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Could Excelsior-Henderson be poised for (another) rebirth?

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2000 Excelsior-Henderson Super X. Photo courtesy Mecum Auctions.

On December 21, 1999, the Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Company, a revival of a once-storied American brand, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after just two model years of production. Now, as RevZilla reports, a Denver-based investment firm believes the time is right for another attempt at an all-new Excelsior-Henderson, which would go head-to-head for market share against Harley-Davidson and the Polaris-owned Indian Motorcycle.

In 1928, the Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company, which had acquired the Henderson Motorcycle Company in 1917, was the third-largest producer of motorcycles in the United States behind Indian and Harley-Davidson. Three years later, in September of 1931, company owner Ignaz Schwinn made the decision to halt motorcycle production, opting instead to focus on the company’s bicycle business while the Great Depression lingered on.

It would take until 1993 for Excelsior-Henderson to be reborn, and initially, the revival was known as the Hanlon Manufacturing Company. Led by David, Daniel and Jennie Hanlon, who acquired the rights to the Excelsior and Henderson names, the company sought to challenge Harley-Davidson’s dominance in the large-displacement cruiser market. At the time, Harley-Davidson customers had to endure a multi-year wait for new motorcycles, as demand far out-stripped supply. Producing a similar American-built motorcycle, with a legendary name, powered by a 1,386cc air-cooled V-twin engine, was about as close as one could get to a guaranteed success.

Determined to build a brand and not just a motorcycle, Excelsior-Henderson took its time in designing propriety components that paid homage to Excelsior and Henderson models of the past. The leading link fork, for example, was routed through the fender, and the frame’s downtubes were curved to mirror the shape of the front fender. Even the V-twin engine was a nod to Excelsiors from an earlier time, though the revival incorporated modern features such as fuel injection, four valves per cylinder and dual overhead camshafts.  A state-of-the-art factory, capable of building up to 20,000 bike annually, was constructed in Belle Plain, Minnesota, and in early 1999 the brand began production of its first model, the Super X.

In the six years from concept to execution, the market had changed. Indian was back, then gone, then back again, built in Gilroy, California with engines supplied by S&S. More significantly, Polaris had launched the Victory brand in 1998, giving buyers an alternative American V-twin cruiser backed by a parent with deep pockets. Those wanting “customs” had no shortage of builders to choose from, and even Harley-Davidson ramped up its production to meet customer demand.

Excelsior-Henderson’s Super X was generally well-received by publications of the day, and its distribution network included roughly 140 dealers from coast to coast, but this wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat. Less than a year after production began, Excelsior-Henderson found itself unable to secure the additional funding needed for ongoing operation, prompting its bankruptcy filing.

Which brings us back to 2017. Aaron, Bell International, the Denver investment firm, has been retained to “seek a strategic relationship for the reintroduction of the (Excelsior-Henderson) brand to the marketplace.” The firm cites the closure of Victory by Polaris, along with the “strength of American motorcycle manufacturing and sales worldwide,” as reasons why the time is right for a new Excelsior-Henderson revival. This time, the design and engineering work done by the last revival would be part of the package, meaning that a new Excelsior-Henderson won’t be starting from scratch.

Still, domestic sales of Harley-Davidson models declined by 3.9-percent from 2015 to 2016, and while international sales grew by 2.3-percent, this wasn’t enough to counter the sales drop at home. Overall, sales fell by 1.6-percent, and the brand’s projections for 2017 call for continued flat sales in its largest market. As Revzilla points out, those capable of spending $15,000 or more on a new motorcycle are now shopping in segments other than large-displacement American V-twin cruisers, which is one reason why Harley-Davidson recently announced it will launch 50 new models over the next five years.

If Excelsior-Henderson makes another comeback, it will need patient investors with ample capital and a range of appropriately priced models to succeed. That’s asking a lot in today’s potentially volatile powersports market.