Only 11 Cyclones are known to exist, the race bikes are the rarest of the breed.
Sitting in the L.A. family room of antique American bike aficionado Jeffrey Gilbert, one can taste the patina of precious metal leaking into the warm spring air. Shafts of gauzy sunlight seem to spotlight a large glass case containing several dozen neatly mounted motorcycle license plates representing the first 20 years of the 20th century. Close by, almost huddling in a corner beneath a framed poster of itself as seen at no less than the Guggenheim Museum exhibit is a banshee bright yellow racing motorcycle, its slab-sided, underslung gas tank emblazoned with the name "Cyclone." It's not the shade of yellow associated with gold, but we are in the presence of treasure. Placing a value on the 1914-15-ish, one-of-11-existing motorcycles is almost a moot point (like its exact birthdate), but one that must be made clear if we are to grant it the title of America's most valuable motorcycle. Pedigree plays a significant part in this quest or to use the term preferred by the high-end auction houses...provenance.
Documentation is required; a paper trail to the Holy Grail, dates, names, places. The difference between "original" and "reproduced" becomes more blurred as time goes by and prices escalate. Ever notice how many original Picasso prints are up for grabs on the internet?
The gas tank features separate fillers for fuel and oil; engine lubrication was assisted by the hand-pump while in motion.
The gas tank features separate fillers for fuel and oil; engine lubrication was assisted b
Better yet is an eyewitness. Best yet, a walking, talking direct genetic link to the hands that built the machine in the first place. That set of circumstances is about as rare as the motorcycle itself. But on this March Sunday afternoon, up in the hills above Sunset Boulevard and not far from the Getty Museum-another repository of rare works of art-an intersection of history is about to take place.
This writer has been invited to enter the eye of the storm, so to speak, and to document the occasion with words and photos. And I'm late to the party. Already spread across a large maple table in the adjoining living room are stacks of meticulously catalogued and boxed magazines, catalogs, sales brochures, old and newly minted books, all pertaining to the Cyclone. A mountain of material it seems when we're talking just 11 existing motorcycles. Jeff Gilbert is showing the materials to the recent arrivals: two men, two women, and about a hundred years of history. They would be father and son: Bob and Bill Sewall, and their wives Marlis and Robin, respectively, with their hosts, Jeff and Helaine Gilbert. To compress the introductions, Bob's father, Bill's grandfather, ran a St. Paul, Minnesota, company called E.B. Sewall Manufacturing Co., later changed to Sewall Gear Co., which was in operation from 1939 to 2009.
Jeff's got a dry sense of humor, but is also a serious guy with a big metal lathe in his garage and the skill to use it. He stands in front of me wearing a bright yellow Cyclone T-shirt, the exact T-shirt Bob is wearing. The two of them bookend Bill along with Jeff's Cyclone for one of those Kodak moments and a proud one at that, as it represents three generations of Sewalls.
The Extended Cyclone Family (l-r) Robin and Bill Sewall, Marlis and Bob Sewall, Jeff and Helaine Gilbert.
The Extended Cyclone Family (l-r) Robin and Bill Sewall, Marlis and Bob Sewall, Jeff and H
While the competition bikes were painted a "violent yellow," apparently to make them more visible during race events, the color was not particularly popular with the public looking for a daily rider. A more sedate blue paint was an option for the road-going machines, the first Cyclones following the trends of the time featuring a conventional loop frame and front coil-spring forks similar to Indians of the day. Later models benefited from a rear suspension setup consisting of swinging arms controlled by a leaf spring mounted vertically behind the seat. All Cyclones during this period were clutch-operated, single-speed, chain-driven designs. And all featured Andy Strand's beautifully designed and crafted bevel gear driven single overhead cam V-twin powerplant. Price tag when new? $350. The 45hp Cyclone was the king-of-the-hill racer of the time tearing up the board and dirt tracks at speeds reaching 110 mph, and that with a one-gear transmission. Showroom sales faltered as the plant closed its doors in 1915 after producing a purported 300 (but probably far less) road machines and far fewer racers.
Fast forward to the 2000s, and the younger Sewall, Bill, himself a successful construction company manager and major musclecar gearhead, was presented with information by his father about his ancestral mechanical history of the two-wheeled kind. He traveled to New York and the Guggenheim Art of the Motorcycle Exhibit, crawled under the ropes, and had his photo taken with the Cyclone display. It lit a fire, so to speak, and Bob began his own hunt for the elusive history of the Cyclone, tracking down as much information, documentation, and ultimately bikes as he could. He would eventually find his way to Jeff and his bike in L.A.. It was the beginning of a quest to personally see as many of the 11 existing bikes as possible.
