When it comes to motorcycles, America is the undisputed heavyweight champ of the world. Even though our neighbors in Europe may have a better sense of style, America has had the best motorcycle manufacturers around.
From Harley-Davidson to Indian Motorcycles, the country has given motorcycling enthusiasts the quality and craftsmanship they need to cruise down the road with both style and safety from the late 19th century up to now.
If you’re interested in learning more about the legendary motorcycle companies of the USA, then you are in the right place. Here is a history of the first ten motorcycle companies ever founded in the USA, their products, and how they fared over time:
The First 10 Motorcycle Companies In The USA
Just like the invention of vehicles in the 19th century was the answer for horseless carriers, the invention of motorcycles was the answer to self-propelled bicycles. People could now ride for long distances and uphill with ease with such bicycles. Cycling to faraway places no longer took days but just hours, provided the rider had enough fuel.
The first self-propelled bicycle was made in 1867 by Ernest Michaux. This 1800s motorcycle design eventually found its way to the United States. Within no time, many engineers came up with their prototypes which contributed to the development of motorcycles. As the popularity of self-propelled bicycles grew, it prompted engineers and investors to start companies for large-scale manufacture of such automobiles.
Here is a list of the first 10 motorcycle companies in the USA:
1. Waltham Manufacturing Company
The first company on our list is the Walt Manufacturing Company (WMC). WMC was founded in 1863 by Charles Herman Metz. It started with two employees who had the ambitions of building a steam engine car. By 1899, the firm was a major distributor of De Dion-Bouton engines. Eventually, the company experimented with mounting engines on bicycles, leading to the production of the first motorcycle made in USA.
During their active years, the company made the following motorcycles:
Single Cylinder Orient Aster
The Orient Aster was a motorcycle manufactured in 1899. It was essentially a bicycle outfitted with a 2-horsepower gasoline engine. The bike carried about five quarts of fuel, which gave it a range of 100 miles. Buyers would have to shell out a whopping $250 to own the bike. In 1899, $250 was quite expensive for such a vehicle, but the price didn’t seem to be much of an obstacle for buyers—at least not until cheaper motorcycles began to be produced by rivals in the following years.
The Orient Aster was used frequently in races and hill-climbing contests. In one particular race, the bike completed ten laps in 18 minutes and 30 seconds, translating to an average speed of 32 miles per hour.
The Orient Motorcycle Company remained active until 1907. The new bike was so popular that Metz bid WMC goodbye and opened a separate company.
Two-cylinder Orient Aster
The Orient Aster was an incredible bike for its time, but four years after the release of the one-cylinder model, it got even better—in the form of a two-cylinder version.
The new version doubled horsepower had the same body, speed, and tank capacity as the original but was slightly more expensive and had a higher performance than its once-cylinder counterpart. This motorcycle was designed for long trips over rough terrain, so it had suspension on both wheels and a central spring that provided additional comfort when riding. Both models were a success as there was no competition.
The Marsh Motorcycle was manufactured by the Marsh brothers in 1899. The motorcycle had a 1hp engine, and little to no details are known about its speed and performance. The bike was not famous or successful. It is just part of the history of motorcycles produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
It was the early 1900s, and American streets were about to become a lot more crowded. The Marsh brothers, W.T and A.R, had already been manufacturing bicycles for a few years when they decided to merge with Charles Metz in 1903, creating a new bike called Marsh & Metz (or as it was often abbreviated, M.M.).
Together, the three men built a motorcycle with a 6-hp motor that could reach 60 mph. They sold most of them in the first year alone, but their success would be short-lived: by 1913, the company was no more. Metz switched his focus entirely to manufacturing automobiles.
2. Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company
Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company started as Hendee Manufacturing Company. It was founded in 1897 by George M. Hendee, who initially wanted to manufacture bicycles. In 1898 the company was renamed Indian because it made so many bikes than bicycles.
Then in 1900, Hendee partnered with Oscar Hedstrom to make motorcycles. The two were former bicycle riders and manufacturers. The firm’s name would be later changed to Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company in 1923.
The company is credited for the following early 1900s motorcycles:
The diamond-framed Indian bike
The diamond-framed Indian was designed in 1901 and made publicly available in 1902. It featured a single-cylinder engine and a chain drive. The engine was manufactured by the Aurora Firm in Illinois, which also supplied engines for other early motorcycle manufacturers.
