1901-1903 Californian Motorcycle | Feature
Borrowing from the venerable Winston Churchill, the motorcycle seen here is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." The fact that it is cloaked in "magic" Amulet Red paint compounds matters.
While the quote from the cigar-chomping leader of Great Britain during WWII was referring to the Soviet Union, The Californian seen here also qualifies on several levels. The question is whether or not The Californian is "real." You could say the historical background for the Californian is enigmatic, in as much as there was indeed an American-made motorcycle called the California. Sold from 1901 to 1903 in San Francisco, the California was the first bike to cross the United States. Appropriately, the Californian’s designer/builder happens to be named Walt Riddle. California, Californian—a difference of a letter.
Three roads take us to the truth. One begins just a short few years ago in Winnetka, Calif., a suburb born from a huge chicken ranch and now part of the Los Angeles megalopolis. Another path is one paved in bricks and leads out of Indianapolis, Ind., circa 1911-23.
We’ll start with the third road. This one takes us to the annual El Camino College Antique Motorcycle Show and Swap Meet perched on the school’s rooftop parking lot in Torrance, Calif. Here, in October 2007, The Californian made its first public appearance, despite torrential rains. Riddle’s bike engendered a lot of interest, as well as mutterings, as the vintage bike experts stroked their beards in semi-befuddlement: "Didn’t I see it in an old Sears IAnother, clipboard in hand, scribbles and notes, "Those aren’t original 28-inch tires; they’re Coker repops."
The answer is they are both semi-right. As they rotate around the bike’s under-slung dual gas/oil tank and peer closely at the distinctive radial aircraft inspired beehive-shaped cylinders, they notice the engine carries a date of manufacture—1913. Mystery solved? Yes and no.
Riddle, we learn, happens to have spent the previous 20 years building components for Hollywood motion picture companies. He builds movie miniatures and action props—make-believe stuff you can’t tell from the real thing. Riddle is also known as a vintage Triumph guru, having restored countless 1960s Bonnevilles. He has worked on various other British bikes, including Brough Superiors and Vincents, as well as American, German, Italian, and Czech bikes—basically, whatever rolled his way. Riddle is also a very big fan of 1910-13 V-twin, belt-drive motorcycles.
The single-speed, leather belt-drive Californian is capable of 70 mph thanks to its robust Spacke powerplant.
Case in point, The Californian. As for the name choice, Riddle says, "My wife and I are native Californians, plus it had the nostalgic ring of bikes built in America a century ago." Simple economics prevented him from purchasing a quarter-million-dollar original Harley or Indian, so he decided to build his own belt-driven V-twin. However, this would not be a replica; it wouldn’t even be a clone. It would be a bike someone back in 1910-13 would have been able to build from available parts of the day, and most likely did.
The center of attention, and eventually contention, would be the engine. Riddle needed a V-twin powerplant narrow enough to be turned into a belt-drive configuration. It also had to be sparked by a magneto, rather a battery. He also needed something affordable—not quite on the A-list of classic motors, at least not until Riddle got through with it. "Then I found out about the Spacke motor (pronounced spay-kee)," he says, "and how it was used in many different motorcycles back in the early 1900s. It just made perfect sense as the ideal engine to use, because I was creating something all these other companies had been building, just a hundred years later."
The motors were sold through popular catalogs from which you could also buy frames and components and thereby construct your own machine. Several bike manufacturers of the period used Spacke engines including Dayton, Crawford, Eagle, Redman, and Sears. A Spacke-powered bike, aptly named Sears, was sold through the 1912 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.
Apparently, Spacke V-twins came in various displacements including 60 cu in and 70.62 cu in, and were considered relatively high performance for the era. While it was a "blind bore" design, with non-separable heads (aka intake over exhaust), the engine also sported some rather modern design features, including ball-bearings. However, its main oil system does need extra help from a hand plunger mounted on the gas tank. Says Riddle, "The object is to keep white smoke puffing out of it at all times, which pretty much tells you’re at an acceptable level of lubrication."It seems that Spacke engines were designed to be chain driven. However, Riddle managed to adapt it to his belt-drive purposes. "While original belts were made out of buffalo hide," he explains, "mine’s regular cowhide, as it’s not that easy to get buffalo today."
Through the grapevine Walt found, in Michigan, an original 1913 Spacke V-Twin DeLuxe of 1160cc displacement, along with an American Bosch magneto and an early Schebler carburetor. "I didn’t have to rebore the engine," Riddle says. "I did come up with larger roller big end bearings and modified the exhaust valves using truck valves. Otherwise it still runs the original iron piston and rings, intake valves, springs and crank."
As for the rest of the bike, Riddle went to a foundry in Texas that remanufactured parts for early Harley frames. There, he acquired a 1913 H-D steering head casting he would modify, as well as a top crown. He created a template for the inner frame, which a tube bender then made. Riddle fabricated, then pieced together, the jigsaw frame members, rear section and front end. He molded and wrapped things to give it a lug and tube look. "The frame pretty much dictated the shape of the gas tank," Riddle says. "As for hardware, the nuts and bolts, I just machined that stuff out of raw hex stock."
Riddle also painted the bike. Save the nickel plating, the seat cover, engine balancing and pin-striping, he handled the complete build from scratch, including the handmade, nitric acid etched "Californian" brass steering head badge and engine placard. "My favorite tool is found in my hammer drawer," Riddle reveals. His answer belies the focus, craftsmanship and ingenuity that went into the nearly five-year effort.
When inevitably asked the question, how fast does it go, Riddle smiles and says, "Well, as fast as you want it to go. While it’s a single-speed belt-tensioner drive set-up, the bike will take you to 70 mph, if you don’t mind the fact there’s only one brake and it’s on the rear wheel; basically your slightly larger bicycle coaster-type brake. But, getting there, like building the bike, is where the fun’s at."
The Spacke Shrine
The Spacke engine lineage lives on in the mind and heart of Tim Spacke—a descendant of Frederick and William, the two brothers who founded the F.W. Spacke Machine Company.
Spacke, a graphic artist by profession, and a one-man Spacke historical archive by avocation, shares his Ramona, Calif. home/Spacke Museum with his very understanding wife, and two young sons. Through his research he has learned the Spacke Company was ready to power just about anything from industrial bench grinders, to mining equipment, to automobiles, and with one apparently all-purpose engine.
Inside Spacke’s house you’ll find a veritable chapel set aside for the display of Spacke memorabilia, ads, photos, and posters. Taking center stage is a display column on top of which sits a polished 1914 V-twin Spacke DeLuxe 9 hp engine as it came out of the factory. Dramatically lit by overhead lights, it literally glows. So does Spacke as he speaks about the same engine powering the 3-wheeled cyclecar, and the ultra-rare 1920 Spacke car hunkering down in his garage. (Click image to enlarge)
"It all started on my 40th birthday/midlife crisis," Spacke says. "I had known a bit about my relatives, but at this point it got completely out of control. Now, I have literally tons of stuff—if you count the Spacke vehicles—including ads back to 1905 when the shop first opened, and the first engines showing up in 1911, designed by my cousins Frederick and William Spacke. Their goal was to offer the best engine made. And they did it."
The Spacke brothers passed away in the mid-1910s, and the company building demolished in 1956. As far as current public awareness, the Spacke was eclipsed by Indian and Harley. "Maybe we’ll change all that and solve some of the mysteries surrounding the company," Spake hopes. "I’ve got five years into this and I’m just beginning to discover all the facts."