Wednesday 26 March 2014

Orley Raymond Courtney's Motorcycles - Birth of the Cruiser

1952 Cycle Magazine Enterprise Motorcycle
Image Source

For the purpose of today's article I'm going to make a broad generalization: the cruiser is a relatively recent invention that was concocted in the boardrooms of at least one major manufacturer. There was once a time when Harley Davidsons and Indians were simply styled in the manner of their era and were just as susceptible to being stripped to their bare essentials and ridden in anger as anything coming out of Europe. Their styling was once current, their performance once competitive, their function never intended for weekend warriors escaping office drudgery in leather-clad road pageants. The overwrought modern cruiser and the carefully cultivated image of its riders were but a distant glimmer in the eye of a clever marketing maven.

It could have been different. It should have been different. The cruiser wasn't born in the boardrooms of Harley-Davidson in the 1980s. It was the product of a man with a singular vision, whose work would prove to be under appreciated and his skills as a remarkable designer and craftsman virtually forgotten. These prototypical cruisers weren't created by tacking tassels onto nostalgic throwback machines – they were an optimistic vision of the future welded out of steel tube and beaten out of sheet metal in Orley Raymond Courtney's workshop before being rolled out into an ignorant world in the mid-1930s, and once again in the early 1950s. Courtney's work was bold, innovative, and without peer in the United States, or anywhere else in the world. Above all, it was beautiful. And it is now virtually forgotten, his stunning and forward-thinking designs contributing to a future that never happened.

1952 Courtney Enterprise Motorcycle
Image Source

Today we benefit (or, depending on your viewpoint, suffer) from a proliferation of increasingly specialized motorcycles tailored to specific functions. If you want to go slow and munch miles on the Interstate, you buy a cruiser. If you want to go fast, you buy a sport bike. If you want to go fast and ride more than 50 miles at a time, you buy a sport tourer. If you want to go fast and ride more than 50 miles at a time and pretend you can go offroad if you wanted to but you probably never will, you buy an adventure tourer. Categories are so prolific that each year we are introduced to a new type of machine that we never even knew we needed, until this shiny new “super-middleweight-naked-sport-standard-retro-street-tracker” hits the showrooms and we carve yet another useless and short-lived niche into the catalogues. Having a single motorcycle to do it all is a laughable exercise - and that niche of the do it all bike is well served by an impossibly large gamut of disparate machines built to suit every taste.

It wasn't always so. Once upon a time you had a motor cycle, a simple formula served by simple contraptions: a machine with a frame, two wheels, and an engine stuck in the middle. This motorcycle could and would do anything you might ask of it – you could use it to commute to work, to cross the country, to pick up the groceries, to bounce through dirt trails, to compete in racing, to do pretty much everything you needed of it. It was a utilitarian transport that was adapted to the needs of the owner. Re-purposing a motorbike was just a matter of adding or shedding a few components. Add a sidecar and you have an economical family vehicle. Strip off the brightwork and hot up the motor and you can go earn some extra money flattracking at the fairgrounds. In these early decades motorcycles were blue-collar, utilitarian devices that were adapted to various duties as circumstances or desires dictated. The industry was a long way away from turning motorbikes into recreational vehicles for yuppies and adrenaline junkies like you and me.

1917 Excelsior X V-Twin Motorcycle
Image Source

Orley Raymond Courtney was a motorcycle enthusiast who joined the sport during this period, a man who started riding when motorcycles were still crude and brutal devices that lacked specific purpose or any degree of refinement. Born in rural Indiana in 1895, Courtney developed a penchant for riding in his teenage years aboard a single-cylinder 1911 Indian. When he turned 21 he bought a 61 cubic inch 1916 V-twin Excelsior - apparently a three-speed Big Valve X. The Excelsior twin was marketed as “The Fastest Motorcycle Ever Built” - it was popular among law enforcement, it served as rapid transport for the American military overseas and in Mexico, and it was a formidable competitor on the legendary board track circuits. It won the 1916 Pikes Peak hillclimb with the fastest time overall, with a young rider by the name of Floyd Clymer (yes, that Clymer) at the helm. Courtney's choice of an Excelsior was perhaps not surprising for a young rider with visions of speed and excitement filling his head, and Courtney was known to dabble in the amateur racing of the day.

