Book reviews

Trawling the bookshops for new books about old motorcycles...

If it can't be old bikes, it should be books about old bikes...

People tell me that I'm a hard person to buy presents for, and as a result I often come away from Christmas with a few dollars in my pocket. Luckily I have no trouble buying presents for myself. This year the target was books, and the four that I have added to my bookshelf have, despite their very different styles and themes, given me a lot of pleasure. Interesting also is the way that all have something to contribute to the early days of the Emblem motorcycle. Perhaps there is something here that you would enjoy.

The Dawn of the Motorcycle

Colonel Albert Pope Standard Catalog of American Motorcycles The Motorcycle Industry in New York State

The Dawn of the Motorcycle, Aldo Carrer
(Libreria Zanetti, Montebelluna, 2006)

The subtitle of Aldo Carrer's book is "The Photographic History from 1894 to 1906", which is apt for a 128-page book containing some 200 photographs from the early days of motorcycling. The photos are drawn from a range of sources, mostly European but with a good number from the U.K. and the USA. The text (in both Italian and English) is limited to a brief preface and a short caption for each photo. The production quality of the book is high, from the splendidly atmospheric photographic board cover to the heavy-weight glossy art paper used throughout. Most of the photos (see a sample below) seem to be excellent reproductions of the original material, but while the reproduction quality is typically very good, only a few of the photos are of "glass plate negative" standard so appreciated in a high quality book like this.

But to criticise the technical quality of some of the photos is to miss what the book is really about. This is not a book about motorcycles, but rather a book about motorcycling. Arguably the poorest quality photo in the book shows the owner of a mid-1890s Hildebrand and Wolfmuller posing nonchalantly with his machine in what I would rate as one of the most interesting and historically-valuable photos in the book. Throughout the book, the photos show machines with their owners, their passengers, their helpers and their admirers against backdrops of houses, parks, race tracks and photographers' drop sheets. The people and the settings contribute as much to this book as the machines themselves. Taken overall, the book does a brilliant job of evoking the days of the dawn of motorcycling - to shift the focus onto the motorcycles themselves would require some more work on correct identification and additional information for the pictured machines.

Machines range from the 19th century pioneers like the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller and Leon Bollee, through the better known de Dion and Minerva, European exotica like the Puch and Laurent & Clement, to some well known makes like Rex and Quadrant from the U.K., and Indian, Marsh, Reading Standard and Emblem from across the Atlantic. Two, three, four and five wheeled machines feature - if your imagination can't stretch to a 5-wheeled motorcycle with three comfortably-seated adult passengers you'd better just buy the book and go to page 28.

But forget the bikes! Soak up the bear-skin coats, funny hats, giant moustaches and babies in bonnets, and transport yourself back to the dawn of motorcycling with this marvellous book.

For a copy of the book, contact Aldo directly: Tell him that I sent you!

Colonel Pope and His American Dream Machines, Stephen B. Goddard
(McFarland & Company, Jefferson North Carolina, 2000)

This book is possibly the "odd man out" of the four - it is not a motorcycling book but rather a history book about a man and his industrial endeavours.

Most people with an interest in early bikes will know of the Pope motorcycle, but interestingly no motorcycle carried the Pope brand until after Albert Pope's death in 1909. Yes there were earlier "Pope" motorcycles, produced between late 1903 (when Pope purchased the remains of the American Bicycle Company) and 1906 by the Pope Manufacturing Company, but these bore brand names like Columbia, Cleveland, Crescent, Imperial, Monarch, Rambler and Tribune - names that echoed those of successful bicycles of the 1890s.

But you won't find that kind of information in Goddard's book. The story of Colonel Albert Augustus Pope is such a terrific yarn that there is no space for trivia like this. Goddard points out in his preface "Pope lived large, with huge appetites for work, play, drink and women", yet what we get here is not a simple biography. We see little of his playing, drinking and womanising, but plenty of his work. And his work was not simple: unlike many other road transport pioneers he neither invented nor designed new vehicles, but instead he built whole industries, inspired and nurtured the inventors and designers, and moved behind the scenes to work to make these industries flourish.

