EXCELSIOR HENDERSON – RIDING THE AMERICAN DREAM
The Big X
The former Excelsior Henderson factory in Belle Plaine Minnesota
For some, this is a familiar story. Over the years, it’s been told in many motorcycle magazines, business articles, newspapers and even on television. In Canada the coverage was almost non-existent, except for some articles in a couple of bike magazines. That’s because the Excelsior-Henderson never made it across the border. The approvals were never sought for the Canadian market — their home market was first on the list.
Dan Hanlon recently made himself available for a telephone interview, and we talked about the development and eventual production of EH motorcycles. What began as an idea floated at a family function became a proprietary engine, frame, front fork – and every nut and bolt it takes to make a motorcycle. This post will be followed by the Dan Hanlon Q & A session.
It’s 1992 in Minnesota. At the Hanlon household a discussion is started among the brothers about purchasing a new Harley-Davidson, and one says they are putting a deposit on an Indian motorcycle. This gets Dan Hanlon thinking, and as a successful entrepreneur he decides to start a motorcycle company that will fill the gap in the American cruiser market. I have a dream. It’s The American Dream. In 1992 some motorcyclists were tired of the long waits and higher than MSRP prices for H-D bikes. As well, the products being offered had a lot of room for improvement. When dealers don’t have to work very hard to earn money something will suffer, either by price or poor service. A gap exists that can break loyalty to a brand.
When demand exceeds supply of a product that’s when it is good timing for any competition to enter the market place. Economics 101. The demand for American made motorcycles was huge in 1992. Some smaller players entered the market with clone bikes and did well for the time. That’s when they could get engines to build bikes. The Japanese were able to pick up sales from the crumbs left on the floor. The Hanlon’s seized the day and decided to take on the challenge.
The Hanlon’s used some seed money raised through family and friends. From the cash in hand, they wanted to create a new motorcycle company. Their mission was to tie in the heritage of American motorcycling using a brand name that didn’t deserve to be forgotten — a name they could resurrect. With over 100 brands in the American market in the 20th century, many were available.
The birth of a new Motorcycle
Hanlon Manufacturing was the business title used while the company looked for a name that could be resurrected. After months of research, the Excelsior-Henderson MotorcycleCompany was chosen. This was a company once owned by Ignaz Schwinn, until 1931 when the recession forced him to close the doors on the motorcycle side of the business. The name had a great reputation in the market place and didn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Entering into an oligopoly is not for the faint hearted. The motorcycle market is like the auto or airline industry with many barriers to entry. Money is the main barrier, getting a foothold in the market once you have a product is next. And then, a company has to win the approval of the buying public. Like the Tucker automobile, the chances of survival are not likely, even if you have a great product to sell.
In 1997 an IPO was done with the symbol Big X. It was imperative to raise funds, as millions of dollars are required to start and build a motorcycle company. Now that sounds like a showroom full of cash but to most manufacturers $25 million is what they need just to do a new model. In an economy of scale $200 million might swing the budget for such an endeavour. The Excelsior-Henderson Company wasn’t in an economy of scale and had many hurdles left to cross. The fight was on to stay alive.
Excelsior-Henderson are now risk takers and easy targets. It’s simpler to be a critic, than to take risks and that’s just another barrier. And no sooner had they made the decision to challenge the American motorcycle industry and along came the negative experts. It can’t or won’t be done was the rhetoric of the day. Excelsior-Henderson was a determined group of people, and they came into work every day, from day one, to do the best job they could do. Nobody can ask for more than the best they had to give.
To build a motorcycle, EH needed a proprietary engine. Dan Hanlon found one at Weslake Engineeringin England. The design was a proven V twin engine with double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Weslake was the same company to design the Hemi. Again, Weslake was another company with a great reputation.
The Excelsior-Henderson Company worked towards creating a chassis to house this new engine. The design team did their best to bring forward styling cues from the 1930 Big X. For example, the leading link forks, and the gauges built into the tank dashboard. March 1931 was the death of the Excelsior-Henderson Big X 61 cubic inch (1000 c.c.) motorcycle.