A bike that bridges the decades. Jeff introduces Bob and Bill to the Cyclone racer
Jeff says, "I got a call from a guy who said his grandfather had a connection to the Cyclone and wanted to know if his father and he could drop by and see my bike. I get all kinds of calls and most of the time no one shows up. In any case, I said, 'Sure, come on by.' I think it's just great meeting a real connection to the people behind this unique motorcycle."
One of the first of the several Cyclone myths, mistakes, and muck-ups as its story has been served up-rehashed, rather-over the nearly 100 years since it ceased production, is solved from the get-go: the spelling of the Sewall name. The Cyclone "literature" often spells it Sewell, replacing the "a" with an "e." Bob goes on to explain that his father was a draughtsman who worked for Andy Strand who thought up the complex single overhead cam and hemispherical combustion-chambered Cyclone engine design. At the time, Bob's father worked for Strand and was given the responsibility of the drafting of the engine design, therefore providing the missing link between concept and rip-roaring reality. Then the Joerns brothers, who had tried building their own motorcycle, the Thiem, which proved unsuccessful, agreed to build the Cyclone as they had the necessary manufacturing facilities. It's one of a handful of the 1,000cc (61ci) V-twin racers and street machines built in the years 1914-15.
Jeff further clarifies the issue relating to the Cyclone motorcycle versus the Cyclone engine, "This is really more of a story about an engine than a motorcycle. Racers of the day would install the Cyclone motor into a frame of their choice. This ties in to the present day situation, that of the 11 existing 'real' Cyclones. Only two of the road models and only one of the racers are fitted with Cyclone-built frames. The others are in either Harley, Indian, or reproduction frames."
The Mesinger Seat as de rigueur for bikes of the teens thru '20s.
Bob, Bill, and Jeff pour over the table full of documents and Cyclone memorabilia, Bill bringing out one of his own thick "dossiers," evidence of his dedicated research efforts. To call it a "whirlwind" of a meeting might be too close to calling it a Cyclone of shared passions. I get them to pause and pose for a few snapshots, and then it's time for Bob and Bill and their wives to head down the road a bit, a second Cyclone collector is on the day's itinerary.
Can we say that the ongoing Cyclone quest by the father and son team is potential for a definitive book about the Cyclone, America's mighty maelstrom of a motorcycle, even if there are less than a dozen in the world? Sure...quality and quantity, or rather lack of the latter, makes for a worthy project, the "violent yellow" Cyclone leaving a truly indelible impression on the sport of American motorcycling. Oh, and that price tag paid in 2008 for the last Cyclone to come up for auction? $520,000. Handlebars down, that makes it the most valuable American motorcycle.
The Andy Strand engine design featured SOHC hemi combustion chambers.
Jeff's Cyclone vs. The Coffee Can
In the early years of the 20th century, some 300 different "made in America" motorcycle companies flashed and faded in and out of existence. Only a couple survived, Indian and Harley. The vaunted Cyclone disappeared into the history books, at least for a while.
Tracing Jeff Gilbert's bike finds it originally racing in Northern California, then languishing unused for some 10 years before being revived by one Blink Walters who modified the displacement from 1,000 cc to 350 cc by blanking off one cylinder and making a smaller displacement replacement barrel for the other. He then stuffed the motor into a '23 Harley-Davidson short-coupled race frame (itself worth a fortune) and tore up the competition in his class during the '20s. In the '50s the engine was rebuilt back to its original self, the Harley frame retained. Harrah's of Las Vegas bought it for their huge collection of cars and bikes back in the '60s then sold it during one of their sale-offs in 1984. Its owner then advertised it for sale in 1990, at which point Jeff brought it home, now celebrating its 20th anniversary in his collection.
As for his future plans for the most important bike in his collection of important bikes, Jeff sighs and says, "It's a keeper. However when my kids and/or wife kill me, the first thing they will dispose of will be the Cyclone. As for me, they've reserved a large empty can of expensive roasted Italian coffee. It's sitting in the garage now with a sheet of paper taped to it with 'Jeffrey's ashes' written on it plus my cardiologist's business card. Obviously everyone agrees the bike is more important than me. So be it."