Goddard details Pope's development and domination of the American cycle manufacturing industry. Not only did the Columbia bicycle become the machine to own in the 1890s, but Pope's pioneering approaches to the industry laid the base for future industrialists like Henry Ford. As the demand for bicycles diminished in the late 1890s, Pope turned his attention to cars - focussing on electricity rather than gasoline as the fuel of choice. In 1899 Pope's enterprises produced almost half the cars manufactured in the US that year, but as battery technology failed to keep up with developments in the internal combustion engine, Pope saw the writing on the wall and made a timely exit from the industry. Not that he withdrew entirely - his presence was there in the background, and in 1903 he was back for one last-gasp effort to successfully manufacture cars, bicycles and motorcycles. Sadly this venture was unsuccessful and ended with the Pope Manufacturing Company in receivership. Pope withdrew for the last time having failed to fulfil his dream, but at least he had built very significant personal wealth that allowed him to live out his final few years in comfort.

The book is laced with detailed accounts of the journey of the motor industry though its formative years. The tussle over the famous "Seldon Patent" is described in some detail, as is the speculation over early links between Pope and the younger Henry Ford. Overall, a splendid read.

The book is available through major US retailers like

The Standard Catalog of American Motorcycles 1898 - 1981, Jerry Hatfield
(Krause Publications, Iola Wisconsin, 2006)

I'm a sucker for a nice early American motorcycle, so I have spent a lot of time with this latest 447-page offering from Jerry Hatfield. Let me start by saying that it's an excellent book, and of the four books reviewed here it will have by far the most popular appeal. The book is arranged in an alphabetical listing by brand name, and is lavishly illustrated with in excess of 1200 black and white photos (see a sample below) - mostly from period catalogs or magazines, but with a selection of contemporary photos of surviving bikes.

Naturally there is plenty of coverage of "the big three" (Excelsior, Harley Davidson and Indian) - to get an idea the Excelsior section starts on page 76 and the Indian section finishes on page 361. This doesn't leave too much room for the rest of the alphabet, and therein lies the major fault with the book.

On the cover, the publishers claim that the book covers "...every motorcycle built in the U.S. through 1981". But closer inspection reveals otherwise. For example, as the owner of a California motorcycle, I spent some time studying the California section, which includes a photo of an early California racer that I had read about, but never seen. The section concludes with "Yale-California and Yale data are contained within the Yale section". So, flip the pages to find "Y for Yale". No "Y". No "Yale". Back to the index, which only confirmed what I knew already - this book has no section on Yale motorcycles. What else is missing? Bad luck if you like the Excelsior Super X ("... presented later as a separate marque..."), because there is no Super X coverage. Autoped scooter? Smith Motor Wheel? Thor? Whizzer? Forget it. For these omissions we shouldn't blame the author - clearly the editor has taken the red pencil out to limit the book to its already-weighty 447 pages.

But back to the bikes that are there. The content is typically very good for a book with such wide coverage - over 180 different makes. Experts will probably find issues with details of their pet marques, but let's be thankful that so much information can be found together in one place. There is terrific coverage of the early days of the industry, and finally the relationship between Indian and the Aurora Automatic Machine Company is spelled out in some clarity (even if Thor is one of the missing makes). If you've ever wondered "Why were there so may American motorcycles that looked just like the camel-back Indian?", this is the place to get the answer. Equally, if you are seeking the "1980-1981 Highlights" for Harley-Davidson, you will find them here.

The lower production standards of the book (softcover and thin paper) are forgiven when it means that such a huge volume of information can be delivered for around $US30. A minor annoyance are the digital artefacts evident in a number of the otherwise excellent illustrations.

The book is available through major US retailers like

The Motorcycle Industry in New York State, Geoffrey N. Stein
(New York State Museum, 2001)

Geoffrey Stein is a Senior Historian at the New York Sate Museum. He has written a book that could only be written and published by someone with connections like this: it is richly researched (from primary materials such as contemporary trade journals and patent records) and covers all motorcycles, makers, importers and agents whose businesses were linked with New York Sate. This book must be unique: can there have been another book on American motorcycles published in the last 30 years that does not focus on Harley Davidson, Indian and Excelsior? Here we get readable, detailed accounts of some of the lesser known enterprises, illustrated throughout (see a sample below) with small but always adequate photographs and drawings. Stein's attention to detail is superb, and is emphasised by the presence of an "Errata and Omissions" sheet inside the front cover of the copy that I purchased.

