At the turn of the 20th century, some Nevadans rocketed into the future astride two wheels.
Bicycles had been zipping along Reno’s roads since the 1890s, and innovators soon began bolting engines on to cycle frames. When mass-produced motorcycles hit the U.S. market after 1900, Northern Nevada riders converged on bike shops, formed clubs and sponsored races that roared across the state’s basins and ranges.
Those who molded the region’s vibrant motorcycling history – and the classic machines they rode — are the focus of the new exhibit, “America and the Motorcycle: 1900-1990,” at the National Automobile Museum, 10 S. Lake St. in Reno. The exhibit takes patrons on a trek from the earliest motorcycles to the gleaming superbikes of today. It tells the stories of Nevadans, who, for nearly a century, have sped across deserts and mountainsides with the wind in their hair.
Owned by locals
It began with bicycles. Some of the first attempts to add power to the pedals employed steam engines, which wasn’t a practical solution for obvious reasons.
“As engines became smaller and smaller, people found out they could stuff them into bicycle frames, and so some of the bicycle shops like Kelly’s (which became Kelly’s Bicycle and Motorcycle Shop) in Reno would buy small motors and install them,” said George Canavan, president of the Comstock Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. “We’ve got two bicycles on display near the 1910 Harley-Davidson and you can begin to see the advancement.”
All but four of the more than two dozen motorcycles in the exhibit are owned by local residents. The museum worked closely with the Comstock Chapter of AMCA to collect machines from the obscure to the popular. It’s a herd of iron ponies made by Harley Davidson, Indian, Excelsior, Vincent, Iver Johnson, BSA, Honda, Triumph, BMW, Yamaha, Powell, Puch, and others. Some of the bikes were used for basic transportation, deliveries or recreational trail riding. Others set land speed records or served in the military during wartime.
“’America and the Motorcycle: 1900-1990’ educates visitors about the important role motorcycles have played in American transportation history and in Nevada. The exhibit celebrates the restoration and preservation of vintage machines from bicycles to scooters, to motorcycles, to drag bikes and side cars.”— Phil MacDougall, executive director, the National Automobile Museum.
From pedals to motors
The lineup of two-wheeled wonders starts with two bicycles, including a 1910 Pierce Arrow. That cycle has front- and rear-suspension, an innovation that didn’t become common on motorcycles until decades later. The other bicycle, a 1910 Iver Johnson, was sold with a holstered pistol, intended for riders who needed to fend off wild dogs.
The motorcycles are arranged in a timeline within a museum gallery, led off by the 1910 Harley-Davidson owned by Jeff Beaumont, who still rides it in Reno and Carson City. It has a belt drive, rather than a chain. The progression of bikes continues through the decades and so do the innovations. The single-cylinder 1910 Harley is followed by a 1914 V-twin Indian with a chain drive.
As new models hit the market, more and more Nevadans jumped on board and created a culture.
“What people were doing on motorcycles back then was incredibly interesting. They made cycle cars out of motorcycle engines and parts; they built racing bikes and held long-distance races; they even played motorcycle polo with a foot clutch and a hand-shifter, and kicking the ball around.” — George Canavan, president of the Comstock Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America.
Racin’ in the Basin
The rutted mining roads of Gold Hill and Virginia City provided bone-rattling race courses, he said, and one 720-mile loop race took contestants on a tour of the Northern Nevada’s beautiful and rugged landscape.
During World War II, motorcycle manufacturers turned out wartime models. After the conflict, surplus bikes were given to U.S. allies and sold as surplus. Ex-GIs and others scooped them up and customized them for civilian use. “They chopped them and bobbed them and everything else,” Canavan said. “That was the basis for choppers. The rule was, ‘if what’s on the bike makes it go faster, leave it on; if not, strip it off.’”
The exhibit takes visitors on a path to the present, as manufactures came up with faster and more popular machines. Scooters, like the 1964 Harley on display, were aimed at younger riders. The legendary Vincent Black Shadow set land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, where in 1948 American racer Rollie Free rode a Vincent 150 miles per hour across the dry lake bed while wearing only a swim cap and a Speedo.
Japanese manufacturers started clawing their way to the top of the American motorcycle market by the late 1960s. The 1974, 750cc, 4-cylinder DOHC Honda on display is the granddaddy of the superbikes that cruise highways today.
“I don’t want a pickle; I just want to ride my motor-sickle.” – Arlo Guthrie, “The Motorcycle Song.”
‘A labor of love’
Nobody gets rich restoring vintage motorcycles. It often costs far more to get a bike back into mint condition than the finished machine can be sold for. The 250cc BSA in the exhibit, for example, was a pile of parts when Jerry and Patti Meadows began restoring it in March. Now it looks like it just rolled off the showroom floor. “It’s a labor of love,” Canavan said.
As the timeline winds into the 21st century, high-tech takes over. The 1990 BMW K1 had a double-overhead-cam (DOHC) inline 4-cycinder, liquid-cooled engine. The sleek 1,000cc Honda Interceptor boasts a top-rated speed of 150 mph.
Other bikes at the exhibit feature sidecars, such as the Indian used by a Sacramento bike shop to deliver other motorcycles to and from its service department. A sidecar-equipped 1937 Harley-Davidson ULH served as a courier’s mount to deliver news teletypes to newspapers around New York City during the Great Depression. The bike logged about 7,200 miles annually. The Harley ULH on display at the museum served as a California Highway Patrol mount before its complete restoration.
“The motorcycle has been a significant contributor to daily life from basic, economical transportation to a lifestyle of freedom on the open road,” Canavan said. The exhibit chronicles how, with each new decade, the motorcycle adapted and took on new roles as people’s needs changed.
Museum hours, tickets
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets may be purchased online. AMCA members who show their membership cards will receive a $3 discount on the $12 general admission fee. The museum follows all state COVID-19 precautions; face masks are required for entry.
The National Automobile Museum, rated among the nation’s top 10 auto museums, also showcases more than 200 remarkable automobiles. It features theater presentations and audio tours in English and Spanish across 100,000 square feet of galleries, exhibits and vibrant street scenes, and accompanying artifacts that bring displays to life. It is a popular venue for special events as intimate as 60 and as large as 1,200 guests.
The institution also features the Nevada Space Center, home of the Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada. More information is available online or by calling (775) 333-9300.