Sprocket City

The first American ‘superbike’ came from Detroit; today, few motorcycles are more collectible.
The 1912 Henderson Four sold for $325 and covered 18,000 miles in a 1913 round-the-world motorcycle trek. Henderson Motorcycle Co. closed shop in 1931. // Photograph Courtesy of the Detroit Public Library

As he was completing the first round-the-world motorcycle trip in 1913, Carl Stearns Clancy took a spill about 20 miles from Chicago. Gathering up his bike, he wobbled into the Windy City on a bent rear wheel. “The most remarkable feature of the whole trip is the surprising endurance of my machine,” he said. “(It) now seems to be running as well as ever, in spite of the 18,000 miles it has in its bones.”

The machine in question, a 1912 Henderson Four, was built in Detroit by Henderson Motorcycle Co. Production had started late the previous year in a two-story Jefferson Avenue plant. Brothers William G. and Thomas Winton Henderson formed the company based on Bill’s prototype, which featured an in-line, four-cylinder engine that generated seven horsepower. Nearly every other brand utilized a single or twin-cylinder engine. “Write for booklet telling all about the quiet, vibrationless, flexible, powerful, sweet running,” a Henderson ad invited.

The Henderson Four had a generous 65-inch wheelbase, an innovative crank-by-hand starter mechanism, a single-speed drive, and a rear band-type brake that squeezed the hub. The retail price was rather high at $325; the best bikes from Harley-Davidson were $285. Henderson targeted production of 1,000 units, then set about making improvements. In 1913, the engine displaced 1,064 cubic centimeters (64.9 cubic inches). A kick-starter was adopted for 1914, followed the next year by a two-speed rear hub and shorter 58-inch wheelbase for nimble response. An advanced three-speed sliding-gear transmission became standard for 1917.

The brothers were from Cleveland; their father, Thomas W. Henderson — who had funded Bill’s prototype — served as an executive for Winton Motor Car Co. As the oldest of 10 children, Tom apprenticed in pattern making, studied business, and finished his education in Europe. “I speak French, Italian, German, English, and profanity with equal fluency,” he boasted. Appointed as Michigan sales manager for Winton, he ultimately joined his brother in building and selling motorcycles.

Beyond Clancy’s circumnavigation, the Henderson Four gained fame by setting long-distance speed records: A rider covered 1,154 miles on a track in 24 hours for a new best of 48 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the bike proved its mettle when Detroit Police Department officers posed for a group photo on their Hendersons. Chicago police touted the exclusive use of Henderson Fours in their patrols.

With World War I intensifying, Henderson strained to meet a backlog of orders. “The small factory facilities and limited capital restricted the production of the fledgling company, but by 1917 the Henderson four-cylinder had become one of the premier motorcycles in the country and was being exported to foreign markets,” says Bill’s entry in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Facing rising costs for materials and labor, the Hendersons sold out to Ignaz Schwinn, of Chicago, late in 1917. An immigrant from Germany, Schwinn — who had become a bicycle-manufacturing tycoon — also owned Excelsior Motor Manufacturing and Supply Co. Making about 3,000 motorcycles per year, for third place in the industry behind Harley and Indian, the new Excelsior-Henderson company employed Bill as chief engineer and Tom as sales manager. The brothers had signed a two-year noncompete clause, so Bill waited until 1919 before jumping back into the game to build the four-cylinder Ace. While testing one not long after his 40th birthday, he was struck by a car and killed.

In a shrinking market, the Henderson Four perished after the 1931 Indian Four’s introduction. Today, collectors cherish Hendersons. At auction in 2017, an unrestored original 1912 Henderson Four sold for $490,000, far more valuable than a Cadillac of that vintage and a testament to the Henderson family’s vision and Detroit’s motorcycle-manufacturing heritage.