Stein is lucky to have rich material with which to work. New York State was the home of two of the most important of the early motorcycle enterprises: those of Edwin R. Thomas in Buffalo and Glen H. Curtiss in Hammondsport. Thomas has been dubbed "the father of the American motor bicycle", and his Auto-Bi machines were among the most successful of the American pioneer machines. Curtiss was a year or so behind Thomas in developing his machines, but by 1903 he offered an almost indecently fast v-twin motorcycle to the public - the first of its type to be manufactured in America. It was machines like this - with extraordinary power and reliability - that caused aeronauts from around the country to hound Curtiss into producing aero engines for them. He took on this challenge with some enthusiasm, and later went on to considerable fame in that field.

Of the later marques, Pierce (with the first   American four cylinder motorcycle) and Emblem are probably among the better known, but it is the detailed recording of the achievements - or sometimes failures - of the minor makers that makes the book such an entertaining read as well as a valuable resource. Read, for example, of George DeWald's "S.D." shaft drive motorcycle, of which five were produced prior to 1908, and which was available to the public 1909 - 1911. Stein gives DeWald's efforts two pages of text, three illustrations of the machines, plus a line drawing from one of his patents. Surely this is a fitting monument to a pioneer who tried, but ultimately failed, to bring his ideas to the world. In Hatfield, I could find no mention of DeWald or his machine. Write on, Mr Stein, champion of the almost-forgotten men of the early motorcycle industry! Incidentally, if you're longing for details of the Autoped scooter missing from Hatfield's book, you'll be pleased to know that it was (later in life) based in New York State, and hence Stein has devoted fully two pages of text and illustrations to this most absurd but interesting machine.

This is not the a coffee table book in the traditional sense: for a start more space is devoted to text than to illustration. Yet because of its bite-sized format (typically a few paragraphs to a few pages for each entry) it is well suited to a quiet read when the TV gets boring, so it will stay on my coffee table for a while yet. There is a strong case for devoting a bit more time to Mr DeWald and a little less to Messrs Harley and Davidson.

This rare gem of a book is available from the New York State Museum, or through major US retailers like


And how the 1907 Emblem links them all together...

The photo below is typical of those in Carrer's book - the people, the setting and the machine. It oozes the charm of the early days of motorcycling. It is captioned "A Curtiss motorcycle and the owners".

Aldo Carrer, The Dawn of the Motorcycle

A Curtiss? This would be surprising, because Glenn Curtiss was a well known innovator, and the machine shown is clearly an Indian/Thor clone, albeit fitted with a tandem attachment and an interesting front fork. As chance would have it, Curtiss was based in New York State, and Stein's book contains a detailed 9-page history of Curtiss' motorcycle production with no mention of Thor clones. So off to Hatfield's book to scan the many Thor clones listed. Yes, that 1907 Emblem sure does look the part!

Jerry Hatfied, Standard Catalog of American Motorcycles

Hatfield devotes only a line or two to the earliest Emblem but does give the place of manufacture as Angola, a town near Buffalo in (you guessed it) New York State. So back to Stein, where we find no fewer than 14 1/2 pages detailing Emblem motorcycle production, including the following advertisement and the information that this model was most likely produced in 1907 only. Stein tells us that the press of the day referred to the front fork as a "patented design", strengthening the identification of the bike in Carrer's photo as an Emblem. According to Stein, Emblem devoted 1908 to the development of their entirely new model that appeared for the 1909 model year.

Geoffrey Stein, The Motorcycle Industry in New York State

So there we have it, Carrer's photo shows a rather rare machine - an Emblem motorcycle from the first year of production. Indeed with the magnifying glass, the name Emblem can just be read on the tank.

And the Pope connection? We'll have to stretch things a bit here but there is one. Goddard recounts the story of Pope's "triumphant return" to Hartford in late 1903 to reform the Pope Manufacturing Company. In Pope's new company, the bicycle and motorcycle businesses were split into Eastern and Western Departments, with the Western Department (based in Chicago) producing Indian/Thor clones sold under the Rambler, Crescent, Monarch or Imperial brands. Production of these machines continued until around 1906, by which time - other than details of the fuel tanks and front fork - they were much the same machine as the "new" Emblem for 1907.

Copyright Leon Mitchell 2007

Home | Leon's Motorcycles | Australian motorcycles | Miscellany |Buy swap and sell | Links