Looking Back at the 1998 Excelsior Henderson Super X

Super X Rated

Although the press didn't get the chance to put the Super X to a full test, correspondent Roland Brown did get to swing a leg over the prototype.Brian J. Nelson

It almost seems that trying to revive a famous name from motorcycling’s past is a curse. Triumph did it, but three different entities had floundered while trying to bring back Indian before Polaris. Norton looks like it might be back in play, but is priced unattainably high. We haven’t heard anything from the company that was trying to build a Harley clone using the A.C.E. name, following in the tracks of a firm that built four-cylinder bikes in the 1920s. There is interest—but thus far little progress— in manufacturing a modern Vincent.

However, it now appears virtually certain that brothers Dave and Dan Hanlon will finally achieve what others couldn't, and manage to put one of America's most famous marques back into production. If the Hanlons succeed, it will actually be the third embodiment of both the Excelsior and Henderson names. Since both brands were produced separately by other companies before Ignaz Schwinn (best known as a bicycle maker) bought the rights to produce each through his Excelsior Motor Manufacturing and Supply Company, which closed its doors in the face of the depression in 1931.

Two brothers from Minnesota, Dave and Dan Hanlon, put the Excelsior Henderson Super X back on the streets.Brian J. Nelson

Considered by some enthusiasts of the era to be better-made, more sophisticated motorcycles than the machines then produced by the more popular Indian and Harley-Davidson concerns, the Henderson four-cylinders and the Excelsior Super X V-twins were the best known models of these brands. This latter model is the one that the Hanlons are emulating in modern form.

The Hanlons, mindful of how tenuous launching a new motorcycle brand from scratch is, are cautious about what they promise or even suggest. But many of the toughest hurdles seem to be behind them. They have a lock on the rights to the Excelsior, Henderson, and Super X names. They have several running prototypes undergoing intense testing. Construction of a 170,000-square-foot factory in Belle Plaine, just south of Minneapolis, is well under way and actually ahead of schedule. The roof was being attached while we were there. The Hanlons would rather talk about what they have already accomplished, rather than talk about what they plan to do. “We are very mid-western,” Dave Hanlon explained.

The engine was designed to the Hanlons’ specifications to offer both Excelsior tradition and modern technology. The rumor that Cosworth was involved in the design is not true. The final appearance will change before production.Brian J. Nelson

They are also pretty shrewd businessmen, who understand the way money flows into modern industries and could raise the capital to get their dream off the ground. They quit their jobs in 1993—Dan was in marketing and finance and Dave was a senior manager for a large truck-leasing concern—and attracted $3.5 million to give life to their first prototype. In mid 1996, they worked a deal with the city of Belle Plaine, which will finance $13 million of the estimated $30 million factory construction, and lease to Excelsior-Henderson. Late last year, they announced that they had raised an additional $11.5 million selling stock, and as we went to press they made their first public offering intended to bring another $30 million into the project, though the Hanlons remain the majority shareholders. All this despite having to follow the bad publicity of two disastrous efforts to re-launch the Indian marque, which must have left investors leery. Few people doubted the Hanlon’s intentions, and they have more than proven their ability to entice investors, and keep them happy. “Finding capital is one of the things we know how to do,” says Dan, the finance specialist.

Two vast tasks remain however. One is simply getting the factory up and producing motorcycles to the standards the Hanlons aspire to, which seem to be considerable. To that end, they have acquired the services of Allan Hurd, the Englishman who got the new Triumph company into production with its range of motorcycles. Critical tasks which need to be performed accurately in the plant include welding the chassis components and painting. Paint quality is recognized as a critical area, one which they don’t want to leave to the whims of an outside company. They hope to build 4000 motorcycles the first year with a current target of 20,000 about five years down the line. (For comparison, consider the fact that Harley plans to make build 145,000 motorcycles next year.)

The other major task, already well under way, is endowing the motorcycle with the proper “cachet” to allow it to pull enthusiast customers in an increasingly crowded market. The Hanlons seek an image for their motorcycle to rival Harley’s. Though they say they “don’t want to compete directly with anyone,” the Hanlons, Harley owners and enthusiasts themselves, see Harley as the standard of measurement. They frequently repeated a Coke-Pepsi analogy, with Excelsior-Henderson playing Pepsi to Harley-Davidson’s Coke. Polaris never figured in this discussion, and in their eyes, the Japanese aren’t playing in the same arena. “We have something they never could have,” says Dave.

1998 revival of the Excelsior Henderson Super X
The 1998 revival of the Excelsior Henderson Super X.Brian J. Nelson

That something, apparently is the “history and soul” of the original Excelsior-Henderson, which they hope to transfer to their new company. This is evidently why they have gone to all the trouble to secure the Excelsior-Henderson nameplate and why they seek to link the bike’s styling to the original Excelsior Super X. By wrapping the new Excelsior-Henderson in the mantle of the old, they hope to create and market a sort of instant heritage. We wonder if there is sufficient allure left from a line that disappeared long before most of today’s buyers were born to make a difference in sales. And, if there is, will buyers accept the new company’s claim to that tradition? So far, the Hanlons seem pleased with the reception they have received from both Excelsior enthusiasts and antique-motorcycle organizations. Also, without any marketing, they sold about $100,000 in apparel last year, which suggests a “groundswell.”

“The consumer will decide if the soul connects,” says Dave Hanlon.