In 1903, the Indian set the fastest world bike speed record of 56 mph in American motorcycle history. The following year, the firm introduced the deep red color that would become its trademark. Annual production of Indian motorcycles then exceeded 500, and by 1913, it had risen to 32,000.
V-twin factory racer
In 1905 the V-twin factory racer was designed and produced by the Indian company. The motorcycle set many racing and long-distance records in its class. It had a Power Plus, v-twin 1000cc engine. The engine was powerful and quieter than other engines at the time.
The racer had a top speed of 96km/h (60mph). It was a success and stayed in production until 1924.
The Featherweight, also known as Model K, was manufactured in 1916. The bike had a 221 cc engine that was a single-cylinder two-stroke, and it weighed only 130 pounds! It could reach a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour.
In 1917, the Featherweight was replaced by Model O, which featured a 4-stroke engine. The firm discontinued Model O in 1919.
The Scout and Chief V-twins
The Scout and Chief V-twins were a pair of motorcycles sold by Indian Company in the early 1920s. These models were incredibly successful and propelled Indian Company to the top of the motorcycle sales charts for several years running.
While Charles Franklin designed the bikes, the Scout was a middleweight model with a 600cc engine, while the Chief had a larger 745cc engine. Both engines featured a V-twin design that gave plenty of power while also being durable, reliable, and strong.
In1962, one modified the version of the bike hit speeds of 288.026 km/hr. Another modified version would hit 295km/hr in 1967.
The model was discontinued in 1945. Other models were introduced but failed. In 1953, the company stopped manufacturing up to date. However, the name has been bought by several firms. As of now, it is owned by Polaris Industries, a parent company of Victory Motors.
3. Henderson Motorcycle Company
Henderson Motorcycle Company was founded in 1911 by brothers William and Tom Henderson. William was an engineer and Tom a financial expert. Together, they built a company that lasted for years and produced one of the most iconic bikes in history, the Henderson Motorcycle Co.
In 1998, both men were inducted into the motorcycle hall of fame for their contributions to motorcycle engineering. They have built the following models over the years:
The Henderson Four
In 1911, Tom and William Henderson announced that they would manufacture a 934cc bike with chain drive. The bike would come with a 7hp engine with four cylinders. In January 1912, it was released to the public. At $325, it was expensive. However, it had the best performance of its time. It reached speeds of over 160km/h in 1912.
Sales were boosted by particular advertisements throughout all publications, including magazines and newspapers. The company also advertised on the radio, telling stories about how the motorcycle could take you anywhere and everywhere you needed to go.
In 1913, Henderson introduced the Model B, an improved version of the Henderson Four. Improvements included better brakes, a better sitting position, and improved girder forks. The most obvious changes were the fuel tank, which was now a bigger rectangular shape. Performance and engine remained the same.
In 1914, another model was introduced. It was named Model C and had a two-speed gearbox and lighter pistons. It also had an adjustable seat. This bike was the first Henderson creation to have gears.
Model D and E
The company released the Model D and E in 1916. They were both identical, except for the Model D having a bigger wheelbase of 65 inches, which was reduced to 58 inches in the Model E.
The Model E introduced two-speed rear hubs. The footboards also had raised insteps.
The standard model retailed at $295 and the Model E at $335. Both had the same engine as previous models.
It was in 1916, and Henderson Company had just released a new bike—the Model F. It had a shorter wheelbase than its predecessor, the Model E. It would prove to be instrumental in determining the dimensions of future bikes. The Model F’s wheelbase became the standard for years to come, even after other companies began producing their motorcycles.
The Model F used the same engine as the previous model but added a cam-gear for engine noise reduction. It now also had access to a kick start for easy starting.
At first, the price point of the Model F was low, but this changed due to the effects of World War I on the American economy. The standard version was priced at $295, while the two-speed version cost $325.
In 1917, Henderson had its first taste of success. The company produced the Model G, and it was a huge hit with the bikers.
The bike had a three-speed gearbox that was attached to the engine. It also had a heavy-duty clutch in place. The model also came with wet-sump lubrication. These improvements saw it improve its performance drastically. In 1917, a biker broke the average transcontinental speed for long-distance using this bike. He averaged speeds of 48 miles per hour. Sales of the bike soared, and the company established a lot of dealerships.
However, the effects of world war I brought the company to its knees. In 1917, it was sold and renamed Excelsior Motor Manufacturing and Supply Company.
4. Thor Motorcycles
Thor Motorcycles was founded in 1901, and its headquarters were located in Aurora, Illinois. The company employed the skills of some talented engineers like Oscar Hedstrom, Bill Ottoway, and AI Croker.