The cassette transmission
and unit construction of the Big X motor
This a dash on a Jenny (Touring) bike. Same as other models. The style reflects the dash of the original Big X
A prototype Super X next to an original 1930 X
In 1998 EH built a manufacturing plant in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. There were many critics to this venture, but by 1999 the Excelsior-Henderson Company had built a class leading proprietary 85 cu. in. X twin cruiser motorcycle. Unit construction, proprietary frame, fuel injected, gear driven primary, ECU, cassette transmission, leading link anti dive forks, hydraulic clutch, sealed wheel bearings, excellent paint and finish. This motorcycle featured all new components from fender tip to fender tip, and it was years ahead of the competition. Fit and finish was stunning.
One could check out what other manufacturers were offering in 1999, but most of the technology found in the Super X was not available in the market, or was still years in the making. So you would think when you are ahead of the competition that the last thing they would do is draw attention to themselves by criticizing you.
Victory Motorcycles entered the market in 1999 with their V92 bike. It has a bigger motor than H-D and Excelsior-Henderson, but clearly lacks the engineering and quality of finish. A good start though. Was Victory’s decision to make their larger capacity 92” engine influenced by EH’s 85”, and H-D’s introduction of their Twin Cam 88”? Was H-D influenced by presence of the EH 85”? This is an oligopoly where anticipating and reacting to the competition is the order of the day.
Historically the cruiser market has not been an easy one. Just ask Willie G who had a hard lesson in styling with the 1971 Superglide and Sportster boat tail models. The design was not welcomed by the motorcycle buyers of the day. A clear sign that that the V Twin buyers were not early adopters. But the main design of the bike progressed and became the base for many H-D models. This is a similar point at which the Excelsior-Henderson was at in 1999. It’s a great bike that had huge potential for future models via continuous improvement. This is true for Victory; where the brand has progressed through continuous improvement and now has good quality models.
In 1999 the shockwaves must have been going through the H-D management after an article in the July (No. 120) issue of American Iron. In a story, Mark Zimmerman stated: “As for me, I’m willing to go on the record and call the Excelsior-Henderson Super X the best cruiser money can buy.” In the same article a small box contained a ditto by Chris Maida, editor of American Iron. Chris noted that he rode an initial production bike. This article was on the stands just prior to the 1999 Sturgis rally. For years, Sturgis is where H-D has been introducing their new model year bikes. Excelsior-Henderson was at the Sturgis rally and doing a good job of being visible.
An EXCELSIOR HENDERSON pamphlet with the DEADWOOD model in the bottom right corner
Sturgis Rally 1999
The 1999 rally was in full swing and I went there expecting to see the new EH motorcycles. While traveling north from Deadwood I noticed an old 1930’s style service station that had a number of EH motorcycles parked outside. I stopped my bike and my wife and I went up to check them out. Just gorgeous bikes with fit and finish beyond what had been described in any magazine articles that I had read.
Terry Hanlon came out from the service bays and welcomed my wife and I. We talked about the bikes briefly and he invited us to go to the main Excelsior-Henderson display and take one for a ride. We went in to Sturgis, found the EH test rides and signed up. While waiting we managed to talk to Jenny Hanlon and other Road Crew who were at the site. An invitation to the dealer dinner managed to cross our hands and the plan was on to be there. We checked out the EH clothes and gear for sale and came away quite impressed with the quality of it all. The EH package of products was well put together. Just like the bikes.
Part of the brochures pages
Excelsior Henderson oil
Some of the EH shirts
The experience aboard the EH was great. It was fun to ride and had lots of power compared to our 1997 Electra Glide. The handling was superb and with over 4” inches of travel on the suspension the back roads of Sturgis seemed like glass. The anti dive forks worked well and added to the ride. I didn’t want to get off that bike as my senses were calling for more. Other riders were mentioning the bike travelling at 100 M.P.H. with ease while carrying a passenger.
The prices on the bikes were around $18,000.00 and I wanted one so bad I could taste it. Now in 1999 the Canadian dollar was at .68 cents per U.S. dollar which would make the EH north of $25,000.00 plus any taxes at the border. A conversation at the EH booth with a fellow Canadian quickly drained my enthusiasm to purchase as we were told that the bikes had not yet been approved for the Canadian market Without approval there was no way to bring one home. That is still the case today.
That night we went to the Deadwood dinner and talked with dealers from all over the country. Their enthusiasm for the bike was just huge. You could feel this taking off but for one man I talked to who said he wasn’t able to keep the EH on the floor due to pressure from another American bike manufacturer.
