addresses distinguish this famous company for the obscure “Excelsior Cycle Company” of 166 N. Sangamon Street in Chicago, makers of the De Luxe motorcycle and the De Luxe clones marked under different labels such as the Crawford, Daytona, Eagle, and Sears. Likewise, the American made Excelsior had no connection with the English made motorcycle of the same name.

In 1907, after two years of design and development, America’s Excelsior was first put on the market by the Excelsior Supply Company of Chicago. The first Excelsior was powered by a single cylinder F-head engine and the drive was by flat belt. The crankcase formed a part of the frame. All fittings were drop forged and the frame was very strong. The front fork was the leading link parallelogram style, like Harley-Davidson’s. Finish was French gray with red tank panels.

In 1911, the company added a 71 ci (1000 cc) V-twin, which like the single was a single-speed machine. The two-model range was continued to 1912, but for 1913 only the V-twin was retained. The 1913 V-twin had all-chain drive. The big changes for 1914 were a two-speed planetary transmission and a leaf spring front fork like the Indian’s. Another 1914 innovation was the new lightweight two-stroke single cylinder 15 ci (250cc) model. The Lightweight model was a single-speeder with power transmitted through a notched flat belt.

The 1914 61 ci (1000 cc) Model 7-C was a single-speed machine. The clutch was mounted on the engine drive shaft and was controlled by the left handgrip. A small tankside lever operated the magneto ignition timing. Powered by the same motor was the Model 7 T.S.;a two-speed chain drive.

For 1915, Excelsior offered a three-speed countershaft sliding gear transmission, the same year Harley-Davidson and Indian brought out their first three-speeders. The big Excelsior benefited from a new and more attractive rounded fuel tank. Moreover, the top frame tube and tank top were gracefully curved downward toward the saddle, whereas previous models had a horizontal top frame tube and tank top. The 1915 Excelsior twins were the first American motorcycles with this styling feature. The Lightweight model received a two-speed transmission for 1915. Also in the 1915 catalog was the new “Big Valve” racer, which featured inlet and exhaust valves measuring a whopping 2 ⅛ inches in diameter, compared to standard valves at 1 ¾ inches. The two basic road models continued in 1916 without major changes.

The 1917 big twin got new valanced fenders. The Lightweight model was not included in the 1917 lineup. The Excelsior company purchased the four-cylinder Henderson rights and production materials during the year. The 1917 lineup was duplicated in 1918 and 1919 without significant changes. All Excelsiors from 1917 through 1919 were finished in military olive. This color is commonly referred to as olive drab, but the finish was typically shiny instead of dull as the term “drab” might imply.

For the 1920 season, Excelsior changed from olive drab to a dark blue finish, the same used on the Henderson four. The Excelsior was given a new trailing link front fork, the same as the Henderson’s. Beginning in 1921, a 74 ci twin was offered in addition to the 61 ci twin. At this time, Excelsior production was severely reduced to increase Henderson production, and this imbalance continued through 1925, the rest of the Excelsior big twin’s life.

Excelsior Racing

In 1911, the Excelsior company mounted the first serious challenge to Indian racing supremacy. Early in the year, Excelsior rider Joe Wolters was practically unbeatable on the Chicago boardtrack, turning speeds in the high 80 miles per hour range. This forced Indian top engineer Oscar Hedstrom to the drawing board, where he created the design of the Indian eight-valve overheads. An unofficial world record was registered by Excelsior rider Jake DeRosier, when he did the kilometer at the rate of 94 ⅕ mph.

In December 1912, Lee Humiston rode an Excelsior in the first sanctioned 100 mph motorcycle speed run at the oceanside Playa del Rey boardtrack near Los Angeles. During this outing, Humiston set new American records for the fastest one-mile, two-miles, and on up through 100 miles! This was a big blow to Indian, which previously dominated the record books. In fact, just one year before, Indian owned all 121 American speed and distance records.

The most prestigious race of 1913 was the 300 mile national championship road race in Savannah, Georgia, won by Excelsior’s Bob Perry. Later, review of the race charts showed Merkel’s Maldwyn Jones should have been the winner. However, Excelsior reaped the benefits of fast advertising and the official victory, which could not be changed in Merkel’s favor since the allowed one-hour protest interval had passed.

During 1914, Excelsior F-head racing twins proved the equal of the Indian eight-valve overhead-valve twins in numerous races from coast to coast. Bob Perry and Carl Goudy were among the most successful Excelsior riders. The biggest race of 1914 was the inaugural Dodge City 300, where Excelsior finished a disappointing third. But, two weeks later, Excelsiors won all three national championships decided at the big St. Louis race meet.

The following year, Excelsior, which seemed to be one year behind Harley-Davidson and Indian in racing development, captured only one national title. Repeatedly, Excelsiors finished major races at speeds higher than the previous year’s winner, only to see Harley-Davidson and Indian machines run even faster.

World War II halted national championship racing for awhile, and after the war Excelsior didn’t regain interest in an all out factory financed battle against Harley-Davidson and Indian. From 1917 through 1921, Excelsior glory was effectively confined to one outstanding rider, Wells Bennett. Bennett set a number of long distance intercity road records in California, and from Los Angeles to Needles, Arizona. He also set two “Three Flag” records from Canada through California to Mexico, his best outing for the 1655-mile trip being a 32 mph pace--not bad for a route that was 95 percent unpaved.

The year 1921 yielded only more frustration for Excelsior. At the Dodge City 300, Wells Bennett ran faster than the eventual Harley-Davidson winner, but was sidelined late in the race when his Excelsior suffered a broken inlet rocker arm. Paul Anderson got good publicity for Excelsior when he rode his single cylinder racer through a so-called barrier by turning two consecutive laps on a half-mile track in a total time of one minute--the first 80 mph laps on a half-mile track.

Excelsior engineer, Arthur Lemon, designed a new ‘M’ series cylinder in 1922. The cylinder featured an air space between the valve pocket and the main cylinder section. For 1922, only two Excelsior riders, Paul Anderson and Maldwyn Jones, ran the half-mile tracks of the Midwest. Their racing proved an effective laboratory for Arthur Lemon, whose ultimate goal was hillclimbing championships.

Hillclimbing had risen in stature and popularity and ultimately gained equal status to racing. An Excelsior with “M” cylinders won the nationally publicized San Juan Capistrano hillclimb of 1923. Three factory sponsored Excelsior riders competed in the 1924 Capistrano hillclimb, including Bennett, and each won their targeted event, bringing the Chicago factory the 61 ci, 74 ci, and 80 ci victories.

The stock Excelsior big twins were out of production by 1925 and were superseded by the new mid-sized 45 ci (750 cc) Super-X. At the Laurel boardtrack speedway, Red Wolverton rode a Super-X to unofficial 45 ci records of one mile at 95 mph, five miles at 92.68 mph, and ten miles at 91.05 mph.

In 1926, Excelsior racer, Joe Petrali, set all-time 45 ci class boardtrack records on the Altoona (Pennsylvania) Speedway. The best of these was a one-mile record of 107.65 mph, followed by five miles at 103.60 mph, and ten miles at 100.50 mph. The records were never challenged because boardtracks were being closed. In 1931, the Altoona track shut down and boardtrack motorcycle racing was history.

In the spring of 1931, Mr. Schwinn stopped all Excelsior motorcycle production.

Adapted from The Illustrated Antique American Motorcycle Buyers Guide by Jerry Hatfield