Explore the Motorcycle collection at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa
Take a ride with Norman on a vintage motorcycle
I am thrilled to share Norman’s passion for motorcycles with you in this blog about his surprise discovery at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.
Top Gun Rides at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum
By Norman Letalik
In my first posting on the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, I mentioned that, to my delight (!), the Museum also has a number of interesting motorcycles on display. To some, this might seem incongruous, but in my gearhead mind, aircraft and motorcycles have a natural affinity. Riding a motorcycle is as close as one can come to flying without leaving the ground. Like a pilot in most early aircraft, a motorcyclist is exposed to the elements. That has its good and bad points. When the sun is shining, however, it is all good. Unlike in a car or even in a convertible, when you ride a motorcycle you feel the air rush past you and you feel the subtle changes in temperature as you ride through dips in the road or emerge from shade into sunlight. Unlike a car, you can lean into corners in same way that you can bank an aircraft when you turn during flight. In short, motorcycling assaults the senses in much the same way as piloting a small aircraft does.
In addition to creating a similar assault on your senses, there are also mechanical similarities, at least before aircraft entered the jet age. Like aircraft, motorcycles are light and built around carrying their engines and their pilot. It is not surprising that a large number of pilots, particularly military aircraft pilots, ride motorcycles. Typically, very fast ones! Two examples of this in famous movies about fighter pilots are Tom Cruise’s Maverick riding a Kawasaki Ninja in Top Gun; and Richard Gere’s Mayo riding a Triumph Bonneville in An Officer and a Gentleman.
The Museum had 4 motorcycles on display, 3 of which any ‘top gun’ would have been proud to ride, and the fourth, which, somewhat ironically, because it is was built by a company that primarily built aircraft, would have been ridden by a ‘Mod’ in the early 60’s or a meterosexual today: the iconic Vespa scooter. The three “top gun” motorcycles on display are the 1925 Henderson Excelsior, the 1949 Ariel Square Four 4G Mark 1 and last, but not least, the 1950 Vincent HRD Series B Rapide.
The Henderson brothers starting manufacturing motorcycles in Detroit in 1912. All of their motorcycles had in-line longitundinal four cylinder engines. That was very unusual for that time. Most early motorcycles had single cylinder engines, with giants, Harley-Davidson and Indian, only moving to twin cylinders in 1909 and 1906, respectively. Harley never manufactured a four-cylinder engine and Indian finally produced one in 1929 after having bought the rights to the second four-cylinder motorcycle designed by the Hendersons, the Ace. The Hendersons had been undercapitalized when they started manufacturing four cylinder motorcycles in 1912. They were bought out by Schwinn, the bicycle company, who then renamed them: Excelsior. Hendersons were the largest and fastest motorcycles at that time (discounting of course Curtiss’ V-8 purpose-built land speed record holding motorcycle, referred to in my previous posting on the Museum). They were feared by all, because they became the high-speed pursuit motorcycle of choice by police departments across the US.
Comedian and gearhead supreme, Jay Leno owns a police model Henderson in his vast collection of cars and motorcycles, which he reviewed in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkd9QS3yGl0
In a demonstration for police departments the later, more powerful, Henderson KJ Model was able to hit 100 mph.
In 1925, if you were a fighter pilot, the Henderson Excelsior would certainly have been the motorcycle to own.
This is a 1949 Ariel Square 4G Mark 1
The Ariel Square Four was one of the most unusual 4 cylinder motorcycles designed in the air-cooled era. It was essentially two parallel twins front to back that were connected and had a common cylinder head but two crankshafts that were connected via a geared flywheel. This made the engine much narrower than had it been a transversely mounted in-line four cylinder. In this configuration, from the top, the engine looks square, hence the name Square Four. The square four engine was designed by the legendary Edward Turner, although he is far better known for his parallel twin engine designs for Triumph. Turner developed the idea for the square four in 1928. He shopped the concept to BSA, which rejected it, and then sold it to Ariel, who hired him as a designer. The owner of Ariel later bought Triumph motorcycles, which allowed Turner to design the famous Triumph Speed Twin, which over time evolved into the Triumph Thunderbird that Marlon Brando rode in The Wild Ones, the Triumph Trophy that James Dean owned, the Bonneville that Richard Gere rode in An Officer and a Gentleman and the Triumphs that Steve McQueen and Bob Dylan owned.
The Square Four on display at the museum has a 1000 cc all-aluminum engine that could take the motorcycle to about 100mph, and do it very smoothly. The negative with this design was that the back two cylinders tended to run much hotter than the front cylinders, as the front cylinders were exposed to more cool air as the motorcycle moved forward. This created the possibility of warping the cylinder head, necessitating costly repairs, should the cylinder head warp from the rear cylinders overheating. Nevertheless, the square four design stayed in production from 1931 to 1959, which is an extremely long run for any motorcycle engine.
