The contemporary Excelsior-Henderson logo. Images courtesy Mecum Auctions.
In December 1998, a reborn Excelsior-Henderson produced its first new motorcycle in 67 years. Just 2,000 Super X models were built before the company ran out of funds, prompting a bankruptcy filing and the closure of its Belle Plaine, Minnesota, factory. On January 27, 2018, the Excelsior-Henderson brand name, all registered trademarks, web domains, previous motorcycle and frame designs, and expired patents will be offered for sale in Las Vegas, Nevada, as part of Mecum’s winter motorcycle auction.
As The New York Times outlined in a 1999 article, the saga of the Excelsior-Henderson revival began in the summer of 1993, when brothers Dave and Dan Hanlon, along with Dave’s wife Jennie, attended the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Sensing an opportunity for another American brand to challenge Harley-Davidson’s dominance of the large-displacement cruiser market, the Hanlons began a search for a defunct domestic brand with sufficient history and credibility.
The Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company of Chicago caught the group’s attention. Henderson, acquired by Excelsior in 1917, built the fastest (and arguably, best-engineered) bikes of the day, powered by a four-cylinder engine. Excelsior pioneered the 45-cu.in. V-twin to combat the successful Indian Scout, which in turn matched the Excelsior’s displacement and prompted Harley to build its own equivalent, the Model D. Combining the two defunct brands into Excelsior-Henderson would emphasize Excelsior’s focus on the traditional V-twin engine, along with Henderson’s reputation for performance and engineering excellence.
Circa-1915 advertising for the Excelsior Model 15.
In 1928, Excelsior was the third-largest motorcycle manufacturer in the United States, but its sales growth would soon come to a halt. The Great Depression prompted a significant decline in motorcycle sales for all manufacturers, and in March 1931 Excelsior owner Ignaz Schwinn announced to employees that the company would immediately halt motorcycle production. Instead, it would focus its attention on building bicycles, a wise business decision given the continued success of Schwinn into the 21st century.
Once the Excelsior-Henderson brand name was secured, the Hanlons set to work launching a company focused on building premium American motorcycles. The timing was right, since demand for Harley-Davidson motorcycles far outstripped supply, with some buyers waiting a full year for delivery of new motorcycles. The key to success would be getting a premium product to market before anyone else, and, in 1993, this goal seemed achievable.
The Excelsior-Henderson Super X was a clean-sheet heavyweight cruiser design that paid homage to Excelsior and Henderson models of the past. A leading-link fork was routed through the front fender, and the frame’s downtubes were curved to mirror the shape of the fender. Instead of procuring a Harley-Davidson-based V-twin engine, Excelsior-Henderson enlisted the help of cylinder-head specialist Weslake Engineering to design a proprietary 50-degree, 1,386cc, air-cooled V-twin, equipped with dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and fuel injection. Even the average price of $18,500 was on par with that of a well-equipped Harley-Davidson.
To produce the Super X (and future motorcycles), Excelsior-Henderson built a state-of-the-art, 160,000-square-foot facility in Belle Plaine, Minnesota, southwest of Minneapolis. Though initial plans called for production of 4,000 motorcycles in the brand’s first year, the facility would allow for assembly of up to 20,000 bikes annually, meaning it would take some time for Excelsior-Henderson to outgrow its new home. In December 1998, the first Super X of a 2,000-unit initial build rolled off the assembly line.
A 2000 Excelsior-Henderson Super X.
Except, by then, the world had changed. Powersports titan Polaris announced the Victory motorcycle brand in 1997, and production of its V-twin cruisers began in Spirit Lake, Iowa, on July 4, 1998. Smaller manufacturers had filled the niche as well, offering Harley-Davidson derivatives in formats ranging from mild to wild.
In 1999, less than a year after production began, Excelsior-Henderson found itself out of cash and unable to raise additional funds. Forced to declare bankruptcy, the company’s assets were acquired by a Florida-based investment group, EH Partners, in 2000. In 2001, EH Partners also declared bankruptcy, and until now the Excelsior-Henderson brand has been largely dormant.
Largely is not the same as entirely. In 2010, Dan Hanlon revamped the Excelsior-Henderson website, ostensibly to document the brand’s history and give owners a community to place to post images and tell stories. In early 2017, Denver-based investment firm Aaron, Bell International sought partners for the “reintroduction of the brand to the marketplace,” but in a market that’s seen Harley-Davidson’s domestic sales shrink by 7.9-percent domestically (and 5.9-percent internationally) in the first half of 2017, there were no takers.
Perhaps that’s why the Excelsior-Henderson brand and its accompanying intellectual property–not including assets like the Belle Plaine factory, which sold to engineered-stone countertop manufacturer Cambria in 2009–will be crossing the block next January. For the right buyer, at the right price, the opportunity to purchase a once-storied brand, complete with designs for product that could be brought to market with a bit of updating, might be too good to pass up.
The 2018 Las Vegas motorcycle sale takes place from January 23-27 at the South Point Hotel and Casino Exhibit Hall. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.