Thor started by building engines for Indian motorcycles. When the agreement between the two companies came to an end in 1907, Thor continued making engines for other firms. It invented the F-head, V twin automatic engine. In 1913 it produced a 1200cc engine for their first motorcycle.
The company is known for the following motorcycle models:
Thor Model 7
The Thor Model 7 was manufactured in 1908, and it featured a 2.25 hp engine for plenty of power on the open road. The engine had a direct drive, so there was no need for a clutch to engage the motor, making it easy to operate. The bike required the rider to pedal it forward for about 20 feet before the engine would activate, but once it was running, you could easily hit 35 miles per hour.
Thor Model 14A
The Model 14A was the company’s first V-twin engine motorcycle and was introduced in 1914.
The Model 14A had a 76.25 cubic inch (1,200cc) V-twin engine that produced 9 to 14 horsepower. It had a two-speed transmission and belt drive, and an automatic oiler. It also had 55 inches wheelbase, weighed 225 pounds, and was priced at $275.
Despite its price, sales of this model bike were poor, and only a few units were sold by the end of production in 1915.
Thor Model O
The Model O was one of the early motorcycles built by the Thor Motor Company. It was manufactured in 1911, an early year for motorcycle production. The Model O used an F-head engine design introduced in 1910, which featured a V-twin engine. That engine design had mechanical inlet valves, making it more powerful and reliable.
Thor Model U
The Model U was manufactured in 1912 and replaced their model O. It used a new redesigned v-twin engine. Previously, the engine had been mounted with its rear cylinders vertical, but this model adopted a conventional placement. The engine capacity was also increased to 76.25 cubic inches from 61 cubic inches.
The improvements made the bike fast, and it set the fastest 5-mile record on dirt in 1913 and the fastest 50 miles time that year. The motorcycle was marketed by its power and had speeds of above 50 miles per hour.
The company ceased making motorcycles in 1915 to concentrate on manufacturing household appliances. The firm still exists to date.
5. Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company
The Pierce Arrow Automobile Company started manufacturing motorbikes as early as in 1901. Previously, it delt with household items such as gilded birdcages and so forth. It was co-owned by Munschauer, George Pierce and Heinz.
The parent company begun its operations in 1865. Seven years later, George Norman Pierce bought out Munschauer and Heinz. He also changed the company’s name to George N. Pierce Company.
In 1896, the firm added bicycles to its offerings. The company also started manufacturing engines. Its first steam engine was a failure, but by 1904, the company concentrated on making luxurious cars. Many were a success.
In 1908, George N. Pierce’s son Percy was appointed to head up bicycle activities at the company, and he steered the company towards manufacturing motorcycles.
The company is known for the following American built motorcycle:
The Four-Cylinder Luxury Motorcycle
What if I told you that in 1909, one of the famous American motorcycle manufacturers had a bike that had four cylinders? And what if I told you on top of that, this motorcycle was created to be a luxurious ride? This is no fake news. The motorcycle was called the Four-Cylinder Luxury Motorcycle. It was allegedly a clone of the Belgian FN, a Belgium bike designed by Paul Kelecom.
The Four-Cylinder Luxury Motorcycle was manufactured in 1909, and it had a four-cylinder engine. The engine had a capacity of 696cc and had seven horsepower. It could reach maximum speeds of 55 miles per hour.
Early models featured a direct drive, but in 1910 a clutch was introduced with a two-speed transmission.
The motorcycle was leading in all things, from wheels to handlebars. The handlebars were made out of aluminum and were of the butterfly type.
Nonetheless, the motorcycle was expensive to produce due to its luxury. Hence, it was never profitable. By 1913, the company stopped making motorcycles.
6. Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company
Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company’s parent firm, American Company Merkel, was founded in 1902 by Joe Merkel. Joe began by designing engines for bicycles. Later he began building his motorcycle prototypes. From 1903 all of his creations had a “Merkel Light” trademark on their tanks. In 1910, Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company took over the firm. It renamed the trademark “Flying Merkel,” and built the famous Flying Merkel motorcycle.
The Flying Merkel was manufactured in 1911. Although it featured a conservative engine control technology, the engine control system featured automatic inlet and outlet valves, which were rather uncommon in motorcycles at the time.
The engine had a capacity of 884cc, delivering six horsepower. It had a two-speed transmission and belt drive. The motorcycle also had a spring-loaded kickstart, which was another rarity at that time.
