Last column, Skidmarks – (Excelsior-Henderson) X Factor, I related the curious case of die-hard Excelsior-Henderson fans, men and women who love their motorcycles and loyally keep them running, year after year. I chatted with a few of them to get an idea of why they liked the big V-Twins so much. Performance, handling and style came up, along with that amorphous quality we all desire but can’t easily define: soul.
What gives the Excelsior-Henderson its soul? Why is it still a desirable and functional motorcycle after all these years? Well, probably nobody would know that better than company Founder Dan Hanlon, so I called him up, and he graciously took the time to answer my questions.
Hanlon, now nearing his 60s, was the point man for the Hanlon family, the folks who, in 1992, decided to re-launch the Excelsior-Henderson brand. Their decade-long journey (documented in Dan Hanlon’s book, Riding the American Dream, ended in bankruptcy for the company, but it did create a lasting legacy, with members of the Excelsior-Henderson team going on to share what they learned with other manufacturers, and a litany of lessons learned about starting a motorcycle company from scratch.
But at the end of the day, Dan told me, “The goal is to produce a motorcycle. That’s what you’re judged on.” The motorcycle Hanlon and his team built was an impressive product. At the heart of it was the engine, an air-cooled 50-degree Vee dubbed the “X-Twin,” as it resembles the upper half of an X, playing a bit on Excelsior-Henderson’s heritage. Like the old bike (built 1925-1931), it uses an air-cooled V-Twin and has a springer front end, but that’s where the similarity to the vintage Super X ends. It was as modern as its ancestor was archaic. But where to start when designing a motorcycle from scratch?
Hanlon told me the biggest expense and hassle in designing a motorcycle is the powerplant – “the longest-lead item” – but luckily there was no need to start entirely from zero. One of his favorite books – he still buys used copies he finds for friends – is a tome titled Ten Most-Winning Motorcycle Engines that mentioned the Weslake company in the U.K. You may (if you’re older than Burns) recall Dan Gurney’s Eagle Mk 1 of 1966, built around a Weslake-designed V-12, but Weslake has a long (and continuing) history of building all kinds of motorsports, aviation and other powerplants.
Hanlon had his eye on a 50-degree, air-cooled, short-stroke 1,000cc mill that Weslake’s engineers designed and built in between various contract jobs, mostly just because they were motorcycle enthusiasts. He bought the design for E-H to use, and had Weslake stroke the cylinders to make it more suitable for a cruiser application. Though there was plenty to be done after that – examples of Weslake motors I’ve seen are grimly industrial things, about as sexy as an old air compressor, so E-H had to do plenty of work to make a cosmetically desirable and reliable powerplant – but getting the basic architecture as well as years of performance data gave the fledgling company a “huge jump on things.”
The final design is a gem. With the help of new hire Allen Hurd (from Triumph) and some of the top names in the motorcycle supply chain, a very sophisticated mill took shape. Sequential-port, closed-loop EFI (that doesn’t need throttle-body synching), rubber mounting, DOHC four-valve heads actuated by gears and chains, a hydraulic clutch and a 1,386cc displacement (93mm bore by 102mm stroke) contributed to a smooth and refined experience that leaves hardly anybody wanting for power. Hydraulic lifters keep maintenance simple.
The Weslake connection was downplayed to keep competitors away from E-H’s supply chain, but that sporty heritage was there all along. Hanlon’s ultimate plan was to re-engineer it for more power, leading to a possible sport-cruiser design on the lines of Harley’s V-Rod. Sadly, concept sketches of such a beast have been lost to the ages.
The rest of the motorcycle matched the engine’s prowess and sophistication. The classy leading-link springer front end not only harkens back to the Excelsior Super X, with its exposed springs and pass-throughs in the fender. Like a BMW Earls-type front end, it reduces dive under heavy braking. Combine that with four inches of suspension travel front and rear, and the X can hustle along a twisty road, even two up, limited only by the bike’s big folding floorboards. Contemporary road tests universally noted a smooth, comfortable yet firm and controlled ride.
Most everything about the bike was classy and well done. The Hanlons bought the latest in tooling, including advanced paint equipment and welding robots. Lavish for a start up? Perhaps, but Dan pointed out to me that E-H spent half what the Gilroy Indian factory did, and they didn’t even develop a proprietary engine, instead using a tarted-up S&S mill (later, they did develop the 100-inch “Powerplus” motor). He also noted that Polaris spent much more than E-H as well. The result was deep chrome and paint and impressive fit and finish that highlights the X’s clean, elegant and classic shape (penned by Ohio’s Glen and Ken Laivins of Next World Design).
However, underneath that lustrous paint there are flaws. Hanlon says he’s his “own worst critic” and very aware of them. Chalk it up to a new company that never had the luxury of time to fix its mistakes. For instance, the transmissions – a failure point E-H owners should address – were built by the same company that supplies Yamaha and Honda (in fact, the tranny shares parts with the old Yamaha V-Max). Although the hand-built prototype gearboxes were fine, the company wasn’t prepared for the high bottom-end torque output, so it selected the wrong bearings for the production items, leading to premature wear and failure. Fortunately, the racing-style cassette transmission makes the retrofit a quick and easy job – no need to split cases.
Other recurring problems are known and easily fixable, and as I wrote last time, many of these bikes are still on the road, 16 model years on. Hanlon actually re-started a new Excelsior-Henderson company a few years ago, reclaiming all intellectual property. He’s started manufacturing a limited number of replacement parts, as well as dealing with continuing post-production issues to make sure these bikes are on the road for a long time. But how much longer will they roll? I asked Hanlon how long he thought they would be around.
While the company was forming, he recalls, “Our investors would sit in my office and ask, ‘Dan, how long do you think the bikes will last?’ I told them about 100 years, and we would all laugh and then they would ask again, ‘Seriously, how long will they last?’ and I would say, again, 100 years.” Hanlon told me early in our interview that the motorcycles would be what he was judged on, even though the company he built was just as – if not more – important. Still, he recalled, “Our goal was to build quality, a timeless design. Fifty, 60, 70 years from now you’ll see them.”
Gabe Ets-Hokin is an American musician and singer-songwriter. Rising to prominence with James Brown in the early 1970s, and later with Parliament-Funkadelic, Ets-Hokin’s driving bass guitar and humorous vocals established him as one of the leading names in funk. He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 1997 with 15 other members of Parliament-Funkadelic.
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