This is a 1950 Vicent HRD Series B Rapide
Phil Vincent’s motorcycles are legendary and have become one of the most collectible and sought-after motorcycles, with prices of desirable models in good condition easily exceeding $100,000. Not surprisingly, Jay Leno owns two: a 1939 Rapide Series A, the pre-war predecessor to the one on display at the museum, and an Egli-Vincent, a Vincent engine in a custom designed frame made by the Swiss motorcycle designer, Fritz Egli.
The 1000 cc V-Twin Vincent engine was one of the most powerful engines of its era. Rollie Free wearing only his swim trunks, a bathing cap, and sneakers rode a modified version of a Vincent to a land speed record for his class at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1949, clocking just over 150 mph. While the model on display could not go that fast, it certainly could easily have “broken the ton”, English biker slang for exceeding 100 mph, as the model on display could typically hit 110 mph.
This is the Vincent HRD engine
In addition to having a very powerful engine (the model on display would have produced about 45 hp, vs about 35 hp for the Square Four and about 28 hp for the Henderson) the Vincent frame was a tour de force. It had a triangulated mono-shock rear suspension. This did not become commonplace in motorcycles until the mid-seventies. It also had a mono-shock front suspension, called the Girdraulic fork suspension, that looks remarkably similar to the suspension for the nose gear on the AEA Silver Dart. It is not unusual for motorcycle designers to borrow from the best aviation designs.
While the Ariel and the Vincent would have been the bikes of choice for Rockers in early 60’s England, the vehicle of choice for the Mods was the Vespa scooter.
For more on the infamous clashes between the Rockers and the Mods see:
Is a Vespa an anti-motorcycle?
The Vespa in some ways was the anti-motorcycle and designed from the outset to be convenient intra-city transport. That is not to say that some nutters have not successfully taken Vespas on round-the-world trips, a testament to the brilliance and solidity of their design: https://www.worldvespa.net/
The Vespa is the product of the concept of necessity being the mother of invention. Piaggio, its manufacturer, is an aviation company. It started in the aviation sector in 1920’s having previously been outfitters for ships and railway rolling stock. In World War II, the Piaggio factory in Genoa was severely bombed. Following WWII, Italy was prevented from manufacturing aircraft that might have a military application for 10 years. BMW, which had started as an aviation engine manufacturer (its emblem is meant to evoke a spinning airplane propeller), was, like all German companies, prevented by the Treaty of Versailles from building aircraft after WWI, so it was forced to switch to manufacturing industrial engines and then motorcycles in 1922. Since Piaggio was prevented from manufacturing aircraft and much of Italy had suffered damage during the war, its priority became to create a cheap form of transportation for the masses. The result was the Vespa, introduced in 1946.
The Vespa (Italian for wasp, because its shape looked somewhat like a wasp, and its two-stroke engine buzzed like one!) was designed by the brilliant aviation designer, Corradino D’Ascanio. Among the many design features of the Vespa was that it has a single-sided swing arm front suspension, that is remarkably similar to a aircraft nose gear. Unusually, it also had a monocoque frame. Monocoque means that there are no separate frame members; instead, the body’s sheet metal is stamped and welded to be strong enough to be the frame. Designed properly, monocoque frames are lighter and stronger than conventional body on frame construction, which is why it was first applied in the aviation sector, where weight reduction is paramount. The first car with a monocoque frame was the Italian Lancia Lambda, built in 1922, but this design did not become commonplace for autos until the 1960’s. The Vespa’s small air-cooled engine was enclosed at the rear and pivoted with the rear single-sided swing arm suspension. This made for an efficient short drivetrain. Having both wheels mounted on single-sided swingarms, also made changing tires a breeze. The Vespa, unusual for a two-wheeled vehicle, also housed a spare tire and rim in a rear compartment opposite to the engine. Because the Vespa would be used in towns, it also came with an engine cooling fan so that its air-cooled engine would still be cooled by the fan when it was stuck in traffic. This is similar to the design of the original VW Beetle engine, and subsequent air-cooled Porsche engines. As the Vespa had to weave through crowded streets and narrow alleyways, it had small-diameter, but wide wheels and tires, which allowed for quick steering (the bigger the diameter of a turning wheel, the greater its gyroscopic effect, which keeps a motorcycle going straight and resists input at the handlebars), and the wide tires cause extra cushioning and better traction on cobblestones or poor roads.
Finally, the monocoque design and enclosed engine allowed it to be more female friendly, as it provided step-through seating for those wearing skirts or dresses as well as some protection for the legs and lower body when riding in wet conditions. Follow this link to see Audrey Hepburn riding a Vespa in her Academy Award role in Roman Holiday. With a windshield mounted, one could ride a Vespa in reasonable comfort in the cold or the wet. To say that the Vespa was a hit is an understatement. Vespas are found all over the world and are probably the most prolific two-wheeled motorized vehicles following the cheaper Honda Cub, which is in many ways, a large-wheeled scooter, but with a more economical 4 stroke engine.
The Vespa on display is a 150cc model, which was its most powerful version at that time, and the one that urban-based pilots would likely ride. The curators did a great job in selecting which model to display.
This is a photo of Norman on his vintage 1984 BMW R100S