The Excelsior was a machine that fits well into our framework of a single motorcycle serving many purposes – daily rider, utility vehicle, high-performance racer. Lacking a certain degree of refinement, machines like the Excelsior could be a bit difficult to live with. It was the nature of motorcycling in these early decades, and Courtney began to lament that high-performance motorcycles such as these required the talent of a racer to ride properly.

Courtney was the prototypical American craftsman, a gifted builder with a blue collar upbringing and hands-on skills developed over years of manual labour. Courtney was a quiet genius in his own way, and his position in the world gave him a unique insight into the design of a motorcycle. He began his career as a labourer in a Jefferson Township glass works in his teens, progressing to power hammer operator at the Central Manufacturing Company in Connersville, Indiana in the mid-1910s. The Central Manufacturing Co. specialized in the production of automobile bodies for various domestic manufacturers, eventually becoming renowned for their work on the incomparable shapes of Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg automobiles. He would remain with the company into the 1920s, excepting a brief stint at the Nordyke & Marmon automobile company in Indianapolis in 1917, and a year of service in the US Army Air Corps in 1918.

At some point during the 1920s Courtney and his young family moved to Lansing, Michigan where he continued to ply his trade as metalworker for Oldsmobile and Kaiser-Frazer. It was during this period that he apparently helped develop some part of the styling of the 1933 Oldsmobile models, but the details of his exact contributions are frustratingly vague, his work lost in the vastness of General Motors' corporate history.

It was around this time that Courtney began to develop his idea of a comfortable, stylish and relaxed motorcycle, a refined and luxurious machine aimed at the average rider who wasn't interested in going fast. It would have to be a machine designed to be ridden for pleasure, something that hadn't been properly addressed by motorcycle manufacturers in Courtney's mind. Perhaps there were motorcycles out there that would have suited Courtney's ideal of a civilized machine that could be piloted without stress by an ordinary man, but fortunately for us he hadn't encountered such a machine during his life in the American Midwest.

1913 Henderson Four Motorcycle

Sometime in the early 1930s Courtney began to build his vision. He purchased a 1930 Henderson KJ Streamline four-cylinder, one of the ultimate examples of the early American “super bike”, a design lineage that was lost during the Great Depression when most of the great American marques succumbed to the economic downturn. These were smooth, fast and elegant machines featuring longitudinally mounted four-stroke, four-cylinder engines laid out in a manner introduced by Belgian manufacturer FN in 1905. Built to increasingly high standards and graceful styling, the American four culminated in beautiful and powerful machines like the Cleveland Tornado and the Ace (later Indian) Four. Austerity conspired against the success of these superlative (and complex) machines, leading to their gradually replacement by the simpler twin-cylinder machines that we now take for granted as the prototypically “American” motorcycle.

Ace Four Motorcycle

Henderson had been one of the pioneers of American four-cylinder motorcycles, introducing the first of their fours in 1911-12. The KJ that Courtney chose as the basis of his prototype was the penultimate evolution of the Henderson line, introduced in 1929 under the leadership of ex-Harley-Davidson engineer Arthur Constantine. The KJ featured a freshly reworked version of the venerable Henderson air-cooled four, with an inlet-over-exhaust head and a displacement of 1304cc via a 68.3mm bore and an 89mm stroke. Power was 40hp at 4000 rpm, enough to make the 440lb KJ a genuine 100 mph machine in an era when that sort of speed was rarified territory for any vehicle at any price. The “Streamline” moniker referred to the use of a teardrop-shaped fuel tank that straddled the backbone of the frame rather than sitting within it – it might seem like a half-hearted attempt at aerodynamic styling by our modern standards but it was a significant step forward at the time, and an aesthetic element that would be copied by numerous marques in the succeeding decades.

