The Mystery Excelsior Triumph…
From York to New York, or Brighton in Sussex to Brighton in Melbourne, when British emigrants found new lands, they usually named them after places in their homeland. This bicycle reflects a similar ‘new world’ relocation, as well as an interesting juxtaposition of bicycle manufacturer names – Excelsior & Triumph.
Excelsior and Triumph were, of course, two of the most famous and influential British manufacturers.
But …an Excelsior Triumph?
Both names were used in Germany: Triumph was initially part of the British company, but they split before World War 1. Excelsior was a separate German manufacturer.
So is it German?
Here’s the headbadge…
All is revealed! It’s an American Excelsior.
‘Triumph’ is the model name of this ‘motorbike’ made by the original American Excelsior company, ‘Excelsior Mfg Co’ of Michigan City, Indiana.
It was not made by Schwinn’s Excelsior company …although, as you can read further down the page, Excelsior did actually make a Triumph motorcycle as early as 1907.
1930 Excelsior Triumph ‘Motorbike’
Made by Excelsior Mfg Co, Michigan City, Indiana
New Departure Model D Coaster Brake
THE AMERICAN EXCELSIOR COMPANY:
EXCELSIOR SUPPLY Co
Randolph St, Chicago
Excelsior started out, in 1876, as the Excelsior Supply Co, making bicycle components, to be followed by the manufacture of complete bicycles. When the company built its first motorcycle in 1905 (below), they had a head-start over their competitors both because of their experience and because they could depend their own parts.
The company soon became one of the leading motorcycle manufacturers, and was approached by Schwinn, who realized that even if he started his own motorcycle business, he’d be hard put to compete with companies like Excelsior in this growing market. He eventually bought Excelsior on 1st February 1912 for half a million dollars, and Excelsior moved to a new factory at Union Ave, Chicago.
The acquisition of the Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Company was a perfect way for Schwinn to expand and diversify his business. And the increased investment allowed Excelsior to expand still further, in 1914 moving into the world’s largest motorcycle factory at 3703 Cortland St, Chicago, a state-of-the-art facility that even had a test track on its roof.
Henderson started making motorycles in 1912, and soon became Excelsior’s main competitor. The Henderson Four was in Schwinn’s sights as a stable mate for the Excelsior Super-X and, by the end of 1917, Henderson was acquired by Excelsior and had also moved to the Cortland Street factory. Below you can see a 1917 Henderson Inline Four Model G I sold a few years ago. This example was the final model made before the takeover.
To avoid confusion with the British company of the same name, American Excelsior used the name ‘Excelsior-X.’ You can see the ‘X’ logo below on the motorcycle’s tank. After 1917, Hendersons were badged in a similar fashion. The Excelsior was used during WW1.
The Wall Street Crash badly affected motorcycle sales. In the summer of 1931, Schwinn called his department heads together for a meeting at Excelsior. He bluntly told them, with no prior indication, ‘Gentlemen, today we stop.’ Schwinn felt that the Depression could easily continue for eight years, and even worsen. Despite of the full order book, he had chosen to pare back his business commitments to its core business, bicycle manufacture. By September 1931 it was all over for Excelsior.
But the name continued after 1931, as Schwinn used many famous names for its various bicycle models over the years. The Schwinn Excelsior and the Schwinn Autocycle both became well-known bicycles.
TRIUMPH Mfg Co
The Triumph model name was actually associated with Excelsior as early as 1907. In that year, Excelsior introduced a 300cc motorcycle with a Thor engine, which was designed by Hendee (the makers of Indian motorcycles) and built by the Aurora Automatic Machinery Co.
In 1912, an investment group in Detroit purchased the rights to the Triumph name from Excelsior, and founded the Triumph Mfg Co. They made three different models of 550cc machines, and produced 1500 motorcycles in their two year existence.
The (British) Triumph Junior 269cc motorcycle was very popular in Great Britain, with the German Triumph company making a similar model, named the Knirps (which means ‘nipper’). Schwinn licensed the Junior’s design for an American version, built by Excelsior (by now owned by Schwinn).
Incidentally, the Triumph Junior’s rocking-action fork, with its trademark horizontal coil spring (see illustration above), also appeared as an optional extra on the Schwinn Autocycle bicycle, made from the 1930s onwards (below)
The legacy of the 1920s British Triumph even continued into more recent times, as Schwinn also used the Triumph’s springer on their ‘Krate’ series of Chopper bicycles of the late 1960s
In British vintage motorcycle circles, it amuses us to see the name ‘Excelsior Auto-cycle’ describing a large motorcycle, as we’re more familiar with this name attached to a 98cc British machine, as seen in the following section.
I sold my friend’s 1914 Excelsior pictured above and below, at Beaulieu Autojumble in September 2011.
THE BRITISH EXCELSIOR COMPANY:
BAYLISS THOMAS & Co Ltd
Excelsior Works, Lower Ford Street, Coventry
Bayliss, Thomas & Co, established in 1874, were well-known makers of bicycles and tricycles at the Excelsior Works in Lower Ford Street, Coventry. Their first machine, an ordinary, was called the Excelsior (one of several trademarks used by the company). They became Britain’s first motorcycle manufacturer, producing a motor-bicycle in 1896.
The advert below dates from 1907, but they stopped making bicycles around this time to concentrate on motorcycle production.
The company name Excelsior Motor Cycle Co was registered in 1909. When the company was taken over in 1919, it moved to Kings Road, Tyseley, Birmingham 11.
The name Bayliss, Thomas & Co was still used for exports to avoid confusion with the German and American Excelsior; there was also a Belgian car called the Excelsior.
During WW2 Excelsior supplied the Welbike (below) which, postwar, became the Corgi.
Below is a 1955 Excelsior Autobyk autocycle that I sold a few years ago.
THE GERMAN EXCELSIOR COMPANY:
EXCELSIOR FAHRRADWERKE, GERMANY
Below, to compare with the British Excelsior Autobyk, is an advert for the German equivalent of the autocycle, a 1939 Excelsior Herrenrad and Damenrad, with a 98cc Fichtel & Sachs engine.
1926 HERRENFAHRRAD EXCELSIOR
I bought this 1926 Excelsior bicycle in Germany. My German friend Jurgen is currently preparing it for delivery to me. I’ll create a new page for it after it arrives, and illustrate the contemporary American and German Excelsiors together. The firm of Bayliss Thomas & Co, who made Excelsior bicycles in Great Britain, stopped making bicycles around 1907, so I can’t illustrate a British example of the marque to go with them. (The British Excelsior name was subsequently used for motorcycles, but not bicycles).
THE AMERICAN EXCELSIOR COMPANY:
A 1922 EXCELSIOR with ENGINE
I built this machine a few years ago, a 1922 Excelsior made by the same company, and I fitted an appropriate cyclemotor engine to it.
1930 EXCELSIOR TRIUMPH ‘MOTORBIKE’ (AMERICA) v 1931 TRIUMPH GLORIA (GREAT BRITAIN)
With this American ‘motorbike’ parked next to its British counterpart, I was shocked at how small it seemed next to 26″ frame of the Triumph Gloria.
Although the American manufacturers’ ‘motorbike’ style was criticised in the British press, the swept-back handlebar set with crossbar and the ‘motorbike’ tank – which opens to provide a tool-case – are superb features. Nevertheless, it rides terribly! It was only made for a teenager to ride around town; whereas British bikes were commuter machines ridden by adults.
1918: EXCELSIOR DAY, GOODLAND, KANSAS
Info on Triumph motorcycles in America from the book Triumph Motorcycles: A Century of Passion and Power, by Lindsay Brooke