When it comes to the letter H in the motorcycle alphabet — which runs from Aprilia to Zundapp — Harley (as in Harley-Davidson) overwhelmingly dominates in terms of quantity. But the vintage bikes produced in the early 20th century by the brothers William and Thomas Henderson have become increasingly popular in the past few years at such events as Mecum Auctions’ 26th annual sale taking place this weekend at the South Pointe casino and exhibit hall in Las Vegas.
What’s driving up demand for those Hendersons (or should we say, who’s riding those Hendersons) are not traditional motorcycle enthusiasts who are adding Hendersons to their collections.
“What has driven the popular in Hendersons in the last two to four years are the car investors and the car collectors,” said Ron Christenson, president of Mecums’ motorcycle division and a veteran of more than a quarter-century in the motorcycle auction business.
Christenson said the reason Hendersons are pursued by car collectors is because of their large and historic four-cylinder engines, to which the car crowd more readily relates than to the single and V-twin powerplants of other vintage bikes.
“Henderson was so far ahead (of the other brands),” Christenson said, explaining that although the four-cylinder architecture originated with the French/Belgian brand FN, those engines had pistons with diameters not much larger than a modern quarter.
“Henderson took the idea and made it into a road bike for here,” he said, noting that while speeds of 20 mph were sufficient for the narrow and winding European roadways, Americans needed machines that would travel faster and would span longer distances.
William Henderson, something of an engineering prodigy, was a teenager when he began sketching out his ideas for a four-cylinder engine. But then Henderson had grown up with motorized vehicles. His grandfather was Alexander Winton, who launched one of the first American car companies. His father, Tom, was vice-president of the family firm.
Christenson noted that Henderson had built a working prototype — engine and motorcycle — by 1911. Early in 1912, young William, with his brother, Thomas, running the business side, produced their first Henderson motorcycle, and the company was born.
That first Henderson, the 1912 Henderson Four, had a 57-cubic-inch engine with inlet-over-exhaust design, a single-speed chain drive and a clutch. Just like the Winton automobile, the engine was started by a folding hand crank. The motorcycle chassis was long, and thus stable, and ready to carry a rider and a passenger.
That fall, Carl Stearns Clancy set off on a Henderson en route to the first complete around-the-world trip by motorcycle, covering 18,000 miles by the following August. To cover his expenses, Clancy sold stories and photos of his adventure to newspapers around the world, at the same time spreading the motorcycle brand’s fame as well.
Christenson pointed across the auction hall to the 1912 Henderson Four awaiting its trip across the block. The bike reportedly is the only surviving all-original 1912 Henderson Four — still with its original paint and tires “and everything else,” the auction catalog noted.
“It’s one of the top five motorcycles in the world, and that is in value and (historical) importance,” he said.
A few hours later, Christenson was proven correct when the bike hammered sold for $490,000 (that amount yet to be enlarged by the addition of the buyer’s fees), not only a record for a Henderson but one of the five highest prices ever at a collector motorcycle auction, Mecum noted.
The 1912 was one of 10 Hendersons on the Mecum Las Vegas docket. Among the others were a 1913 originally owned by Doc Cleveland, founder of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, and a 1917 formerly owned by Steve McQueen. Also on the docket were an Excelsior-Henderson and an Ace.
By the end of the auction, the top-three prices had been paid on Hendersons, a 1913 going for $150,000 and a 1913 deluxe getting $127,500.
The Hendersons sold their motorcycle company to bicycle- and motorcycle-manufacturer Ignaz Schwinn in 1917. Schwinn wanted Henderson’s four-cylinder engine for his Excelsior line, thus the Excelsior-Henderson bikes. After the sale, William Henderson launched a new four-cylinder engine company, called Ace.
“Hendersons have been the best-kept secret in the collector motorcycle hobby,” said Mark Hill, whose 4th Coast Fours in upstate New York restores four-cylinder motorcycles for collectors around the world.
“It’s just a superior machine,” he said, adding as evidence the fact that Hendersons swept the top-three finishing positions in the 2016 Motorcycle Cannonball cross-country race.
Hill said William Henderson was a genius whose design outstripped the available manufacturing technology of the day.
“It had so much potential,” Hill said. Around a century later, vintage Hendersons “can run at near-modern highway speeds.”
He said the inline four-cylinder engine is perfectly balanced and runs with “no vibration.”
“Car collectors respect it because of its vibrationless engine.”
Which brings us back to Christenson’s earlier comment about car collectors and Hendersons, and to the owner of a car museum in Colorado who, based on visitors’ responses to the museum’s mix of two- and four-wheel vehicles recently sold two of the museum’s cars to make room for motorcycles, Hendersons in particular.