Hendersons had long been renowned for their speed and refinement, beating out Harley Davidson and Indian in production machine performance, if not always winning on the race track. This made Hendersons, particularly the final 45hp KL models of 1931, the darling of police forces across the United States and the holder of numerous speed and endurance records from the mid-1920s until the company was abruptly shuttered by parent company Schwinn in 1931. Despite a healthy backlog of orders on the books, management determined that the writing was on the wall for expensive motorcycles if the Depression was to continue, and with a few words and the stroke of a pen Henderson was no more.

The KJ and its powerplant was a fine start to Courtney's ideal motorcycle, but it required a significant amount of reworking to satisfy his goal of building the ultimate cruising machine. Courtney's aim was to build a comfortable, smooth riding machine with ample suspension, easy handling, and adequate wind protection to shield the rider from the elements.

Orley Ray Courtney Henderson KJ Chassis
Image Source

The resulting machine was far beyond the sum of those basic tenets and a testament to the innovation and skill of Courtney as a mechanical craftsman. Courtney rebuild the chassis of the KJ to the point of it being unrecognizable. The central duplex cradle of the frame was unchanged, but front and rear ends were modified considerably. The leading-link springer fork of the Henderson was widened and the rake reduced. Long, wide handlebars with a integrated instrument panel extended rearward a considerable distance, set at nearly a 90-degree angle relative to the front fork. A massive, well sculpted solo seat was set as low as possible, riding directly on the frame. The rigid rear end of the KJ was ditched in favour of a unique swinging arm, suspended on a pair of coil springs and built using components liberated from the front suspension of an unidentified automobile.* Both ends were widened considerably to accommodate 10 inch wheels shod with balloon tires taken from aircraft landing gear to ensure a smooth, compliant ride. Hydraulic drum brakes were integrated into the tiny wheel hubs. The iconic teardrop fuel tank of the KJ was gone, replaced by a reshaped fuel cell that barely extended above the backbone of the frame.

Courtney's streamlined Henderson KJ motorcycle
Image Source

While the chassis was unique, the true highlight of Courtney's KJ was the astonishing bodywork. Hammered out of sheet steel by Courtney himself, the fully enclosed bodywork echoed the styling cues of some of the most radical automotive designs of the era. Many have noted that the curved vertical grille on the front was an unmistakable nod to the Chrysler Airflow, while at the rear a subtle boat tail shape tapered into a teardrop shape that echoed the Auburn Speedster. The awkward-looking balloon wheels were completely hidden beneath the streamlined and enclosed fenders, which were low enough to give the KJ the appearance of hovering across the ground. Teardrop spats at the four corners accentuated the effect of fluid speed. Fairings were integrated into the front fenders ahead of the large floorboards to shield the rider's legs from the wind. Wind protection was further enhanced by a curved windscreen mounted on top of the instrument panel. According to friends the machine was painted in a lustrous burgundy scheme - the exact colours are unknown, as it has been repainted several times since 1935, but several period photos show a two-tone scheme with a scruffy-looking lambskin seat. All told the incredible bodywork took nine months for Courtney to hammer out by hand.

Orley Raymond Courtney's Henderson KJ
Image Source

The overall aesthetic of Courtney's KJ was a product of the height of the Art Deco era, with soft curves and common-sense aerodynamic forms borrowed from the futuristic streamlined objects that would become touchstones for modern industrial design. The KJ was a design that hid the mechanical elements of the machine in favour of pure styling, the outer shell unconnected to the function of the machine below, predating (for good or ill) our current practice of hiding the oily bits beneath expansive fairings by several decades. The only hint that something mechanical lurked below the flowing bodywork was the kickstart lever poking through the left side of the fairing. Courtney's KJ owed some elements to the brief trend of fully-shrouded motorcycle designs of the 1920s, well represented by the French Majestic and the American Ner-A-Car, while eclipsing all of them in its beauty and the quality of its execution.

