Motorcycle History Revealed
It is safe to assume that America’s first motorcycle race was organized not long after the second American motorcycle was built and sold. The competitive instinct is strong, and self-powered machines were, and are, ideal vehicles (no pun intended) for it.
Particularly for those riding on two wheels, racing around dirt bullrings and, later, splintery board tracks, provided a wonderful opportunity to indulge in the dual urges to go fast and outpace the competition—and to take serious risks, as well.
This view from the boards highlights the graceful curves and purposeful minimalism of the Cyclone racebike. (Click image to enlarge)
Such events gave speed-demons on the spindly creations of the day ample opportunity to do major damage to themselves and, sometimes, others. Safety equipment was nonexistent; caps were the preferred headgear, leathers were uncommon, and photographs from early 20th-century races often show riders wearing everyday shoes.
If these spectacles were difficult and dangerous for riders, one can easily imagine that they were equally rough on the motorcycles. Of the thousands of bikes that ran in races prior to World War I, a relative handful remain with much original hardware intact. Between the beatings they took in competition and the natural inclination of racers to discard the bikes when newer, faster machines came along, the attrition rate was high.
More survivors generally equate to more attention; serious collectors and enthusiasts know of others—Thor and Excelsior among them—and pursue such surviving examples. But, long after the last dust clouds from those early races settled and the last oil fumes dissipated, old-timers and modern enthusiasts alike speak lovingly of one motorcycle. Despite a brief three-year production run begun in 1912, the Cyclone, in its trademark yellow paint, is remembered as the epitome of the breed. During its short life, it was considered the fastest thing on two wheels.
Built for speed, the Cyclone was capable of completing a mile circuit in less time than a horseless carriage or flying machine. (Click image to enlarge)
The accolades are almost certainly not a result of the Cyclone frame. It was utterly conventional; essentially a beefed-up bicycle using the same U-shaped tubular engine carrier—called a "possum-belly" frame by some veteran racers—one would find on virtually all other makes. Little design effort was expended on what already worked; such features as bicycle-style pedals and unpadded leather saddles were as common as engines with 61 cu in displacements.
What set the Cyclone apart was designer Andrew Strand’s attempt to create a truly modern powerplant. In a few respects, it adhered to the norms of its day, but with some unexpected design features that added complexity in a search for increased power. The basic construction—detachable cylider heads on steel barrels, attached to an aluminum crankcase—was strictly state-of-the-art 96 years ago. But, instead of actuating the valves in the traditional way via a crankcase-mounted camshaft, pushrods, and rocker arms, Strand opted for an overhead cam for each cylinder, driven by long vertical shafts turned by bevel gears.
One of the benefits of this more efficient layout was that the valves could be set at an angle (in this case, 75 degrees) from vertical, creating hemispherical combustion chambers. The Cyclone design interposed what were called "stirrups" between cam and valves. These yoke-shaped pieces eliminated the natural side-thrust from cams acting on the valves, reducing both friction and valve-guide wear. In place of the normal poured Babbitt metal bearings, Strand specified high-quality SKF roller and ball bearings throughout the engine. Casting and machining were of superb quality and production tolerances were held to very tight levels. A single-speed transmission and long chain sent power to the rear wheel.
The racing version of the Cyclone powerplant used a tuning trick that was applied to other engines of the era; slots were cut at the base of each cylinder barrel, allowing pressure to escape to the atmosphere when the piston reached the bottom of its stroke. Though intended to keep the cylinders cool by releasing burnt gases more rapidly, this was also a crude form of supercharging, as it tended to pull the next intake charge into the cylinder more quickly.
The Cyclone’s motor was state-of-the-art for its time, from its detachable cylinder heads down to the aluminum crankcase.
These extra ports did have significant drawbacks. The first is that they threw off heat, as well as exhaust flames and oil vapor, directly on the rider’s legs. But racers, then as now, were willing to accept increased discomfort for extra performance. Perhaps more problematic was that the ports required extremely rich fuel mixtures and reduced the efficiency of carburetor throttles. The work-around was to run the engines at wide open throttle, and attach a kill switch to the handlebars that, on these brakeless machines, became the sole mechanical method of reducing speed.