To link it to Excelsiors past, the new Super X recalls some of its distinguishing features, such as tank-top instruments, an Excelsior innovation. The unsprung “streamline” frame, which drew its top frame line straight from steering head to rear axle for styling considerations and to lower the seat, is emulated in the single-shock rear suspension design. Two-tone paint schemes were another innovation. But the most obvious styling cue derived from the Super X of old is the front suspension, which, like the 1920’s system, passes through the front fender, has exposed springs, and mounts the headlight up high. Unlike the 1929 machine, which used slender tubing for its fork, the modern machine has a relatively massive fork, and this aspect of the styling is most frequently cited by those who don’t like the looks. Another version (likely to be called the American X) is planned for the future, and we suspect it will have a conventional telescopic fork.

The Super X logo has tremendous styling potential, and appears on floorboards, engine case, handgrips and other components of the bike.Brian J. Nelson

And, of course, there is the engine. The X-twin was a technological and performance leader 68 years ago, and the modern version approaches the present in similar manner. The 50-degree, 1386 cc (85-cubic-inch) engine has chain-driven dual overhead cams driving its four valves per cylinder, which makes the air-cooled cylinders quite tall—so tall in fact that the 5.8-gallon fuel tank on the prototype has to be relieved to clear the rear cylinder’s valve cover. A single-crankpin layout with side-by-side connecting rods assures an appealing V-twin cadence. Electronic fuel injection mixes the incoming mixture, and a five-speed and belt drive deliver the power to the rear wheel, which like the front is a wire-spoked 16-incher.

At 675 pounds projected dry weight, the Super X will fall on the heavy end of the range for V-twins, though some Harleys weigh as much, and like every other detail of the prototype, this is subject to change. The finning, for example, was being revised when we visited in July. But this is exactly what a company moving toward production should be doing—refining its prototypes as its testing and market research shows a need. It is also beginning to set up dealers. Its “Pioneer” dealers are already established and the Hanlons have an eventual target of 200 dealers while production is rolling.

We saw several prototypes being tested, but weren’t able to ride one. Until the bike is closer to a production model, they are reluctant to let the press begin to tell what it’s like to ride. The final bike could be very different from the machines being tested today. Nevertheless, correspondent Roland Brown did get to ride a Super X prototype—with the same stipulations—very briefly at Daytona.

“The chance to ride the Super X gave me a feel for what Excelsior-Henderson is trying achieve, though this was not a true test. Even so, it was a thrill to throw a leg over the low, well padded saddle and hit the starter button to set the big 1386 cc motor churning to life with a loud, deep V-twin thrap through its unsilenced ‘Daytona Special’ exhaust.

“The riding position is typical cruiser, with raised bars and forward-set footboards. From the saddle, the view is of the big chromed headlight, the exposed fork springs, and the instruments set into a tank-top console similar to that of the original Super X.

front end
You won’t mistake it for anything else when you see a new Super X coming down the road, though not everyone likes the appearance of the front end. The design has the potential to provide rigidity with a slicker ride than telescopics.Brian J. Nelson

“There was barely any room to get the Excelsior into second gear during my ride, but I certainly got a feel for its power delivery. The big motor thudded out enough low-rev torque to pull down a building, responding to the throttle with an instant urge that no standard Harley could approach. If the X is anything as impressive at the top end, Excelsior-Henderson is halfway to a winning format. They refused to reveal details of maximum power output, but it’s likely to be 80 to 90 horsepower at about 5000 rpm.

“The motor promises to be fairly smooth, thanks to rubber inserts at the four mounting points on the steel backbone frame. But there was enough of a gentle low-speed shudder to remind me of the big V-twin below. “The Super X is one big motorbike, but it feels much lighter on the move and, despite a high tickover, was very easy to ride at low speeds. Suspension from the front leading-link system and rear monoshock was set up fairly soft like the prototype’s steering angle and rather limited ground clearance. This has been modified on later prototypes.

“You can expect to use a fair bit of brake lever pressure to stop from the 120-mph top speed that this bike should be capable of. The pillion seat on the bike I rode was fairly small; alternative saddles are likely to be among the range of extras available for the Super X.

Inspiration and some of the styling cues were drawn from the original Super X, such as this 1931 model, which was advanced for its day.Brian J. Nelson

“With its price likely to be around $20,000, the Super X will be a match for Harley’s big twins in the showroom. Whether it will be equally competitive on the open road remains to be seen, but the first signs are very promising.”

The signs—no longer the first—of the company’s ability to bring the Super X to market are also very convincing. If their ability to engineer a motorcycle is anything like their ability to create and execute a plan to manufacture it, it should be a very exciting ride indeed.

That may be exactly what the Hanlons wish to convey. The first thing they told us when we visited their headquarters was, “We want people to walk away saying, ‘This is a company that is populated by talented, dynamic people.’ To believe that we will make a quality, durable, well-finished motorcycle, you need to know it has people behind it who care. If you know the process, you will have confidence in people, and therefore the product.

This article was originally published in the October 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

Designation: V92C
Engine type: Air/oil-cooled 50-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves per cylinder
Displacement: 1386cc
Carburetion: Electronic fuel injection
Lubrication: Dry sump, 4-quart capacity
Transmission: Wet, multi-plate clutch; 5 speeds
Final drive: Belt
Claimed dry weight: 675 lbs.
Wheelbase: 65 in.
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 16-inch
Tires: Dunlop
Front brake: 4-piston caliper, 11.5-inch disc
Rear brake: 2-piston caliper, 11.5-inch disc
Front suspension: Double-strut leading-link
Rear suspension: Single damper
Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal.