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Early Motorcycles and Perfin Stamps
A brief history of early motorycles and the companies that made them, with particular reference to perfins.

by Cully Granger

Around 1899 Oscar Hedstrom, a champion high top bicycle racer, and soon-to-be co-founder of the famous Indian Moto Cycle Company, built his first motorcycle. It was a tandem motorcycle used to pace bicycle racers. The front person steered while the rear rider kept the motor in proper adjustment. It is not certain, but many people think that the motor used was a French built DE Dion Bouton (French perfin "D.S.")
 


French stamp with perfin "D.S." of the de Dion Bouton Co.

 
In 1901 Hedstrom joined with George Hendee to form Indian Moto Cycle Company. One of the new prototype Indians was sent to the Aurora Automatic Machinery Company of Chicago to be studied. Aurora began as a machine shop in 1886, supplying forged metal parts for the booming bicycle business. Many small, independent bicycle shops brazed their own frames, fenders, tanks and paint but had to buy the front and rear hubs, nipples, spokes handlebars etc.
 
The two companies struck a deal. Aurora agreed to make the engine casings and parts. They were allowed to sell motors to other companies as long as a royalty was paid to Indian, but could not build a Moto Cycle to compete with Indian. In 1903, obviously stretching this agreement as far as they could, Aurora founded Thor Moto Cycle and Bicycle Company and produced a parts catalog showing all the parts needed to assemble a complete "motorcycle" (note different spelling).
 

Thor perfin (script)

 
In 1903, several motorcycle companies sprang up making motorcycles identical to the Indian 1902 and the Thor 1903. It was said that by 1905, half the motorcycles at the trade show where Thor clones: Thor-bred, Standard, Flying Merkle, Apache, Raycycle, and Manson. In later years, Sears and Torpedo were to be added to the list.
 
In 1906 Indian Moto Cycle Company opened their own foundry and in 1907 Thor announced their own dealerships with completed machines, thus ending any ties between Indian and Thor.
 
In 1912 Thor developed a 2 speed transmission which was offered on the Henderson. Increased motor sizes of 1000cc and 1200cc were offered in 1913. By 1915, Harley, Indian and Excelsior offered a 3 speed transmissions while all Thor had to offer was a redesigned 2 speed. Although very rugged, it left a lot to be desired. By 1916 Thor made its last design changes, offering a 3 speed transmission and a conventional clutch. The last motors where built in 1916. They assembled a few bikes up until 1918 (some say even as late as 1920) out of spare parts, but officially ended production 1916.
 
Several other bikes, besides the ones already mentioned, used Thor parts. Cyclone used Thor frame and forks, Henderson used the 2 speed transmission, Harley Davidson used Thor hubs from 1911 to 1914 . Thor had a lot of success with their racing team from 1908 to 1912, however in that year, Bill Ottoway (a Canadian) left Thor to go to the Harley Davidson racing team. He led Harley from obscurity in 1911 to the American Championship in 1916, but that is another story.
 

Left to right: 1915 Harley Davidson, 1913 Harley Davidson, 1913 Flying Merkel

 
From the early 1900s to the 20's there were close to 200 motorcycle companies in the USA. The only other motorcycle related perfin from the USA of which I am aware, is reference number M168 MM from the American Motor Company of Brockton, Massachusets. It's very high on my want list!

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