As built, the Cyclone engine was rated by the factory at 35 hp, and could be wound to 5,000 rpm, a very high figure for 1912. Some knowledgeable mechanics claim these little V-twins were capable of more than 50 hp when ported and tuned for racing.
Three Cyclones were catalogued for sale. The first was the 61 cu in racer, as basic a machine as could be ridden. A road going model, using the same engine, but with such civilizing features as a trailing-link sprung front fork, swing-arm suspension for the rear wheel, primary and secondary chain guards and, in some instances, a large brass headlamp. A third, more mysterious, Cyclone style was a single-cylinder racer, presumably using a single barrel from the normal twin. Intended for what was called the 30.50" class, at least one was constructed.
Racing is what Cyclones did best, and the name most closely associated with them after that of designer Andrew Strand is Don Johns, perhaps the most successful of all Cyclone riders. When the 18-year-old Cali-fornian first took hold of a Cyclone’s handlebars in 1913, he already had some seven years of competition experience, gaining a reputation for being fast and tenacious along the way. He was also known for the kind of rowdyism not uncommon among early motorcycle racers, having once been suspended from competition for six months after punching another rider during a race.
Johns was signed to ride a factory Cyclone and promptly won a most unusual event in November, 1913. The promoter of a contest in Phoenix, Ariz., offered $1,000 for the fastest lap around his one-mile track. Though the competition was not restricted to motorcycles, Johns was fastest. He bested such formidable challengers as auto racer Barney Oldfield and, incredibly, pilot Lincoln Beachey, who flew his airplane around the oval.
In more conventional competition, Johns was regularly the fastest rider, and won many short races. Some 16 years after his final ride for Cyclone, he recalled the machine thus: "The yellow rig attracted a great deal of attention wherever I raced it. The motor was so powerful that I could wear out a set of tires in just a few laps. It was the first racer to turn over 5,000 rpm. It had a unique sound and was often five to seven miles per hour faster than the other factory rigs."
What Johns politely omitted from his description was the Cyclone’s notorious unreliability, which kept him from winning many long distance events. The culprit, according to motorcycle mechanic/restorer Mike Part, was simple. Though the engine was beautifully finished, the flywheels had a built-in imbalance that set up strong vibrations. Often, the roughness was responsible for broken engines and frames. Even so, the Cyclone’s speed was more memorable than its fragility. With a solid reputation and a powerplant of advanced design, why then did it fade out so quickly? The answer lies within the history of its manufacture.
Joerns Motorcycle Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minn., built the Cyclones. The five company owners had little knowledge of, or interest in, issues regarding marketing, dealers and service. They had no problem with manufacturing and material quality, save the inexplicable rough flywheels. However, production was slow and expensive. Profits were minimal, and the owners stopped production in 1915 after no more than 300 Cyclones had been built.
Attempts were made to revive the product. In 1916, a Chicago businessman bought Cyclone’s assets, and moved machinery, partially completed bikes and parts to Chicago, where they were stored in a warehouse. Two other investors got involved, but were unable to get the business up and running. Four years later, the leftovers were sold and moved to Cheboygan, Mich., where a building was put up and production was to resume. It never happened, and another move, this time to Benton Harbor, Mich., was made. Another factory was prepared, and Andrew Strand was hired to update the design. A new Cyclone with a three-speed transmission—reportedly based on an Excelsior unit—was displayed and ads appeared in motorcycling magazines. Again, nothing came of it.
The Cyclone’s last gasp came in 1923. A racer called the Reading-Standard competed in several races. As it turned out, this was the familiar Cyclone bearing a different name on its tank. Reading-Standard, itself recently purchased by the Cleveland Motor Company, had acquired all remaining Cyclone assets and put together one last racer from leftover parts.
Ignominious as its end may have been, the yellow machines from Cyclone will be long remembered for the speed and spectacle of its racing exploits, not business and mechanical failures.