Orley Ray Courtney's Henderson KJ
Image Source

The KJ was so cleanly style you might be tempted to think the elements were appropriated from the streamlined designs that were becoming popular in the mid-1930s. It certainly looked like the two-wheeled equivalent of the shapely automobiles and Streamline Moderne objects of the era. Attempts to relate Courtney's styling to the work of Raymond Loewy and other well-known 20th century industrial designers are inevitable. But there is one problem with that comparison –  Courtney's KJ, the product of a blue-collar Michigan metalworker, predated Loewy's best design work by several years.

Henderson KJ featured in 1935 Motorcyclist Magazine
Image Source

Courtney's work in manual trades and the automotive industry allowed him to approach the development of his motorcycles from a fresh perspective, unhindered by conservative notions of what was or was not acceptable in designing a two-wheeled machine. He had the mechanical aptitude to craft a machine from scratch, developing his own peculiar and fascinating chassis design. He had the creativity and metalworking skills to drape his creations in the shapes he envisioned, concerns of mass production be damned - and damned they were with the extremely complex, labour intensive, hand-formed bodywork of the KJ. Courtney came to the process of building a motorcycle like an outsider, tossing aside convention to build his machine the way that made sense to him. He had all the marks of a great designer, and he may well have become one had he lived in another era or had more favourable circumstances shine upon his creations.  

Image Source

Courtney filed a patent in July 1934 for the design of his bodywork and the associated support structure, with details of his unique suspension design included in the document. The KJ, however, was not to be the beginning of a production machine. It was a labour-intensive one-off, a personal exercise that fulfilled Courtney's desires. While Courtney's precise motivations for filing a patent aren't known, there is some evidence he hoped that his innovations might be adopted among mainstream motorcycle manufacturers. Unfortunately for Courtney there was not much demand for a complex, futuristic and highly unorthodox motorcycle body design at the height of the Great Depression.

Orley Ray Courtney's Henderson KJ suspension
Image Source

His second patent, filed in July 1940, was for a much more modest streamlined body that took the styling of the then-recently restyled Indian Chief to its logical conclusion. For that year Indian introduced the now-iconic skirted fenders that would forever be associated with the brand's big twin offerings (and countless cheesy imitators). Courtney took the idea and extended the skirting to encompass the entire wheel and suspension, front and rear, with aerodynamic spats flanking the skirts that echoed the soft shapes of his own KJ design, but in far more conservative and production-minded fashion. Shortly after, in 1941, he copyrighted the name “Courtney Aero Squadron”. It's been suggested that Courtney patented this “ornamental” design in the hopes that other companies would follow Indian's lead and have to reference his patent should they try to develop fully streamlined wheels, but unfortunately for him the trend didn't take off and the entry of the US into the Second World War would soon interrupt American motorcycle production.

Courtney Aero Squadron motorcycle patent
Image Source

Courtney continued working for General Motors during the wartime period. Following a brief stint with REO in 1940 Courtney took a job at the Pontiac Motor Division, where he would help produce a variety of wartime components ranging from anti-aircraft guns, to truck engine blocks, to tank axles. Following the end of the war he went to Kaiser-Frazer to work in the company's pre-production body shop. Courtney's motorcycling ambitions were put on the back burner, his Aero Squadron project never progressing beyond the patent drawings. Despite this lack of progress, his enthusiasm for motorcycles never waivered. His KJ saw extensive daily use and was a familiar sight in his Michigan neighbourhood, racking up considerable mileage despite having awkward ergonomics, with far too little leg room for the average rider – this being an element that Courtney apparently failed to account for in his quest for the ideal cruising machine.

Courtney's Henderson KJ ergonomics
Image Source

Courtney left his post with Kaiser-Frazer to open an independent metalworking shop with his son, Ray William, in 1950. Courtney-Enterprise was opened in Pontiac, Michigan and offered general metalworking and bodywork services. The newly-independent father and son outfit now had the opportunity to return to Orley Ray's dream of building the ultimate cruising motorcycle, this time designed with series production in mind.

