Date:1 October 2010
When I ride my restored 1924 Ace motorcycle to places where motorcyclists go, like the Rock Store, a tavern on Mulholland Highway near Malibu, it always gets attention. That’s probably because it still looks like a superbike, like something special. Other riders give you the thumbs-up. Even non-motorcyclists say, “Wow. What is that?” But it’s a tricky machine to master because other than the twist-grip throttle, the controls are completely foreign.
The Ace has twin external-contracting rear brakes, so it’s got a brake pedal at each footboard. Two long hand levers sprout upward from the left floorboard – one works the shifter, the other the clutch, which also operates with a foot pedal. You can use either one.
In some ways, riding the Ace is more like driving a car. To start, you disengage the clutch with the pedal, slide the shift lever with your hand into first gear, put your hand back on the handlebars and then slowly release the clutch to pull away. You have to remove your hand from the bars for every shift. As you’re rolling toward a stop sign, you try to find neutral and put the clutch in. In a panic situation, you use the hand clutch so both feet are free to operate the brakes, which is tricky because the left-side brake is at the rear of the floorboard, but the other one is at the front. As I was learning to ride the Ace, a number of times I sailed right through red lights. “’Scuse me! Thank you! ’Scuse meee!” I guess that’s the downside, but having to think so much connects you to the machine.
At least the Ace starts on the first kick and settles into a nice idle, thanks to its high-quality magneto ignition that always sparks. And there’s plenty of torque, so you can slow waaaayyyy down in top gear, roll on the throttle and chug away. These days, performance is about zero to 100, but back in the day, whether it was a 16-cylinder Cadillac or a big motorcycle, it was about how slow you could go in third and then accelerate smoothly. The Ace is a wonderfully relaxed and refined bike because it’s got a big 1 278 cm3 four-cylinder. This bike can go 150 km/h, but good luck stopping from that speed.
We have William G Henderson to thank for both the company that bore his name and the Ace. He founded the American Henderson Motorcycle Company in Detroit in 1911 and offered a 7-hp cycle with an inline four-cylinder. Ignaz Schwinn – yes, that Schwinn – bought the business in 1917. Two years later, Henderson exited the company because his new backers insisted on bigger, heavier bikes that he despised. So he simply set up another company – Ace Motor Corporation – in Philadelphia to design bikes the way he wanted.
His new bikes were superior to his earlier effort – relatively light, fast and reliable. Compared with the small and finicky European motorcycles of that time, the Ace had a big 1300 engine, with an inlet-overexhaust valvetrain, a giant magneto and a big, oldfashioned generator. It was made to cover great distances. In 1922, Cannonball Baker rode an Ace 5 361 kilometres from Los Angeles to New York in just six days, 22 hours and 52 minutes! He averaged 5 litres/100 km. No wonder the cops used Aces.
After Henderson was killed in a motorcycle accident in late 1922, his successor, Arthur O Lemon, refined the Ace even more, and it became one of the world’s finest motorcycles. There were a few foreign motorcycles with four cylinders in that era, like the FN from Belgium, and England’s Ariel Square Four and the Brough Superior. But the American fours were superior in power and reliability, and the Ace continued to set records.
In 1923, riding a lightweight Ace, Red Wolverton made back-to-back timed runs on a section of Pennsylvania highway, averaging 208 km/h. Then they bolted on a sidecar, and he posted a sidecar record of 170,5 km/h. The Ace Motor Corporation was so confident, they offered a $10 000 cash prize for anyone who could beat that speed. There were no takers.
The reason you don’t see many Ace motorcycles is that they were all ridden hard and poorly maintained. They were beaten to death. It’s a well-engineered but complicated motorcycle. The previous owners of my Ace made modification after modification. It had been “professionally restored” by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. It would run, but after a few kilometres the engine would heat up and “soft-seize”. Originally, there were oil dippers on the connecting rods, designed to splash oil where it was needed. These dippers had all been shortened, supposedly because they had been hitting the insides of the crankcase. We lengthened and drilled them for better oil circulation.
Modern “fixes on fixes” often do more harm than good. Some people want to convert an antique bike from 6 volts to 12 volts. But if you just restore it to the way its designers intended, you’ll have a fast, reliable motorcycle. That’s what we did. And that’s why the bike starts on the first or second kick. When I was 16, I went into a Triumph dealership and looked at a new Bonneville. There was a sticker on the tank that read, “For the Expert Rider”. I thought, “That’s me; I just got my licence.” The Bonnie was considered one of the fastest bikes you could buy, but it still couldn’t do what the Ace did in terms of top speed back in 1923.
Sadly, over the years, the Ace heritage has fallen by the wayside. Young guys like European bikes because the only American bike they’ve ever heard of is the Harley. When you tell them about the Ace, and the Henderson, and the early Indian wins at the Isle of Man TT in 1911, they’re stunned. We led the world. It’s inspiring to me to read about men like Henderson and Lemon who, cost be damned, decided to build the best bike they could.
It reminds me of the Mercer Raceabout, the best sports car of its day and one of the greatest cars of all time. There’s nothing on the Mercer that wasn’t needed. It wasn’t about style; it was about form following function. That’s why it’s a classic. Just like the Ace.
*Video: Check out Jay Leno’s restored 1924 Ace motorcycle. [Click here]