There many unique things about the Excelsior-Henderson Company that set them apart from other motorcycle makers. For example, they had the foresight to hire some of the best people in the market place. Alan Hurd, for instance, was the Chief Engineer for Triumph. He brought a lot of manufacturing knowledge to Excelsior-Henderson. Hurd now works for Victory. Excelsior-Henderson’s branding was brilliant and the marketing was equal. Slogans such as “Cloning is for Sheep” made a clear statement of what EH was not. “It will take you places before you start it up”.
They built the Super X, the Deadwood, Cruiser X (a.k.a. Jenny Bike) and variations of paint and finish for all models. The American X was the last model design, and it was fitted with conventional hydraulic front forks and graphics unique to the model — but only one was made. (The American X is in good hands today.) The workers signed each crate that left the floor and they did it with pride. No clones left the Belle Plaine factory.
The American X – only one made
Production # 1931
It has conventional forks
The American X tank graphics
THE EXCELSIOR HENDERSON DEADWOOD
The 2000 Excelsior Henderson Touring model. A.K.A. Jenny bike
The Excelsior-Henderson Company started to slip after 1999 as they needed more operating capital to stay alive. By the following year they would be bankrupt with just under 2000 bikes built and sold. The rest of the story is well documented in Dan Hanlon’s book RidingThe American Dream.
A decade and more has passed since Excelsior-Henderson shook the market. The quality of Harley-Davidson has greatly improved and the Victory line has grown with many models and enhanced engineering that will stand the test of the world market. Had Excelsior-Henderson managed to stay alive during this time we can only imagine what they could have brought to the table, because everything they built was simply delicious.
For Dan, the Hanlon family and all who invested, stand up and take a bow for being so determined to make this project work. You are successful because the Excelsior-Henderson Super X made it from the factory floor, to bike rallies, to dealerships and to garages around the USA and Sweden. Don’t let negative experts take away the success from you. You own it. The investments and profits are gone, but you can’t take the pride away.
As Dan Hanlon often says: “…still fighting the good fight…”
Questions and answers with Dan Hanlon
- I give you credit for the Branding and believe you did it right. The EH name was good in the market place and worth the effort. What would you do differently today to start EH?
For the times, we did the best we could do. Today we couldn’t do it the same because times have changed. It would be different. The market has changed. At the time H-D wasn’t able to keep up with the demand that created the opportunity.
A – twin motor couldn’t be bought if you wanted one.
We took the time to be proprietary from the engine to the fenders and fuel tank. We followed the laws of manufacturing to design and then tool. I’m not sure it could be done the same way today.
- The social network has changed the way we communicate. Briefly, tell us how you would use the social network to facilitate EH in its launch today?
We might have been able to make a home run by being on an equal platform with the likes of Harley-Davidson, Honda, Suzuki and Triumph for instance. It might have given us an advantage.
Note: Excelsior-Henderson was an early adopter with a web site that came late into the resurrection of the motorcycle. Dan has revived the EH website at http://www.excelsiorhenderson.com for the enthusiasts. There is also a facebook account at http://www.facebook.com/ExcelsiorHenderson
- Excelsior-Henderson is a name with some important history behind it – how imperative was it to tie that past into the present when you were initially designing the new EH?
It was our mission to tie in the heritage and recognize the past. We were looking for an old brand that didn’t deserve to be dead. We didn’t want a Hanlon or namesake bike. We used the Sturgis market as one of the locations to validate the consumer interest to resurrect the brand. We had enthusiastic support at the rallies. We didn’t go in quietly.
- Many great people walked your halls and now they work for others. (Allan Hurd from Triumph to EH who now works for Victory)
Do you see EH ideas on other bikes now?
- I guess there has been some adoption of our ideas and methods.
- We had the Road Crew for instance and they all worked hard and had their careers improve or used it as a springboard.
- We want to hear your thoughts about the latest start ups. Indian, Norton, Motus
- Well, I wish them luck. It is a hard sell for any new start up. They may see limited success. It’s always better to have tried and failed as opposed to never have tried at all. There is always the high probability of failure. (One) just needs to be able to handle failure, if it comes.
Riding The American Dream by Dan Hanlon
American Iron July 1999 issue 120
Motorcycle pictures from www.excelsiorhenderson.com
- 2000 EH Jenny pictures from David Dean
Excelsior Henderson on Facebook
Excelsior Henderson Services
Atlantic E.H. Marty and Jamie Jones
Research and story by
Bobby Baum Motorcycle projects
Greg Williams www.gregwilliams.ca