History of Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Company

The History of Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycles

The story of what later would become the Excelsior-Henderson brand, began through the efforts of the son of a German immigrant, George T. Robie, who founded the Excelsior Supply Company in Chicago, IL, in 1876.  The company was a distributor, specializing early on with sewing machine parts, however during the 1880s, the popularity of bicycles grew and the company branched out into all forms of cycle parts, becoming one of the largest suppliers in the United States. When automobiles were in their infancy, Excelsior again expanded its distribution business and by 1905 became one of the largest distributors of machinery and automotive parts and supplies.

George Robie had one son, Frederick Carelton Robie, who joined the Excelsior company around 1900 and was interested in manufacturing complete vehicles of motorcycles and automobiles. His father preferred to remain in distribution and avoid the difficulties of manufacturing a complete vehicle. However, Excelsior did become involved with a complete motorcycle, and started selling some built from assembled parts in the early 1900s, subsequently launching their own proprietary motorcycle in the 1905-1907 timeframe. With the company’s vast history of distribution, the Excelsior motorcycle sold well and the company had trouble keeping up with the orders.
(adapted from story by R. Turek, Antique Motorcycle Club of America)

The Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Manufacturing Company resurrected the brand and continues to pay great homage to the heritage. In the factory Riders Handbook originally printed in 1999, there is a section devoted to the history, which is believed to be among the most accurately recorded in one document.

What began in December 1992 as a small hot spark during a cold Minnesota winter at a Christmas gathering on the Hanlon family farm in Belle Plaine, ultimately was ignited into a motorcycle business venture that would span the world and spark debates between friend and foe alike–and sometimes continues to this day even though it is over 17 years ago. However, none of that was known then. Only known was the fun times of sharing life’s experiences in a large family gathering, and savoring the moments together before once again embarking on the daily grind of life.

Beginning as a sole proprietor in 1993, Hanlon Manufacturing had some lofty goals of developing a proprietary OEM motorcycle manufacturing company, adopting a rich American brand with the tradition of the earlier days of motorcycling. Almost 100%, it was universally stated or quietly assumed by others, that it couldn’t be done–or simply stated that “you” couldn’t do it. But why not? Motorcycles have been built for decades and continue to be ridden daily, so surely it’s possible. Maybe difficult, but not impossible. The difficulty is not in developing the technology, but rather developing the infrastructure and longterm capital to simply make it happen, all the while needing to publicly maneuver in the marketplace long before the product is available. At the company, we would commonly state, “it is not the complexity of the tasks before us, but rather the sheer volume of things that need to get done in a short period of time.” And, there will be no second chances. It’s one-shot.

Therein became the Excelsior-Henderson culture, that some revered and others castigated. But it is who we are. And we did it. Today, you can still buy and ride an Excelsior-Henderson motorcycle that has stood the test of time–and is truly a proprietary OEM American motorcycle with a rich heritage in the rear view mirror.

 There has been a significant amount of international and local media coverage all conveyed by third parties bringing the news to their audiences. And what a lot of excitement, and it was sometimes difficult to keep the company focused. There are many sources of information regarding the company, with some of them listed elsewhere on this site, so you can learn as much as you like. Your best resource is the book Riding The American Dream, and this snapshot provided here will provide a supplemental look.

1921 Henderson Motorcycles, Chicago, IL Police Department
1925 Excelsior-Henderson Four photo taken in 1926. Boca Raton, FL Police Department
1925 Excelsior-Henderson Four Cylinder
1929 Excel Henderson, Detroit, MI Police Department
Henderson Fours

Information provided by the Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Company.