The new machine would refine Courtney's idea for a usable, comfortable machine by having a more conventional riding position, with provisions for a passenger, as well as modern bodywork that would be much easier to manufacture than the hand-beaten panels of the KJ. The suspension and frame would be of Courtney's own design, with power provided by off-the-shelf motors – in the case of the prototype, an unmodified 45 cubic inch, 40hp Indian Scout V-twin with three-speed gearbox.

Courtney Enterprise motorcycle chassis patent
Image Source

To provide the long and low proportions and ample seating Courtney desired, a unique chassis was developed for the new machine. A chromoly steel cradle supported the engine, with a horizontal backbone running beneath the rider and passenger seats. The steering head was set behind the handlebars and connected via a drag link to the unique front suspension, which was comprised of a wide U-shaped leading link fork suspended on a pair of progressively wound springs with a crude snubber damping system. The front subframe used a large diameter spine extending above the front wheel to support the steering mechanism and the internally-baffled fuel tank, which was hung over the front of the bike. Out back was a relatively conventional swinging arm suspension with dual shocks. Courtney used small diameter wheels with tall, supple tires, in this case 9x6.00 inch rims mounted with fat whitewall tires that appeared to have been yanked off the nearest pickup truck.

Courtney Enterprise Motorcycle
Image Source
As with the KJ, this new machine was styled unlike anything ever seen before (or since). The story, shared in a March 1953 Popular Science article, was that the styling came to Courtney in a dream in 1950, when after several months of fretting over the aesthetics of the machine he had a vision of a futuristic motorcycle gliding across a serene landscape. Upon waking up he sketched out the vision and this drawing was faithfully recreated to build his dream machine, which Courtney christened the “Enterprise”.

Courtney Enterprise dream sketch
Image Source

Where the KJ had been bulbous and smooth, the Enterprise was sharp, sleek and elegant. It was perfectly in tune with the aesthetics of the 1950s, with a hint of an optimistic vision of the future in its chrome-trimmed bodywork. There were cues from American consumer and automobile design, though executed in a far more elegant fashion than the average be-finned yank tank or atomic age toaster. The Enterprise looked like a late 1950s or early 1960s vision of the future, a two-wheeled interpretation of the jet-age styling that characterized that golden era of American automobile production - except it was unveiled to the public in 1952, well before sharp creases and slab sides became the norm in Detroit designs. The Enterprise was supposedly revealed at the Detroit Motorama in 1952, and brochures were prepared to announce the new company that were apparently intended to be handed out at the show. This is entirely plausible except for the fact that there was no Detroit Motorama held in 1952, so the true nature of the public unveiling is a bit murky.

1952 Courtney Enterprise motorcycle brochure
Image Source

Once again Courtney proved to be well ahead of the design curve. As it was with the KJ, it is tempting to relate the Enterprise directly to some particular influence or a school of design. Just as it was unfair to compare the KJ to some Loewy-esque streamlined Art Deco refrigerator, so too is it unreasonable to simplify the Enterprise as an example of some greater design trend. It wasn't a cribbing Exner or Teague, who only came into their element years later, and it made Harley Earl's chrome-addled work look instantly dated. It was styled unlike anything else on wheels, never mind comparing it to the stodgy looking motorcycles of the era. The Enterprise was a truly unique and forward-thinking design that made contemporary vehicles look old fashioned. Hindsight sometimes clouds our appreciation of innovative design, where our current perspective causes us to lump a decade of progress into a single blanket category. It's also hard to believe that a ordinary man like Courtney could concoct something so pitch-perfect and forward thinking in his spare time with his son, so we fall into the trap of relating it to something bigger than Courtney and his vision, trying to explain away design as part of something that is better understood. The truth is there was nothing like it at the time and Courtney managed to hammer out something special that would embarrass a lot of the well-known designers of the era.

