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1918 Henderson Headed for the Highway

by: Photo By Susan Matheny - Steve Jansen is restoring a 1918 Henderson motorcycle that's been in his family for decades.


   When Steve Jansen rolls his motorcycle into the driveway people stop and stare -- It isn't every day you see a 1918 museum on wheels.
   Jensen's Henderson Excelsior has been in his family since 1933 and he's now in the process of restoring it to its former glory.
   According to history about the bike he found on the Internet, brothers William and Tom Henderson founded the Henderson Motorcycle Company in 1911, in Detroit, Ill., and designed a revolutionary four-cylinder Henderson motorcycle, which they sold for $325. There were other motorcycles around, but the smaller ones had just one cylinder, and the Harley Davidsons had two cylinders.
   Each year, improvements were made until in 1918, as supplies became scarce due to World War I, the brothers sold the Henderson company to bicycle manufacturer Ignaz Schwinn, who earlier had purchased the Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Company. The Henderson brothers became employees of Excelsior, but their motorcycle was still made under the Henderson name.
   "Schwinn moved the factory from Detroit to Chicago and this was one of the first models produced at the new Chicago plant," Jansen said of his Henderson Excelsior bike. "These were so well-designed, with an all-aluminum crankcase and the engine and transmission all in one unit, They were really state-of-the-art for 1918," Jansen said.
   "They produced eight of these and donated them on trial to the government. Two of the eight made it to the warfront and (the trial) supposedly was a success," he said.
   By 1920, six of the experimental Hendersons were returned to the company, where they were dismantled and analyzed for wear and tear in order to make adjustments to future designs. The six bikes were then reassembled and sold on the open market.
   The original owner (of Jansen's Henderson) purchased one of the reassembled motorcycles in 1920 and raced it semi-professionally until 1923, then put it in storage.
   Jansen doesn't know the man's name, but said, "He set quite a few records at that time. A fast machine then went 60 mph."
   In the early 1920s, most of the major police departments were using the fast, durable Hendersons for their patrol officers.
   In 1933, Jansen's father, Stanley Jansen, bought the motorcycle from the original owner and rode it for many years. "He and my mother even road it to the courthouse when they got married in 1935," Steve said.
   However, things changed in 1938 when his mother declared "No more motorcycles in our family!" Evidently, his parents had taken a spill on the bike and she decided motorcycles were dangerous.
   The once illustrious Henderson Excelsior was rolled out to the barn where it sat for the next 12 years. It made a brief appearance on Aug. 20, 1950, for Steve's fifth birthday.
   "I had been hounding dad for months to go for a ride on it, and he worked for several weeks to get it running. I remember it like it was yesterday. I sat on his lap on the seat and we went fast -- up to 25 mph -- around the block, then back to the barn," he recalled, adding, his mom was plenty mad, but the ride was worth it.
   The ride must have made an impression because, as a teen, Jansen's first job was being a motorcycle mechanic. He later owned a Honda franchise in California for years, then went to work for the phone company.
   As a hobby, he enjoys working on old cars and has restored a 1956 Chevy Nomad, a 1957 Chevy pickup and turned a 1934 Ford into a hotrod. He also restores antique farm machinery.
   In 1994, Jansen got possession of his dad's vintage motorcycle and brought it from California to his house (at that time) in Antelope, and it sat there until just recently.
   "It hasn't been ridden for 57 years," Jansen said, noting he intends to get the bike working again. The 7 1/2 foot long machine has a 3 1/2 gallon gas tank, 12 1/2 horse power motor, and its original leather seat.
   "As near as I can tell, it only has 10 years on the road and 9,435 miles on the speedometer." But since speedometers only had four digits back then, it may have rolled over, he admitted.
   It's rough trying to find parts for a 1918 vehicle, but Jansen said, "There's a guy in Canada that reproduces Henderson motors, so the engine is the least of the problem. And I found I still can get tires for it."
   "These are the original Goodyear tires and they still hold air, but they're cracked," he said. Otherwise, he's collected miscellaneous parts through the Internet over the years. Some modifications were made to the bike during its racing days, but he hopes to return it to its original shape.
   "I'm trying to restore it for its 100th birthday. I have 11 years to do it, so I ought to be able to get it done in time," Jansen said.