They seemed fearless, the record challengers. Young men (and occasionally women) who pushed the latest technological wonders to do things no one had ever imagined. Riding motorcycles continuously for 24 hours, Canada to Mexico sprints, cross-country rides with minimal roads or support services…all fair game. This is the tale of Alan T. Bedell, his 1917 Henderson Model G and the Bedell Tribute Henderson for the 2018 Motorcycle Cannonball (rider #82).
While growing up in New England, I would hear stories about a relative on my mother’s side of the family named Alan Bedell. My grandmother and great uncle would talk about the “record-breaking motorcycle” which ended up in Upper Montclair, New Jersey prior to World War II. The family members recall riding at incredible speeds on the back of the bike. At some point, the engine was removed for service work but rowdy racoons scattered parts about the barn. The parts were finally swept up and placed in a box and the rolling bike (with engine parts in the box) was then pushed to the dealer in Newark for repair…coasting most of the 6-7 miles! After that the bike appeared to vanish, most likely to the metal scrap drives supporting the war effort.
Alan was born in 1896 to Elizabeth T. and Charles E. Bedell in Montclair, New Jersey. You can imagine young Alan, moving from the settled East Coast to live and work in the Western United States during that era. He began working as a Forest Ranger in 1916 – living in Flagstaff, Arizona. His job required that he ride a motorcycle around the Coconino Pine Forest (it appears to be an early HD based on faded photographs). In early 1917, Alan opened a motorcycle dealership selling Indian and Harley Davidson cycles in Redlands, California. He quickly established a reputation as a successful racer and resilient rider. He placed second in the 1916 Springerfield-Phoenix race (first was for Roy Artley, Erwin “Cannonball” Baker DNF). He set new records at Ascot California in April 1917 on a stock Harley Davidson motorcycle ( 24-hour solo, 500 miles and 1000 miles). My grandmother, the family historian, showed me faded photographs of Alan and several of his bikes (Indian, Harley Davidson and Henderson) all from a time when he was about 20 years of age.
During the 1910s, adventurous bicyclists and motorcyclists where setting out to demonstrate their endurance skills and the superior qualities of their particular machine. You can sense the excitement in the publications of that period such as “Motorcycling and Bicycling”. Manufactures learned early on that publicity from record breaking with endorsement from the riders was good business. Full page and double-page advertisements would proclaim that the Indian or Henderson or Champion spark plug, or Valvoline oil was the best thing that had ever been developed.
Several historical threads lead to Alan and his cross-country record breaking attempt in 1917. The robust Henderson four-cylinder motorcycle had already proven itself by completing a world tour (1912 round the world trip by Clancey). The speed and durability of Detroit’s finest also led to records broken in the 24-hour run by Maldwyn Jones, riding a 1917 Model G Henderson. And, of course, the cross-country record challenge had been set by none other than Erwin “Cannonball” Baker who rode his Indian cross-country in 1914, with an elapsed time of 11 days, 12 hours and 10 minutes.
The 1917 Henderson Model G was a logical choice for the record attempt. It was a sophisticated piece of machinery with an inline four-cylinder, inlet over exhaust engine of 61 cubic inches. The new-for-that-year three speed transmission was housed in a unit construction crankcase. The clutch sat between the gearbox and crankshaft and all the latest accessory equipment was employed. After hours spent scouring multiple historical documents and materials it appears the record breaking Model G was set up as follows:
1917 Model G Henderson, engine number 8266
Tires: 29” x 3 ½” Goodrich Safety Tread tires and “butt-end” tubes
Chain: Duckworth (run dry in the desert to avoid “sand wear”)
Mesinger “Air Cushion” saddle (with Kiltte Spanker attachment)
Two “Santa Ana” headlights (Coffman)
Oversized tanks (3 ½ gallons gas, 3 ½ quarts oil)
Reinforced front forks with “truss tubes”
The Departure from Los Angeles occurred on June 5, 1917 and Alan rode 12-20 hours per day to cover 3296 miles in 7 days, 16 hours and 16 minutes. The ride was well described in a number of period publications, including a detailed report by Alan himself. During the trip, he was escorted for brief period by local riders including Erwin “Cannonball” Baker and Maldwyn Jones!
The motor was apart once in Columbia, MO for decarbonization, the valves were ground and new valve springs placed. Three chains were required during the trip along with two rear tires. One broken fuel line was repaired and the fork spring broke requiring replacement.
A whirlwind of activity kept Alan busy after his record-setting trip. He was active in promotional work for various manufacturers, he traveled extensively and began planning for additional record attempts. He also met and married Mildred Cutter of Boston, Massachusetts. Of course, all of this was occurring in the context of the “Great War”. While the nation was quite divided about the US role in the fighting overseas, the sentiment turned, the US entered the war and many young men enlisted, including Alan. Three weeks after his marriage to Mildred he went to Lake Charles, Louisiana for the Aviation Training Camp, Air Services, US Army (open from 1917-1919) along with many hundreds of others.
In 1918, the deadly influenza pandemic (called the “Spanish Flu”) was killing young people, particularly those in close quarters such as overcrowded military training camps. Alan succumbed to influenza on February 25, 1918 at just 22 years of age. His wife lived for many decades with an interesting life…but that is a story for another time.
From the time I was a child, it has been my dream to complete a trip similar to Alan’s but on my own Bedell Tribute Henderson. After many years of casual looking and asking, I got serious and was able to finally meet up with the Henderson community. With the help of Mark Hill, engine number 966 1 was located and restored. Dave Ciccalone had an original ’17 frame, wheels, various controls and half of the front fork. Frank Westfall had the other half front fork. Matthew Smith was able to recreate the fuel tank and Thomas Fickau supplied various bits. Patrick Murphy undertook the masterful painting in original Henderson blue.
For the 2018 Cannonball, I have included a few modifications for safety and reliability while keeping within the Cannonball rules.
1917 Model G Henderson engine number 9661
Engine build by 4th Coast Fours
American Bosch magneto
Corbin Gentry solo police seat (with custom bracket by Rob Wheeler)
Middle Earth Leather sheepskin seat cover
Drop center ally rims with Avon 21” Road Rider tires front and rear
Honda drum brakes
Constant loss electrics with Shorai battery
Indian mirrors and headlamp
Paint by Patrick Murphy
I am looking forward to the challenge and riding with other old bike nuts.