Its maximum speed was 60 miles per hour, although this would depend on the rider’s ability to maintain balance and stay on the motorcycle during acceleration. A sports version with a 997cc engine was available and cost $325, making it one of the most expensive motorcycles at that time. Production stopped in 1915.
The Flying Merkel was not very successful because it was rather expensive for its time. It was faster than most riders could handle without ending up on the ground or crashing into fences or other obstacles along the way.
7. Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company
Founded in 1907 in Chicago, the Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company was purchased five years later by Ignaz Schwinn, a sole proprietor who owned a bicycle manufacturing company. The same year he purchased Excelsior, it unveiled its first motorcycle. In 1917, Schwinn then purchased the Henderson Motorcycle Company and made it a division of Excelsior.
The company produced the following automobiles;
The Excelsior BigX was a heavyweight motorcycle manufactured in 1912 by the Excelsior Motor Company of Chicago, Illinois. It was the first v-twin engine motorcycle made by Excelsior, and it used the inlet over exhaust technology with a 1000cc (61cu) engine.
The bike was initially equipped with a belt drive but later upgraded to two-speed and three-speed transmissions. The BigX model came in various colors, with the famous being grey with red panels. Other variations had a dark blue color with gold pinstriping. The company unveiled another version of BigX with a 1,210cc engine. However, very few models were sold.
Many BigX models were exported to Europe and Australia before production ended in 1924 as another model replaced it.
Excelsior Super X
In 1925, Excelsior Motor Company unveiled the Super X, a 737cc V-twin engine motorcycle. It was the first motorcycle to feature this kind of engine, and it was introduced to compete with the famous Indian Scout. In response, Indian raised its Scout’s engine capacity to 737cc, and it introduced another upgraded model and the Model D, to compete with this motorcycle.
The Super X was an incredibly popular model, but in 1929 the stock market crashed, leading to plummeted motorcycle sales. Production on the Super X was immediately stopped. The founder Ignaz Schwinn didn’t want to get into depression despite having many booked orders for his bikes. Instead of getting down about it all, he chose to go back to his bicycle manufacturing business and closed down Excelsior Motor Company in 1931.
8. The Wagner Motorcycle Company
George Wagner established the Wagner Motorcycle Company in Minnesota in 1901. It was one of the first companies to position the engine of its motorcycles low down, using a loop frame to achieve this. Over its existence, the company made over 8,500 motorcycles.
Wagner’s motorcycle model had pushrod engines with a size of between 15 cubic inches to 29 cubic inches. The engine was driven by a V-belt and had a suction intake valve. The bike was advanced for its time as it had exhaust valves and shaft drive components missing from other bikes. Depending on the engine size, the bike cost $175 to $210.
In 1901, a women’s version of the bike was unveiled. This bike had a drop frame design which enabled female riders to sit comfortably in skirts instead of trousers which men wore at that time. This feature made it easy for women to ride the bikes while still looking feminine.
The company became widely known in the country for this women’s model, created by Wagner’s daughter, who is reputedly the world’s first female motorcyclist.
However, by 1914, the company’s sales decreased dramatically. The company was not able to keep up with the advancing engine technology. Wagner sold it to the Motorcycle Accessories Company that year.
9. Crocker Motorcycles
In 1932, Albert Crocker established Crocker Motorcycle Company in Los Angeles, California. He was an American inventor and businessman who greatly influenced the racing and motorbike industry.
Albert started with purchasing Freed Indian, an Indian Motorcycle dealership. Then he used the institution to design and develop his bikes. In 1931, he introduced a dirty track racing bike.
Crocker was a talented engineer, designer, and inventor. He invented 30 to 50cu engines with a single cylinder. Later on, he sold the Indian dealership and created the Crooker Motorcycle Company, where he developed amazing creations such as:
Speedway racing motorcycle
The speedway racing motorcycle was a single-cylinder-engine bike with a 45 cubic inch ( 750cc) side-valve 101 Sout engine. It had a peak power of 6,000 revolutions per minute and weighed 235 pounds. The bike’s model number was FH, and it came in a blue frame with a polished aluminum tank and chromium-plated parts. It cost $385 when it debuted in 1932.
The bike’s engine was improved over time, with an overhead valve engine being released in 1933; however, it was not yet powerful enough to keep up with the competition from JAP-powered motorcycles, which had more powerful engines that could deliver 42 to 43 horsepower. The Crooker speedway racing motorcycle ceased production in 1934 due to this competition.
