On the third day of December 1912, a motorcycle officially broke through the 100 mph barrier for the first time. Within a matter of days, the same machine, a 2-cylinder Excelsior piloted by Lee Humiston, established new FIM speed records for distances of two to 100 miles during a run that lasted just over 68 minutes on the one-mile track at Playa del Rey, Calif.The bike used in that feat was very similar to the 1914 Model 7SC seen in these photographs, one of many racers that came from Excelsior’s Chicago factory. By the time the 7SC was built, the company had a firm reputation for building fast competition bikes and solid, reliable road machines, as it would right up to the day in 1931 when production ceased.
Though it is taken for granted today that virtually any motorcycle will top 100 mph with ease, riding one of these bikes at speed must have been a daunting experience, whether in a run against the clock or eager competitors. There are, as is readily apparent, no brakes of any kind; nor is there any provision for shock absorption, save the flexibility of frame and wheel spokes and the horsehair padding in the leather saddle.At least one rider with experience on such bikes claims they are not that difficult to ride. He avers that one must be “tucked in,” which is to say leaning as far forward as possible over the dropped handlebars to keep maximum weight over the front wheel. After that technique was mastered, all that remained was to steer, work the throttle, occasionally operate the manual oil pump, keep an eye out for other racers, worry about dust or splinters—from dirt- or board-surfaced racetracks, respectively—and hope that the glue, shellac, or spikes applied to the narrow tires’ beads would prevent them from coming off their clincher-style rims.
The 1914 Excelsior 7SC’s 61 cu in engine was not mated to a transmission. (Click image to enlarge)
By the standards of their time, Excelsior motorcycles were not particularly innovative. They adopted a common frame design derived from pedal-bikes, and indeed still had crank-mounted, bicycle-type pedals for the rider to push for starting and to rest his feet on while riding. To minimize weight, the latter feature was often removed from competition machines. This particular example is slightly unusual in still having its rotating pedals and separate starting chain.The engine, too, is somewhat unremarkable. Like many such powerplants of the day, its two iron cylinders, mounted on an aluminum crankcase, displaced 61 cubic inches. The valves are laid out in the F-head pattern: intake valves, operated by a long pushrod and rocker arm, are conventionally located atop the cylinders, while the exhaust valves are within the barrel and face upward. The engine’s 7 hp output was transmitted through a clutch, but no transmission, to the drive chain.For $250, the 200-pound 7SC—the name standing for 7 bhp, short-coupled frame—Excelsior was a worthwhile investment for racers. It was purpose-built for speed, sharing few components beyond basic engine castings with its road-going kin. With a good rider, it was competitive straight from the factory, although there were a few modifications that could increase speed. One such change was a hole, drilled at a precise location (as spelled out in a bulletin from Excelsior) in each cylinder barrel, to allow exhaust gases to flow out when the piston reached the bottom of its stroke.The downside of this modification was that each cylinder would tend to spray oil out the hole when the piston reached the top of its stroke, making riding a messy proposition. That counted for less among racers than speed, though spewing oil onto the track surface could cause problems.By the time its first single-cylinder machines were produced in 1905, Excelsior had been building bicycles and offering parts to other manufacturers for nearly 30 years. After five years of single-cylinder models, which also employed the F-head valve layout, it produced a fast V-twin in 1910 that became the first of the marque’s successful racers.One of those who noted Excelsior’s ever-growing success was Ignaz Schwinn.Schwinn, a German immigrant, had established Arnold, Schwinn & Co. in 1895 to manufacture bicycles. In its first year of operation, Schwinn sold some 250,000 bicycles. A portion of the company’s profits were used to build experimental automobiles and at least one motorcycle. Ultimately, Schwinn chose a more direct entrance into the powered-cycle market by purchasing Excelsior outright in 1911.With solid financial backing, Excelsior soon ranked with Indian and Harley-Davidson as a top motorcycle manufacturer. Production capacity was increased further in 1917, when Schwinn added the resources of Henderson Motorcycle to his empire. Military and other government contracts ramped up sales, and profits increased steadily through the roaring ’20s. Both motorcycle lines grew increasingly sophisticated over the years, with Excelsior offering its legendary SuperX high-performance model in 1925, and Henderson the modernistic Streamline cruiser in 1929.In fact, even as the Depression gripped the world in the early 1930s, the future of Excelsior-Henderson seemed solid. To everyone, that is, save Ignaz Schwinn. In early 1931, he decided to separate the motorcycle and bicycle businesses, handing control of the former to his son. Frank Schwinn was not interested in motorcycles, however, and so, without regard for his dealer network, a substantial backlog of orders, or his employees, Ignaz Schwinn ordered a shutdown of the Excelsior and Henderson factories on March 31, 1931. Production ended that same day.It is a tribute to the value of the Excelsior-Henderson legend that the name was chosen in 1994 to adorn an all-new motorcycle. The modern Excelsior-Henderson SuperX entered production in 1998, but fewer than 2,000 came off the assembly line before the company that had formed to build them tumbled into bankruptcy.That eventual failure certainly casts no shadow on the 1914 7SC, however. As seen here after a painstaking restoration by Steve Wright of Atascadero, Calif., it stands as one of the fastest, and most desirable, motorcycles of its day—a tribute on two wheels to the vision of Ignaz Schwinn, the skill of the men who designed and built it, and the talent and bravery of those who raced it.