As on the Henderson the engine and wheels were fully enclosed by the bodywork, but this time the fairings were far simpler in their construction and far easier to produce. The panels were secured to a steel support structure with quick-release fasteners. The Indian twin was fully enclosed and fed cooling air through a pair of slatted inlets in the front fender, with only the shift lever and kickstart pedal poking through the fairings. A pair of saddle trunks were integrated into the rear fender spats. Full length floorboards ran between the fenders, with ample leg room for the driver and passenger who were positioned directly above the engine. The whole machine had an overall length of 112 inches and a 58 inch wheelbase, with a comfortably low 28 inch seat height. Weight was around 580 pounds, heavy for a motorcycle of the era but not nearly as porky as you'd expect given the fully enclosed sheet metal body and the complicated chassis.    

1952 Courtney Enterprise Motorcycle
Image Source

The Enterprise was featured in several magazines including Popular Mechanics and Cycle, where Courtney revealed his desire to craft a stylish and comfortable cruiser for the everyman:

“ This wasn’t Ray Courtney’s first poke at convention. Being one of the gifted few who can not only pierce the veil of the future, but reach behind it and withdraw actual proof, Ray has purposely concentrated on one phase of cycling: that done by the pleasure rider. Asked why he had spent so much time and money on his latest ‘Enterprise,’ Ray, who has been saddle-bound since 1913, replied that he felt the pleas of the most important guy of all. ‘Average Joe Rider.’ Had long been drowned in the roar of racing machines and that it was about time that someone listened. ‘Anyone can ride for pleasure, but only a few have the talent to race.’ ”

The admirable concept of building a machine for the average rider was diminished somewhat by the price tag of the Enterprise. The cost of the hand-built prototype was quoted at an eye-watering $5,000, with built-to-order machines using customer-supplied engines available for a mere $2,500. To put these numbers into perspective a series of unfair comparisons are in order. A contemporary Vincent Rapide would have run you around 1,100$, a Black Lightning ringing in at $1,800 at the end of production in 1954. The average British machine would have been in the 400-700$ range and the big-twin offerings from Harley and Indian retailed for under $1,000. A flagship Cadillac Fleetwood 75 sedan was $5,360. At a price of $2,500 for the production version, plus the cost of the engine that you were expected to supply, the stately Enterprise was hardly going to fly off out of the showrooms.

Cycle Magazine 1952 Enterprise motorcycle
Image Source

The price tag likely diminished the novelty of Courtney's accomplishments to the average reader, who wouldn't have paid attention to anything said after noting the obscene price tag. To make matters worse the articles specifically noted that Courtney's aim was to build a slow, serene cruiser, and Courtney himself admitted to never taking the machine over 65 mph – hardly the stuff that would make adrenaline junkies reach for their chequebook. Courtney wasn't in tune with the fast-developing cult of speed and the outlaw motorcycle culture that was taking hold in the US after the war, with cheap thrills on two wheels available to young men who craved excitement. He was a gentleman rider, and he would have scoffed at the scruffy hooligan “bikers” immortalized by American pop culture during the 1950s and 60s.

Courtney Enterprise rear suspension detail
Image Source

Given the exorbitant sticker price and radical design it is not surprising that only three Enterprises were built before Courtney moved on to other projects. Aside from the Indian-engined prototype at least one BSA-powered machine was built around 1956 for Ray William, possibly using a 646cc A10 twin, but the whereabouts of this example remain unknown.

Cycle Magazine 1952 Enterprise motorcycle
Image Source

While the BSA-engined Enterprise has been lost to history, the prototype appears to have lived an interesting life. Painted in aqua green and white, the original Enterprise became a fixture at the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, Florida, having been apparently sold to the Hard Rock by Courtney's family at some point in the 1980s or 1990s, the last family owner apparently having been one of Orley Ray's sons or grandsons. The motorcycle was exhibited as an alleged “James Dean” motorcycle, with an apocryphal story attached about it having been ridden by Dean in a scene filmed for Rebel Without a Cause that was left on the cutting room floor. With no photos or film to back up the claim, the story smacked of fanciful bullshit concocted by a fast-talking seller who likely also had a few Elvis Presley Harleys cluttering up his garage. Regardless of the reality the Enterprise was exhibited in the Hard Rock for several years and was immortalized by a Chinese-made enamel souvenir pin. It has since disappeared into one of the vast Hard Rock memorabilia warehouses, perhaps after the management decided that James Dean probably never straddled it and the novelty of a remarkably advanced and innovative American motorcycle wasn't enough to entertain tipsy patrons who came to eat overpriced burgers while oogling Jimmy Hendrix's underwear.**