Powerful V-twins road motorcycle
The Crooker Motorcycle Company built powerful V-twin road motorcycles from 1936 to 1939. Their first model was a 1,000 cc (61 cu in) motorcycle. The frame was made of Reynolds 531 tubing and contained a hand-made tank. It also had an output of 55 to 60 horsepower, exceeding that of Indian and Harley of the time (38 to 40 horsepower).
The Crooker Motorcycle Company also produced other models, including one which had an engine capacity of 1,491cc (91cu in). Most motorcycles were manufactured according to orders. Hence, it was not that successful.
The Scootabout began production in the late 1930s when motorcycles were becoming popular due to the sluggish economy. Since most people had low purchasing power, they could not afford cars and expensive bikes.
This motorcycle was one of the cheaper models. It featured a 2.3 horsepower engine, a centrifugal clutch, and an air-cooled engine. It also had an automatic clutch that engaged when the throttle was depressed, making it easy to operate. The bike featured a streamlined body that had two-toned paint and skirted fenders. It retailed at $139.
However, World War I caused the supply of engines to dwindle in 1942. With less than 100 scooters being produced since the bike debuted, production ceased in 1942.
10. Mustang Motorcycles
Mustang Motorcycle Corporation was founded in 1941. It was a subsidiary company of Gladden Products at the time.
The company began when an engineer, Howard Forest, designed a motorcycle powered by a water-cooled 4-cylinder engine. The president of Gladden Products, John Gladden, had him start the subsidiary company with a co-worker to create the motorcycle. The new company was named Mustang Motorcycle Corporation.
Mustang has produced the following bikes over time:
Villiers engined models
The Villiers-engined models of the Mustang Motorcycle were the company’s first attempt at mass production.
As the name suggests, these bikes used the Villers engine. This engine was a 191cc (11.7 cu in) four-stroke single-cylinder unit. Production for these models began pre-first world war. It continued strong until around 1914, when the company stopped production of the engine to focus on military production as part of WWI efforts.
The company had to downgrade its models to a 125cc less powerful engine into the war. This downgrade meant that they had to downsize their bikes as well. So, the bike frames were reduced down to 8 inches.
After the war, the supply of engines dwindled, Mustang ceased production on these models.
Model 2 and DeliverCycle
In 1947, Gladden acquired Busy Bee Company. This firm was a small engine manufacturer who had the contract to supply engines for Gladden’s commercial vehicles. Gladden needed to ensure that the following models would never be short of engine supply.
That same year, engineer Forrest and his co-worker designed a new motorcycle. The model 2 bike was powered by a 320cc single-cylinder side-valve engine and had a three-speed transmission with 12-inch wheels.
Production of the bike was started in 1947, and initially, there were problems with the design, such as noisy gears and many other shortcomings. These problems led to the upgraded model 3 DeliverCycle bike in 1948. This automobile was a three-wheeled tricycle with a 320cc side-valve engine, three-speed gearbox, and 12-inch wheels. It was discontinued in 1956 since it was slow selling.
The Model 4 bike debuted in 1950. It quickly became the best-selling model of the year. It was a huge success for its reliability and performance. It had a 9.5 horsepower engine, which was later upgraded to 10.5 horsepower, and a four transmission engine.
But that’s not all! The Model 4 also had a two-tone painting for an extra finishing touch and featured an exhaust pipe facing forward rather than back. All of this made the Model 4 model such a hit that it became the base of the Mustang brand.
Thoroughbred bike and Trail Machine
The Thoroughbred was introduced in 1960. It had a revised frame with a rear suspension, and it could carry two people and had a lot of storage space under the seats. It was powered by a 12.5 horsepower engine and had four-speed transmissions. That year Mustang fired engineer Forrest, who went on to work at Honda.
In 1961, the Thoroughbred was replaced by the Trail Machine, which was a budget-friendly machine with less power but three-speed transmission.
Production of motorcycles ended in 1965 due to gearbox shortages, competition from Honda, and management problems.
Well, there you have it! The top 10 first motorcycle companies in USA history have been revealed. Some of the motorcycles listed were the most popular models for many years and are still loved by collectors today.
We are still enjoying the same two-wheeled freedom that the first motorcyclists did all those decades ago. However, we have more options today regarding brands, engine capacity, transmission speeds, and styles.
We hope you enjoyed learning about these classic motorcycles and their history as much as we did. You’ve now gained a greater understanding of its history as an industry and a better sense of how it came to be what it is today.