Yale Motorcycles 1902-1915

Troy C. Marks of Toledo, Ohio founded the California Motor Company in San Francisco. The first moto bicycle they produced was in 1896 – it was the very first moto bicycle produced in the United States. The machine took its inspiration directly from the engine and mechanics of the French-made DeDion Bouton.

The California was one of the first motorcycles to be imported into Japan. Along with the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, Thomas Auto-Bi, and Mitchell, it was influential in establishing the Japanese Motor Industry.

The evolution of the Yale motorcycle is complicated. California, Snell-California, and Yale-California marques were marketed in turn before the motorcycle name settled down to “Yale.” The California motorcycle was built by the California Motor Company of San Francisco in 1902 and 1903. A 1902 press release noted a California racer winning a race on November 2 three-mile race in San Jose with a time of four minutes and 47 seconds. The racer was built to special order only, but regular 1903 models were ready for shipment. On July 6, 1903, George Wyman on either a Shell-California or a Yale-California completed the first transcontinental motorcycle ride in the time of 51 days. This was three weeks before the first automobile motored across America.

From 1898 until 1903, a Toledo, (Ohio) firm was known as the Kirk Manufacturing Company. The Snell Cycle Fittings Company was located at the same address. This company, or these companies, bought out the California Motor Company.

For 1904, two marques were offered by the Consolidated Manufacturing Company, successor to the Kirk Manufacturing Company. These two marques were the Snell-California and the Yale-California, and both were built at the so-called Kirk factory in Toledo. The Snell and Yale models were identical except for the name, in fact the samp photo was used in the sales literature for each marque. The reason for the two names was that the company had successful bicycle lines branded as Snell and Yale, and many if not most motorcycle sales in the infant industry were through existing bicycle agencies.

In 1905, the Snell-California name was dropped in favor of the Yale-California label. In either 1905 or 1906, the motor was changed to outside-flywheel construction. The 1906 model was said to embody all of the previous popular features while adding power and speed. The bike weighed 110 pounds and had a 17.8 ci (292 cc) F-head engine with a 2 ¾ inch bore and 3 inch stroke. The single-speed Yale transmitted power to the rear wheel by a three-ply stitched special tanned endless belt made scant and stretched to length. Speeds as high as 50 mph were claimed with a fuel range of 100 miles. From 1906 through 1908, the company used the Yale-California name in the sales catalog, but the motorcycle pictures showed that only “Yale” was lettered on the tanks.

In 1908, now known as Yale, the marque won the important Chicago Motorcycle Club endurance contest at an average speed of 20 mph over a 600 mile course. Yales continued with some success in locally sponsored endurance runs up until World War I, but the company never supported the premier race events. The 1909 Yales were the first of the marque to use inside flywheels, and the first with bullet nosed cylindrical tanks instead of slab-sided tanks. They were single-cylinder machines producing 3 ½ hp.

During the 1910 season, there were early-1910 and late-1910 models. The early models had a downward sloping top frame tube immediately behind the steering head. Although this gave the desired low center of gravity and stylish appearance, repeated frame failures caused Yale to change the late-1910 models to the horizontal top frame tube used prior to 1910.

The Yale became one of the more successful of the early independent motorcycle manufacturers, the main factor being that the company was better capitalized than most other bike builders of the day. Yale motorcycles were branded as the “gentleman’s machine”, available in a classy grey hue, and polished nickel. Fuel was carried in the distinctive cylinder slung under the top frame member, while the large canister set astride the handlebar contained acetylene for powering the headlamp designed to light the way on a dark night’s ride. Starting was via pedaling with the rear wheel up on its centerstand, while belt-drive propelled the bike. The “4P”emblazoned on the gas tank along with the Yale logo stood for the rated horsepower, sufficient for a well-mannered 45 mph.

During 1911, Yale sold excess production to the Pratt and American motorcycle companies, which rebranded the motorcycles. Today, the Yale is best known for the unusual horizontal cooling fins on the V-twin models, a feature which debuted on the 1912 models. In mid-1912, Yale brought out their first chain drive. From 1912 through 1914, the Yale company ran full-page ads, and sometimes two-page ads on facing pages, in the Saturday Evening Post. The Post was one of the nation’s most popular general interest magazines, so Yale was paying dearly for this publicity.

The 1913 Yales had more attractive tanks, similar in appearance to Indian tanks. For 1914, the belt drive option was dropped. A new option for 1914 was the two-speed planetary gear. Also new for 1914 was the longer front fender that extended forward to the one-o’clock position. The new front fender had deeper valances, and on each side was an additional fender brace near the front of the fender. The last Yales were the 1915 models, which for the first time offered the convenience of a kickstarter.

During 1915, the factory began to produce munitions (shrapnel). The opportunity for quicker profits in war-related work, and the disappointing response to the Yale’s national advertising program in leading magazines, convinced the Consolidated Manufacturing Company it was time to stop motorcycle production.

Several Yale motorcycles and at least one California motorcycle still survive.

Information adapted from several internet resources as well as from the Illustrated Antique American Motorcycle Buyer’s Guide by Jerry Hatfield.