Dan and Dave Hanlon had a dream; to build their own ’Made in the USA’ V-Twin motorcycle.
In typical American fashion, they somehow scraped together millions of investors dollars, persuaded the State of Minnesota to help fund a factory in Belle Plain to manufacture their machines and set to work.
Sadly, despite the stunning looks of their retro creation, and the worldwide interest in the revival of Excelsior-Henderson ( one of the oldest names in motorcycling ) the project collapsed financially late in 1999, having made just over 1,000 models. It might well rise again however, as a low volume, handmade Harley alternative.
Riding in the middle of a six-strong pack of Excelsior-Henderson Super Xs as we head north on the coast road out of Daytona Beach is a hell of a thrill. The evening air is warm, the low sun glints off the chrome of the Super X´s headlight and exposed fork springs, and the roar of big, free-breathing V-twin engines reverberates across the Atlantic Ocean to my right.
If it´s good for me, the ride must be doubly satisfying for Dan, Dave and Jennie Hanlon, Excelsior-Henderson´s founders, who are at the head of the group. Six years after brothers Dan and Dave gave up their jobs and began trying to raise the money to build motorcycles, they are riding some of the first machines to roll off the production line at their new factory in Belle Plaine, Minnesota.
Daytona is teeming with Harleys, but from the moment our ride started, just off Main Street, the Super X has been making its presence felt. The bike is long, low and chunky. Its distinctive look is dominated by the leading-link forks whose legs pass through the front fender, and which incorporate exposed springs similar to those of the original Super X model of the Twenties.
This is a new bike, but it incorporates numerous links with the past. The frame´s front downtubes follow the line of the big front fender, and there´s a chromed instrument panel set into the top of the fuel tank, echoing old Super X features. Even the tank´s indentations in its lower edge on the right side, above the cam covers, are reminiscent of similar shapes designed to clear the exposed valvegear of former Excelsiors.
Paintwork is glossy and thick, as befits a bike which, at $18,450 ($500 less for the single-colour black option) costs very nearly as much as Harley´s top-of-the-range Ultra Classic Electra Glide in the States. The Excelsior-Hendersons of old were high-quality, upmarket motorbikes, and this new one follows the trend.
By cruiser standards the aircooled, 1386cc Super X motor is pretty high-tech, as it features fuel-injection (by French firm Sagem, who also supply Triumph) and four valves per cylinder, opened by twin overhead cams. The cylinders are set at 50 degrees, rather than the 45-degree angle of the old Super X. For the Hanlons it was important not to be seen to copy Harley. The “X-twin” motor, as they call it, also differs in having its induction on the left, and a side-by-side instead of forked conrod layout.
The big motor still sounds much like the majority of Harleys in Daytona as a blip of the throttle sends a blam from the free-breathing silencers (a factory option) that have been fitted for the occasion. Its riding position is typical heavyweight cruiser, too, with wide, quite high bars, a low seat, and feet stretched forward to footboards – though my boots initially spend much of their time on the ground as we head slowly up the crowded Main Street.
Once clear of the traffic it´s obvious that this is one seriously grunty motor. Cracking open the throttle sends the big bike barrelling forward with as little as 1500rpm showing on the small tacho that´s set alongside the larger speedo. By two grand the Super X is well into its stride, accelerating with a machine-gun exhaust bark and enough force to make those high bars wrench my arms.
Peak power output is about 65bhp, with maximum torque of around 75ft.lb. Although there´s no official figure for where those figures are produced, this is every bit as much a low-revving motor as the average pushrod V-twin. It responds best to short-shifting through a five-speed gearbox which, although it changes smoothly, is hindered in town by an occasionally hard-to-find neutral. Fortunately the hydraulic clutch is light.
The Super X engine has no balancer shaft and is rubber-mounted using a system that Excelsior-Henderson calls TAVAS, or Torsion Activated Vibration Absorbing System. That doesn´t prevent it from vibrating enough at most engine speeds to let you know you´re riding a big V-twin. At 70mph, with just under 3000rpm on the dial in top, it´s at its smoothest, but by about 3500rpm, still 2000rpm short of the redline, the shaking through bars and seat is quite noticeable.
Most cruiser riders will probably be happy with that, because the slightly lumpy feel is partly what gives the Super X the strong character that is one of its big assets. Even so, the Hanlons say they´re considering fine-tuning the four rubber mounts, to give a smoother ride, if that´s what people want. I´d need a longer ride to make up my mind.
A few miles north of Daytona we headed inland and found some curvy roads to test out the Super X chassis. This is a big, heavy bike, weighing over 300kg and with a lengthy 1598mm wheelbase, but by cruiser standards it did pretty well. That weight largely disappears on the move, and although you need a bit of advance warning to get the Excelsior into a turn, it trundles round just fine.
That unusual leading-link front end is entertaining on the straights, where you can watch the springs rippling away over bumps. And it works well, too, giving a pleasantly soft ride yet refusing to dive even when the surprisingly powerful single front disc brake is used hard. I´d expected to be wishing for twin discs, but didn´t, as the single front and rear set-up gave enough stopping power to test the grip of the fat 16-inch Dunlops.
Stability and handling were good, and although the footboards scraped fairly early in bends, they at least gave a loud warning before anything solid touched down. The single-shock rear end (Excelsior won´t say who supplies suspension, but some parts are Japanese) worked pretty well, too, giving a soft ride yet coping with that weight plus the torque being fed through the final drive belt.
It was dark by the time we reached the last leg of the ride, a blast back along the freeway that allowed me to let the Super X stretch its legs. Its smooth, laid-back cruising ability at an indicated 70mph boded well for long-distance comfort. It was a pretty wild ride as I wound the big V-twin wide open, and held on tight as the engine roared and the bars began vibrating as the Super X charged to an indicated 100mph sitting-up, with more to come.
It says a lot about the people behind Excelsior-Henderson´s rebirth that the co-founders were still right ahead of me at this stage, no doubt with equally big grins on their faces. Their enthusiasm and commitment shine through in the Super X, which is a mighty impressive machine with which to announce Excelsior-Henderson´s return.
Get Carole Nash motorbike insurance for the Excelsior Super X.
Engine Air/oil-cooled 50-degree V-twin
Claimed power (bhp) 65
Clutch : Wet multiplate
Front suspension Leading-link forks, 102mm travel
Rear suspension Monoshock, 102mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload and damping (compression/rebound)
Front brake Four-piston caliper, 292mm disc
Rear brake Double-action caliper, 292mm disc
Front wheel 3.00 x 16in; wire spoked
Rear wheel 3.50 x 16in; wire spoked
Front tyre MT90HB x 16in Dunlop Elite
Rear tyre MU90HB x 16in Dunlop Elite
Wheelbase 1598mm (62.9in)
Fuel capacity 21 litres