Hard Rock Cafe Orlando Enterprise "James Dean" motorcycle pin
Image Source

A second Indian-powered machine was built at some point, with revised bodywork that exposed the front wheel and the lower part of the engine. This machine also featured a radical chassis design, which was patented by Ray William and Orley Ray in 1956. The front wheel was held by a pair of L-shaped arms, with a similar design at the rear. These arms acted on a coilover monoshock, with steering controlled indirectly by a drag link attached to the base of the steering stem. The rear suspension was also a monoshock, with a cantilevered swingarm working a straight rate linkage, the base of the shock mounted above the rear wheel. A revised version of this suspension was patented in 1978, with a steeper rake on the rear suspension, a simplified direct steering design, and swingarm beams that could be unbolted at their midpoint to expedite wheel removal.

Orley Ray Courtney's final suspension design
Image Source

Curiously, Orley Ray's grandson Rick (now deceased) claimed that only one Indian-engined machine was built, and that the other two Enterprises featured BSA mills. This is in spite of the fact that the Hard Rock machine is the well-documented Indian-powered prototype, while the second surviving example currently has an Indian motor installed, and the associated patent drawings for the revised suspension design depict a V-twin powerplant.

Orley Ray Courtney Enterprise motorcycle
Image Source

This final suspension design was adapted to the second Indian machine that Courtney kept in his possession, along with the KJ, until his death in 1982. Both machines were then purchased by an acquaintance of Courtney's by the name of Ron Finch. Finch cared for the machines and kept them in as-purchased condition before selling them in the 1990s to Mike Gaglioti. Gaglioti moved the motorcycles to New York, eventually selling the pair to Frank Westfall in 2001.

Frank Westfall with the Henderson KJ chassis
Image Source
Westfall took possession of an intact and well-preserved Enterprise and a basket case that was once the KJ, as well as a collection of documents related to the machines from Courtney's estate. While the Enterprise was left in its original state, and is currently exhibited at the Northeast Classic Car Museum in Norwich, New York, the KJ was well beyond a sympathetic restoration and required a total rebuild. Westfall noted that the Henderson was well used, apparently ridden regularly by Courtney. He contracted Pat Murphy to perform a full restoration and the rebuild of several of the hand-crafted body panels, an enormous undertaking that took the better part of a year and nearly 700 hours of labour. Murphy noted that the craftsmanship exhibited by the KJ's bodywork was astonishing, and that it was no mean feat to recreate Courtney's work. The finished machine was painted a deep black and embellished with a few new details, including a leather saddle, fishtailed exhausts, and a mesh opening peeking into the engine bay, before being unveiled to the public at an Antique Motorcycle Club of America show in Rhinebeck, New York in 2010.

Courtney Henderson KJ sheetmetal
Image Source

Since the restoration was completed the KJ has earned accolades and disbelieving praise from all who have seen it. Most onlookers assumed the machine was a production motorcycle from a bygone age, or a long-lost concept produced by a manufacturer, or perhaps a modern custom built machine put together in recent years. Few realize that it was built by a single man in early 1930s, and that it features some fascinating chassis details beneath its shapely bodywork. Courtney's craftsmanship has earned a new following in the internet age, and a level of appreciation that he never experienced during his lifetime. Unfortunately this has lead to coverage of the KJ overshadowing Courtney's later work and his numerous patents. Worst of all is that the newfound attention has lead to ridiculous and demeaning comparisons to modern machines like the Victory Vision, as if Courtney's largely forgotten work somehow led to a modern Harley knockoff with goofy bodywork from a snowmobile company.

