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Remembering Henderson, Harley-Davidson’s Fallen American Rival

Even though it’s struggling now, Harley-Davidson is still the longest-lived American motorcycle company around. Indian was founded at about the same time, but it went out of business before being brought back. However, in the early days of the motorcycle, Indian and Harley were just 2 of many competing brands. And there was one in particular that, at least for a time, was fairly successful: Henderson.

The Henderson Motorcycle company

Dark blue patina'd 1912 Henderson Four
1912 Henderson Four | Mecum

The Henderson company, RideApart reports, was really only independent for a short time. It was founded in 1911 by two brothers, William G. and Tom W. Henderson, Silodrome reports. However, due to financial hardships after WWI, they had to sell their company to Ignaz Schwinn, Silodrome reports, who owned Excelsior Motorcycles, in 1917.

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Schwinn turned the Henderson name into a sub-brand of Excelsior bikes. Rather like GMC did with Hummer. William, though, wanted to continue making motorcycles his way. So, he started yet another motorcycle company, Ace, in 1919. Unfortunately, William G. Henderson died in an accident in 1924. 3 years later, Ace had been sold to Harley-Davidson’s rival, Indian.

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Henderson’s time on the motorcycle market was brief. However, the company did leave its own unique mark. In the 1910s, Harley-Davidson was only beginning to experiment with V-twin engines. Henderson didn’t use V-twins though, or even the more-common single-cylinder engine. It used four-cylinder engines.

Henderson’s most-prominent bikes

Henderson’s first bike was, appropriately, called the Four, Silodrome reports. When it debuted in 1912, it wasn’t the first four-cylinder bike in the world. But it was the fastest, breaking the 100-mph barrier in 1912, Bring a Trailer reports.

True, its 934cc four-cylinder only made 7 hp. But Henderson kept improving the bike over time, culminating in a new world record in 1917, Silodrome reports. That’s when Alan Bedell rode a Henderson Four from LA to NYC in just over 7 days, 16 hours. The 1912 Henderson Four was also the first motorcycle to go around the world.

After Henderson’s sale to Excelsior, the motorcycles became less racy, which is why William G. left. However, that didn’t mean the bikes were by any means slow, or hard to handle. The 1920-1931 KJ, arguably the most well-known Henderson, was a popular police bike precisely because of its performance. Jay Leno owns two 1931 models.

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And, at the time, the Henderson KJ was fairly advanced. It was the first bike with a pressurized oil system. The KJ was also one of the first bikes to offer a reverse gear. In addition, it offered features like electric lights and a fully-enclosed chain.

Burgundy 1931 Henderson Four
1931 Henderson Four | Mecum

Plus, Motorcycle Classics reports, it had an early kind of radar-gun-alternative. At the push of a button, a red needle on the speedometer marked the bike’s highest speed. That’s the speed the cop would record on the speeding ticket.

The Ace Four

Steve McQueen's blue four-cylinder 1922 Ace Four
Steve McQueen’s 1922 Ace Four | Mecum

Then, in 1920, William G. Henderson unveiled his last creation, the Ace Four. It, too, would break several records. At the time, it was the fastest bike in the world, Mecum reports. To drum up publicity, Ace recruited Indian racer Erwin Baker to ride the Four cross-country. Baker’s transcontinental trip took just under 6 days and 23 hours, Silodrome reports. Once again, a Henderson-designed bike held the transcontinental record.

In 1923, a special lightweight Ace Four did 129 mph on back-to-back runs on the Pennsylvania highway, Popular Mechanics reports. Testers then strapped a sidecar to the bike—whereupon it did 106 mph. That was yet another world record.

Rider sitting on 2020 Royal Enfield Himalayan on a muddy road
2020 Royal Enfield Himalayan | Royal Enfield

The Ace Four used a 1220cc four-cylinder engine that produced 20 hp, linked to a 3-speed foot-operated transmission. 20 hp doesn’t sound like a lot. However, Henderson kept the Ace Four light—it only weighed 365 pounds. In contrast, the Royal Enfield Himalayan has a 411cc single-cylinder engine but weighs about 60 pounds more.

Dark blue 1920 Ace Four motorcycle
1920 Ace Four | Mecum

It was also extremely smooth, Motorcycle Classics reports. Not for nothing was the Ace Four often called “the Duesenberg of motorcycles.” Steve McQueen owned one, Mecum reports. Jay Leno still owns one, and still enjoys riding it.

How it influenced Indian and Harley-Davidson

Although four- and even six-cylinder motorcycles are made today, no American motorcycle company makes them. Harley-Davidson may make an electric bike, but it doesn’t have a four-cylinder one.

However, Indian, at one point, did. In fact, Indian purchased Ace specifically to get its four-cylinder engine. And, indeed, Indian produced several well-received four-cylinder bikes up until 1942.

But, even if no four-cylinder American motorcycle is made today, Henderson did force Harley-Davidson and Indian to evolve. In 1920, Harley-Davidson still sold bikes with total-loss lubrication. But soon after the KJ got popular, Harley switched to pressurized lubrication.

And at least on the collectors’ market, Henderson’s achievements are widely appreciated. An original 1912 Henderson Four went for $500,000 in 2017, Autoweek reports. Later models often command prices over $100,000.

There were attempts to bring back Excelsior-Henderson in the early 200s, but they fizzled out. But maybe someday, there’ll be another American four-cylinder motorcycle worthy of the name prowling the roads.

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