By Jordan Cohen
The display features 30 motorcycles, some more than 100 years old.
WARREN — The ninth annual Antique Motorcycle Exhibit at the National Packard Museum is more than just a classic collection of motorized two-wheelers; it’s a trip into American history.
The exhibit kicked off Saturday and runs through May 31.
“It’s interesting when you see how far we have come,” said Jeffrey Higgins of Hubbard, who recently purchased a 1971 BMW motorcycle. “I’d like to own one of these.”
The display features 30 motorcycles, some more than 100 years old. All have one thing in common: They were “Made in the USA”— the title of this year’s exhibit.
One attention-getter is a 1912 Pope Big 4, the only unrestored cycle in the exhibit. It is original in every aspect from its color to its flat belt drive, a hand pump for oil and an unusually small gas cap.
“There were no gas stations at the time, so riders would take a one-gallon can and buy their gas at the hardware store,” said Bruce Williams, exhibit co-chairman. “That’s why the gas caps on these old machines are so small.”
The cycles and riders had another major problem in those days. There were few if any paved roads at the time, and the Pope looks it.
Kick-starters for motorcycles were not invented until 1914, Williams noted, so many of the machines had to be started much like bicycles. The rider kept pedaling until the engine kicked in. That was the case with the 1902 Sylvester & Jones cycle, which had no clutch.
In the early 20th century, America had a thriving motorcycle industry.
“We used to have 300 motorcycle manufacturers in this country, but by the late 1920s, it was down to three,” Williams said.
One of them was Harley-Davidson, the only major American motorcycle company still surviving today. Ohio at one time had 30 motorcycle companies, and several of their products, including the Miami made in Middletown and the Cleveland, are included in the display.
“We think there was one around Youngstown, but we haven’t been able to track it down,” Williams said.
Other eye-catching exhibits include a 1917 Harley-Davidson and sidecar, both painted in the company’s standard color at the time — olive drab. Another is the 1913 Sears Deluxe, which was actually manufactured for the retailer by Davis Sewing Machine Co. in Dayton. Williams said some of the Sears models could go up to 100 mph, “but that had to be risky on all those dirt roads.”
Williams said the technology of the automobile assembly line enabling Henry Ford to price his cars comparably with cycles led to the demise of the nation’s motorcycle industry.
“‘Why buy a cycle when, for the same price, you can have a roof over your head’ was the thinking at that time,” said Williams, who has been a motorcycle enthusiast for 48 years.
Spectators such as John Higgins of Lowellville, who attended with his nephew Jeffrey, showed their appreciation of the innovation that went into those early motorcycles.
“I think it’s amazing when you consider that it was simple technology that worked so well,” the elder Higgins, 76, said. He added that he has been riding motorcycles for 54 years and sees no reason to quit.