SDAMC Articles

1912 Flying Merkel

Story by Joe Michaud, Pictures by Tim Stahl

click on thumbnails for larger pics


Considering the social advances and opportunities of the times, the years between 1910 and 1920 are often referred to as the Golden Decade of American Motorcycling.  While America was beginning the second decade of the 20th century, The Mechanical Age continued to bear fruit and many products were developed that aided the citizen, enhanced his life, and boosted his production.
            Simultaneously with the release of his innovative Model T, Henry Ford would raise the wage of the daily worker in America to an unheard of sum of five dollars per day.  The nation was riding a wave of rich industrial development that was enhanced by rapid technical innovation.  The fledgling motorcycle industry was no different.
            Small American motorcycle manufacturers like Standard Reading, Pope, Cyclone, Henderson, Thor, and a myriad of others---as well as “The Big 3” of Indian, Excelsior, and Harley-Davidson---were producing motorcycles into the domestic market, often while pursuing wildly divergent development technologies.
            Spurred on by an American belief in ingenuity and driven by the burgeoning transportation needs of a restless country, new builders were emerging, all ready to try their hand at their own brand of engineering and design.

Joseph I. Merkel was such a man.

Originally centered in Milwaukee, Merkel built a few single-cylinder, belt-drive machines utilizing ingenuity of his own…his machines featured integral exhaust systems that used frame tubes as silencers, an easier-to-use incorporation of throttle opening and spark advance, and an innovative oil system. 
            The Merkel company soon merged with a small manufacturing firm in Pottstown, Pennsylvania where the machines continued to incorporate other ingenious designs---most of which were quickly adapted by the larger manufacturers.  These included a sprung swing-arm and a telescoping front fork that are clear predecessors of modern frame design. 
            Soon, Merkel was offered another merger and he joined a bicycle-manufacturing firm in Middletown, Ohio where manufacturing began in earnest with the introduction of the first big bore V-Twin, which used a 61 cubic inch motor.  He now called his machines “Flying Merkels.”
            Merkel insisted on superior build-quality and he personally scrutinized the building of most Flying Merkel models.  His big-bore Merkels were successfully raced by the great Maldwyn Jones, among others, and they would garner racing tributes well into the mid-decade both on dirt tracks and “on the boards.”  The 1911 sales-brochure for Flying Merkel advertises that a “Flying Merkel achieved a distance of one measured mile in 41.4 seconds.”  That’s a tick under 87mph and pretty darn quick for 1911.
            Some innovations proved to be “spot on” while others perhaps fell a bit wide of the mark.  Soon, sales competition would prove the Merkels to be too expensive to produce and with gathering war clouds looming over Europe, the larger displacement machines would begin to be phased out circa 1914.  Sadly, Merkel production would cease soon after.

But the legacy and vision of Joseph Merkel would live on.

Mike Madigan is a collector/restorer with a serious passion for older bikes.  He owns many belt-drive era machines and acquired this 61 inch 1912 Flying Merkel V-S under rather remarkable conditions.
            It seems the bike was purchased new in San Diego in 1912 and saw relatively few miles before the original owner secreted it behind a false wall in his home prior to leaving for war-torn Europe during WWI.  He never returned to reclaim his machine and it sat undisturbed and unremembered for nearly sixty years until it was discovered during demolition of the old house in Carlsbad, California for freeway expansion in 1970. 
           The next man who acquired the machine started its restoration but lost interest for various reasons and allowed the bike to languish.  That owner eventually read an article about the Madigan collection and offered the machine to Mike. 
           According to Mike, the machine was in very good shape when originally rediscovered although its subsequent storage proved less than ideal.  The seat, the drive belt, and the original paint had been allowed to suffer while the disassembled machine was stored outside.  Sad stuff, this, after the bike had survived 60-odd years of nearly archival preservation.
          Madigan had a new saddle made from the original Merkel shop-pattern, new tires were installed, and also a new V-belt was constructed.  The late Cliff “Slippery” Hills, of whom Mike speaks most fondly, restored the motor.  “Cliff was the kind of guy who could hold an old carburetor like one of these in his hands and make it work again,” says Madigan with a smile.
         Mark Jahn, noted Indian restorer, handled all the cosmetics and the machine was restored in its correct 1912 livery complete with flashy orange paint and delicate black pin-striping. The repop Coker 28X2.5/2 tires are correct in their natural rubber color.

  The entire machine is quite narrow with the motor measuring less than six inches wide at the crankcases.  The widest part of the machine, disregarding the pull-back handlebars, is the seat. The “inlet over exhaust”--or IOE configuration--uses atmospheric intake valves while the exhaust valves are pushrod operated.  A Bosch magneto mounted on the crankcase front handles the electrics.  The Eclipse mechanical clutch is operated by a gated-lever mounted on the left side of the machine and has nearly a dozen detents between full-engagement and full-release.
            The Flying Merkel owed much of its popular success (and its high price) to its high-tech motor.  The big V-twin used ball-bearings on connecting-rod big-ends and on main bearings, rather than the bronze bushes that were common on most machines of the era. Flying Merkels also offered a primitive but automatic variable-supply lubrication system that was controlled by the throttle position.  This nearly eliminated the need for a rider to periodically pump a “total-loss” system although provisions for an occasional “assist” were provided for use during spirited engine speeds or a heavy climb.
            The operation of machines from this era requires a different set of rules.  The drill is as follows:  set the bike on its rear-wheel stand and fill the crankcase with the required amount of oil using the provided glass syringe.  Retard the ignition and engage the clutch.  Set the throttle and choke/prime the carburetor.  Raise both exhaust valves with the bar end de-compressor latch.  Pedal until the motor chuffs into life, then drop the exhaust valve latch allowing full compression.  Throw out the clutch to release the rear wheel and belt. Adjust the ignition advance and throttle position as needed while the motor warms.  Adjust the automatic oiler for appropriate setting and check for the correct exhaust color denoting proper oiling.  Clip up the rear stand.  Mount the machine and begin to pedal away while feeding in some clutch. The clutch detents allow the clutch friction to be modulated while both hands are busy adjusting the left grip for magneto advance and the right grip for throttle position.  Continue to adjust throttle and timing while gradually clicking the clutch through the detents until full lock-up is achieved.
             Knowledgeable collectors say these machines could run at 60mph at full-chat.  Slow speed running is a bit more problematic and requires attention to both carefully retarded timing and appropriate use of the valve-lifter.  A careful eye on the exhaust color and a well-schooled ear is necessary to provide adequate power and a smooth-running, no-knock engine.

  The geometry of the cradle frame shows the bicycle heritage of the Merkel line, as do the pedals, handlebars, and the coaster-style rear brake.  The front down-tube on the frame employs a gooseneck bend to incorporate the slim crankcase.  The elegant forward sweep of the front fork assembly plus the low slung fuel/oil tank make the bike appear fast even while sitting still.  As a design form, the Merkel is as pretty as any machine of any era. 

To have owned and ridden this bright orange motorcycle in 1912 would have been a treat that we can only imagine.  The Coolest Kid in Town?  I think so.

©Joe Michaud 2001