Historic Motorcycle Brands
Excelsior – UK and USA
There were two Excelsior motorcycle brands; one in the UK and another in the USA. We’ve recorded the British Excelsior history first and then the US one.
Excelsior, based in Coventry, was Britain’s first motorcycle manufacturer, starting production of its own ‘motor-bicycle’ in 1896. After an ownership change, the company moved to Birmingham in 1921.
Bayliss-Thomas – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
Originally a bicycle company making penny-farthings in 1874 under the original name of Bayliss, Thomas and Co, the company later sold bicycles under the names of Excelsior and Eureka, and changed the company name to Excelsior Motor Co in 1910.
In the early years of motor-bicycle manufacture they used engines by Minerva, De Dion and MMC.
Excelsior then but went on to produce a wide range of motorcycles, with engines from most major manufacturers. In 1914, they offered a JAP-powered twin.
A deal to supply the Russian Imperial Government with motorcycles was cancelled after the October, 1917 Revolution and Excelsior wound up with an excess inventory as a result.
The Walker family (father Reginald and son Eric) took over Excelsior after World War I. R Walker & Sons of Tyseley, Birmingham had started as makers of ships lamps but then produced motorcycles under the Monarch name.
1926 Excelsior Blackburne 500cc – Piero
The re-registered Excelsior Motor Company Ltd made a range of motorcycles from 98cc to 1000cc, mostly powered by JAP, Blackburne and Villiers engines, plus an 850cc Condor engine.
To avoid confusion with the American maker of the same name, the company referred to itself as the ‘British Excelsior’.
The Walkers put more effort in competition and racing, and their first major racing success was in 1929 when they took the Lightweight TT race on a B14 that became their most popular model.
Excelsior managed the Great Depression better than many and commissioned Blackburne to design a four-valve racing engineThe latter consisted of four valves, radially disposed in the bronze cylinder head and opened via pushrods situated fore and aft of the cylinder by twin camshafts mounted in the crankcase Known as the Mechanical Marvel, it won the 1933 TT in its first outing.
The Mechanical Marvel – Sven Age Sorensen
A factory team of these complex machines continued with great success on the Continent but were retired at the end of the 1934 season, because they were viewed as too complex to offer for sale as a production racer. That role was filled from 1935 by the two-valve, overhead-camshaft Manxman.
The Manxman was first raced at the 1935 Isle of Man Lightweight TT. The works bike had an aluminium head and barrel, but had a very long stroke and was slow. The following year saw the first appearance of shorter-stroke, four-valve racers.
They raced again in 1937 TT in both 250 and 350 capacities but were retired in May 1938 before that year’s TT. The TT bikes reverted to two-valve heads and proved just as fast as the four-valve machines, thanks to improved handling from plunger rear suspension.
Excelsior did not officially contest the 1939 TT but a syndicate raced the previous year’s machines as well as a prototype 500cc production racer.
1937 Excelsior Manxman 350cc – Thruxton
Although an Excelsior Manxman did not win another TT before World War II, it came second in 1936, 1937 and 1938, and 3rd in 1939. The Manxman’s greatest success was winning the European GP in front of 200,000 people at Chemnitz in Germany, in 1936. Hitler was not amused.
Excelsior’s major contribution to the War effort was the 98cc Welbike, a small, collapsible motorcycle delivered in a pod by parachute, intended to be used by paratroops for movement around a battlefield. The Welbike was the inspiration for the post-War Brockhouse Corgi.
Excelsior Welbike – Johannesburg Military Museum
In the lean years following World War II, racing and luxury machines were sidelined in favour of cheap two-stroke bikes.
1950 Excelsior 125cc Universal – SG2012
Villiers 250cc engines powered the Viking and, in 1949, an Excelsior two-stroke engine went into the Talisman. A later, 328cc twin-carbie sports version, the S8, did not sell well, but the engine was slotted into Berkeley microcars in twin and 492cc triple versions.
Excelsior Consort 98cc Villiers – Toovey’s
Excelsior last manufactured a motorcycle in 1964 and folded in 1965. Britax, the car accessory company, bought the name and produced limited numbers of Britax-Excelsior machines in the late 1970s.
1954 Excelsior Talisman Twin Sports – Erik Holm
Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company was an American motorcycle manufacturer operating in Chicago from 1907 to 1931.
1912 Excelsior motorcycle – Cullen328
It was purchased by Ignaz Schwinn, proprietor of bicycle manufacturer Arnold, Schwinn & Co in 1912. The Henderson Motorcycle Company became a division of Excelsior when Schwinn purchased Henderson in 1917.
The mainstay of Excelsior production through the 1910s and into the 1920s was the 1000cc Model BigX. It had an inlet-over-exhaust, V-twin engine, with belt drive and a two-speed, then a three- speed gearbox.
1915 Excelsior BigX – Webbs Auction House NZ
In 1912, an Excelsior was the first motorcycle to be officially timed at a speed of 100 mph.
Colours were grey with red panels in the early teens, the ‘Military Model’ of the late teens was in khaki and 1920s models were dark blue with fine gold pin-striping.
Many were exported, with Europe and Australia receiving a number of shipments.
1918 Excelsior hillclimb demonstration for the US Military – National Archive
A very small number of BigX motorcycles were manufactured with 1210cc engines in the 1920s. Production of the BigX continued until 1924, when it was replaced by the Super X.
The 1925 Super X had a 45-cubic-inch (737cc) V-twin engine and was conceived as a competitor to the smaller Indian Scout. (In response to the Super X’s popularity, Indian raised the Scout’s capacity to 737cc and then introduced the new Indian 101 Scout, while Harley-Davidson introduced the 737cc Model D.
1928 Excelsior 737cc Super X – The Supermat
By 1928, Excelsior was in third place in the U.S. motorcycle market behind Indian and Harley-Davidson, but in 1929, the stock market crash and the looming Great Depression caused motorcycle sales to plummet.
In the summer of 1931, Schwinn called his Excelsior department heads together and bluntly told them, with no prior indication: “Gentlemen, today we stop”.
Schwinn felt that the Depression could easily continue for eight more years – an accurate prophesy. Despite a full order book, he pared back to the core business of bicycle manufacture.
All motorcycle operations at Excelsior ended by September 1931.