Courtney's Henderson KJ on display at the Frist Center in Nashville
Image Source

Courtney's talents as a designer and craftsman deserve better than strained comparisons to modern production machines, and his concept for a stylish cruiser deserved a better fate than obscurity. Courtney was a man out of time, a gifted motorcycle builder who looked to a future that never occurred. The modern cruiser should have begun with the Courtney Enterprise, not with a series of contrived cookie-cutter behemoths inspired by rose-tinted nostalgia and sold with heavy-handed marketing. Like many forward-thinking backyard builders lacking the benefit of public recognition or manufacturer's support, Orley Raymond Courtney revolutionized motorcycle design without anyone ever knowing it.      

Orley Raymond Courtney and his Enterprise motorcycle
Image Source
*The current form of the KJ, described here, may not be the original design of the suspension. The patent filed in 1934 illustrates a very different layout that includes a unique leading-link front suspension apparently patterned on the geometry of the Henderson fork. The rear is a multilink sprung hub with unequal-length arms connecting the wheel to the frame, the lower arm only a few inches long. Whether the cantilevered suspension now found on the KJ is original to the machine or was modified at some point over the course of Courtney's ownership is unclear. In any case the design was (and is) unique and highly innovative considering the crude rear suspension designs of the time. 

** I sincerely hope I'm wrong and if anyone has evidence that James Dean ever planted his cheeks on the Enterprise I'd love to see it. I'd also appreciate some photos of the machine from when it was on display at the Hard Rock in Orlando if anyone has any leads.

Orley Raymond Courtney's streamlined Henderson KJ motorcycle
Image Source

Interesting Links profile of Orley Ray Courtney
Ed Youngblood's Motohistory profile of Courtney's work
March 1953 Popular Science article featuring the Enterprise prototype
The KJ on display at the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee
Knucklebusters' photo gallery of Courtney's Henderson KJ
Brief Hemmings profile of the Enterprise
Patent for a "Streamline motorcycle body", 1934
Patent for a "Design for. a motoecycle(sic)", 1940
Patent for a "Airplane wing construction", 1942
Patent for a "Cowl for a motorcycle front wheel or similar article", 1953
Patent for a "Motorcycle body", 1953
Patent for a "Motorcycle front wheel suspension and steering arrangement", 1956
Patent for a "Wheel suspension system for a vehicle", 1978


  1. Will you still bash me if I compared it to a Vespa?

    1. I'm going to say yes. Yes I would.

    2. Luca Mercurio26/03/2014, 13:25

      Well, I would never venture to admit it if it wasn't for Gautam, but the little and joyful scooter still comes to mind, aestetically speaking.
      Still, it's science-fiction if we think at the era in which Mr. Courtney designed and built those bike...

      By the way, this article is worth to be published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica... Wouldn't it be nice to have a sponsor for your next OddBike trip?
      Great work, as always!

  2. Thank you for this excellent and well-researched piece of motorcycle journalism Jason. I have been following your writings for quite some time, and I hope your resettlement across Canada is working out for you. Based upon the quality of your writing and detail of your research, I don't see why some major motorcycle magazine would not benefit from paying you to write a recurring research column for them. Or perhaps compile your articles into a book format for direct marketing? I believe you could certainly have a major future in motorcycle journalism.

  3. Thank you for the best piece of motorcycle writing I've read in years.

  4. Very interesting and inspiring...there is nothing quite like it in the motorcycling world...
    Interesting also that because he wasn't a factory (just like John Britten and others) he could follow his own vision completely...
    Cheers for a great article.

  5. Thank you for a wonderful article about my grandfather. Well done! I remember watching it go together and the noise from the power hammer when he was forming the fairings. I was a frequent passenger ...what fun.

  6. Hi Mary Ann I am trying to find a photo of one of your grandfathers bikes, it's the 2nd. patent ,filed July 1940 and pat. April 8th.1941 called Courtney Aero Squadron I have it ,it's a 1930's rigid Indian Chief my email is and my phone # is 530 305 6979 PS if you could email me any photos if you have ? that would be great to see it when he had it back in the day.