Henderson Four at Wheels Through Time
In 1997, this 1917 Henderson Four carried Dale Walksler, founder and curator of the Wheels Through Time museum, from Los Angeles to Staten Island, NY in 6 days, 6 hours when Walksler beat Alan Bedell’s time.

Henderson Four History

The notion that the 1969 Honda CB750 — or any other four-cylinder bike from that era, for that matter — was the first four-cylinder superbike is a bit off base. Indeed, the early days of motorcycling had some pretty impressive bikes with sophisticated engineering — and four-cylinder powerplants.

Perhaps none has more legitimacy as an early superbike than the Henderson Four. Henderson was based in Detroit and built its first four-cylinder motorcycle in 1912. The 965cc in-line, air-cooled four-stroke four produced about seven horsepower and could propel the long and low 310-lbs. bike down the rugged roads of the time at a maximum speed of about 55 mph.

The four was soon stroked to give a displacement of 1065cc, which boosted power to about eight horsepower. A single Schebler carburetor fueled the engine’s individually cast cylinders through a tubular intake manifold. Interestingly, even the early Hendersons had a aluminum crankcase.

Dale Walksler aboard 1917 Henderson Four
Wheels Through Time Museum creator and curator, Dale Walksler in vintage gear aboard the 1917 Henderson Four that he rode coast-to-coast.

A Bosch magneto provided the juice, and there was no electric starter and no kick starter – a hand-crank similar to early Model A Fords was the starting method. A two-speed Thor rear hub put the power to the ground via metallic roller chain.

From the very earliest day, the Henderson was a motorcycle of destiny. It was aboard a 1912 Henderson that Carl Stearns Clancy became the first person to ride a motorcycle around the world in 1913.

Meanwhile, also in 1913, E.G. Baker rode an Indian in a transcontinental crossing from San Diego to New York in 11 days, 12 hours, and 10 minutes while covering 3,378.9 miles.

The Henderson brand made its way into the transcontinental run record books, as well in 1917 when Alan Bedell rode coast to coast in only 7 days, 16 hours. Later, Roy Artley beat Baker’s Canada to Mexico run record by covering the distance in 72.5 hours, about nine hours less than Baker.

Despite grabbing those historic headlines, Henderson was in financial trouble and a merger with Excelsior — then owned by parent company Schwinn — took place in 1917.

Production under the Excelsior-Henderson brand continued until 1931, when the firm fell victim to the Great Depression. But the legacy of the Henderson four cylinder engine powered motorcycle does not end there.

One of the two Henderson brothers, William, who co-founded the Henderson firm left the Excelsior-Henderson company to form Ace Motorcycles with manufacturing operations in Philadelphia.

By 1925, Ace was in bankruptcy and in 1927, Indian purchased all Ace assets — including the rights to its four cylinder engine design. In 1928, the Indian/Ace four came to market and continued as an Indian four until 1941, which marked the final year of the big American-built in-line fours; nearly 30 years before the introduction of the Honda Four.