It’s not every day that someone sends me century-old pictures of an old Excelsior motorcycle and asks for help in dating it. Yet that’s what happened a week ago when Alta Johnson of Concord, CA reached out to RIDE-CT & RIDE-NewEngland after an Internet search that she was making turned up a photo of a 1914 Excelsior. It was included in a June 2014 story on the Rhinebeck Grand National Super Meet.
In her initial communique, Johnson told of only one photo that showed her grandmother and her great aunt aboard the Excelsior. She suggested that the Excelsior was a 1914 model and she noted that her grandmother “looks much, much younger than 20 years, which she would have been in 1914.”
In a subsequent email that included that photo and a second one of the motorcycle, Johnson identified her great aunt Florence Thomas, left, and her grandmother Helen Thomas. She said the picture was taken at Mount Pleasant Ranch, just south of Templeton in San Luis Obispo County, CA.
The second photo showed a man and woman sitting on the bike, which was held upright by a rear stand (as was the case in the first photo). She identified them as Daphne Fortney and Archie Thomas. “For the life of me, I cannot figure out the year,” she wrote.
What was shocking about the pictures were their crispness and quality. These obviously weren’t some grainy, dog-eared, hand-me-down snapshots.
I quickly sent out emails to two vintage motorcycle experts who I thought might be helpful – Paul d’Orleans and Dale Walksler.
d’Orleans has the website The Vintagent and is an editor at “Cycle World” magazine. He soon responded, “It’s a 1912 Excelsior belt drive twin – last year of the belt drive, first year of the curved tank. It’s clearly a few years old already in the photo and has had a rough life. The headlamp glass is broken and the exhaust is totally missing. It would have made quite a racket on the farm.”
Walksler owns the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, NC and appears on the TV series “American Restoration” on the History channel. He concurred when he responded a few hours later that the bike in question is “a 1912 Excelsior belt drive twin.” He added, “I have one just like it. Notice the missing spoke on the front wheel.”
That’s why I sought their advice. They’re the experts.
d’Orleans was somewhat smitten by the pics, especially by the way the people were attired. “From their outfits, I’d suggest these folks were among the hard working immigrants who were the core of California agriculture in the early years – Swiss, Italians, Armenians, Lebanese. It was a wild place in the late Teens,” he wrote.
The more he studied the pictures, the more intrigued he became. “The peculiar knit caps of those women has set me on a quest to figure out where they’re from. I’ve consulted Corrina Mantlo who worked in the costume department at the Met Museum for help. She’s thinking Scandinavian but still looking. The caps are very distinctive and must be peculiar to the region.”
By now, d’Orleans had me intrigued as well, so I got Johnson to give me her phone number. We talked yesterday afternoon and she agreed that the hats may have a Scandinavian origin as the area was loaded with Scandinavians at the time. “Some folks may have given the hats to the girls,” she speculated, explaining that her great-great-grandparents came over from Wales and owned Mount Pleasant Ranch.
Mount Pleasant Ranch grew prunes and was adjacent to the Hearst Ranch owned by media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Where did the pictures come from? Johnson explained that her great-aunt gave her 40 or so negatives (roughly 2″ by 4″) some 45 years ago and that she had a few pictures printed from them. “We tried to pick the cream of the crop. I have some that have never been printed,” she said.
The Excelsior shots obviously fit the “cream of the crop” description. Johnson promised to send along some more shots of some old cars. She added that Archie Thomas, her great uncle, was killed in a truck accident in 1929. He was 34 and was a newlywed. She has no idea who Daphne Fortney was.