days leading up to the Great Depression on one of the finest motorcycles
of the time, the 1926 Henderson De Luxe
Text and photos by
was the thirsty twenties as the United States suffered the unrelenting
sobriety of the
prohibition years. Under the ruthless summer sun, a small town is waiting
in vain for a drink as its roads melt slowly.
The scorched silence is suddenly scattered by the unmistakable sound of
a speeding Harley-Davidson. Even before the motorcycle tears through the
heat shimmer, slivers of a police siren slip through.
the silver Harley comes over the crest, its lone shape is joined almost
immediately by a blue blur. The strident thumping of the Hog's V-twin
engine is steadily overwhelmed by the growing rumble of the police bike
The cop overtakes the Harley and comes to a halt across its path. As the
officer reads the man his rights under arrest for running illegal
rum, the moon-shiner wishes he had the police bike instead it was
a Henderson, as the X-logo on the tank suggested.
The police bike could have been any among the various Henderson models
which found favour with the American police throughout the marque's 20
year run from its 1911 beginnings in Detroit to its end in 1931
in Chicago. Recently, the Excelsior-Henderson marque saw a brief resurrection,
but Harley-Davidson's hold on the American market proved too strong for
them to make any inroads. How tables have turned.
marque was originally created by the Henderson brothers, who specialised
in super-smooth, well-equipped and usually class-leading in-line four
engined motorcycles. The fact that they were usually very fast, very comfortable
and utterly reliable only endeared them further to the police and to Henderson
Among the marque's most famous models is the 1929 KJ, which marked the
zenith of Henderson's reputation as the maker of the finest American motorcycles.
The bike in our pictures is a slightly earlier model, a 1926. Called the
De Luxe, this reportedly is the only bike of its kind in Asia. Currently
sporting original Henderson-spec blue with yellow wheels, it remains a
hugely striking motorcycle. At heart is the 1340 CC four-cylinder engine.
In 1926, the Model K had been upgraded with Ricardo-type cylinder heads
and higher compression to ensure that the side valve in-line four put
out a silky 30 bhp, and would see true 160 kph speeds with very few modifications.
The simple unmuffled pipe let the engine breathe out with a glorious rumbling
accompaniment. Top-spec parts abound, and even that far back, the De Luxe
had a Bosch magneto, a dynamo to charge the battery and full electricals.
The foregoing Ks also developed into the De Luxe with the frame sloping
down after the tank to lower the centre of gravity for better handling.
riding the Henderson today isn't about that at all. In fact, one glance
at the massive and unwieldy-looking handlebar will ensure an aversion
to every wriggly line on the map. The reach to the grips is short and
too far from the front wheel, which renders feedback incomprehensible.
Riding is further complicated by the combination of a stiff girder fork
up front and an unsprung rear, with only the seat springs saving your
backside from the road. Add the inevitably American 'suicide' foot-clutch,
a left-hand tank-side gear-shifter and you have still more troubles. This
particular bike also had a reverse gear in addition to the forward three
to take on sidecar duties. The sidecar was the cheaper alternative to
owning a car, in a country that was slowly getting into the throes of
the Great Depression. Henderson, in fact, offered all the fitments to
fit a sidecar as original equipment all you had to do is choose
your sidecar, and the manufacturer would fit it onto the bike model you
you do manage to get rolling though, the Henderson is pure pleasure. The
engine is torquey and does not need much gear shifting and so, you can
neatly side-step the hard steel-plate equipped clutch. Better still, there
are almost no vibrations and the boundless, steady thrust is a marvel
that propels you to comparing it favourably to some motorcycles that were
born as late as seventy years after the De Luxe.
The marque had a chequered corporate history. Six years after starting
out, the Henderson brothers sold out to Schwinn, the bicycle company that
also manufactured the Excelsior branded motorcycles. This saw the appearance
of the now famous red X-logo. Under Schwinn ownership, the Henderson brothers
continued to work for some time, until Arthur Lemon took over as the chief
designer, and this is one of his babies. As the depression hit, sales
slowed down, and one day in the summer of 1931, owner Schwinn called a
meeting at Excelsior and told them quite simply, "Gentlemen, today
we stop." By September, the marque was gone.
motorcycle was restored by Gurmukh Singh Salh who specialises in restorations
and spare parts. He can be reached at 011-6248274.