Sunday, November 30, 2008


I will confess to never having heard of the Schickel before finding the marque history for the company, written by the grandson of the founder, Ken Anderson. His book is 'The Illustrated History of the Schickel Motorcycle, 1911-1924; The First 2-Cycle Built In America' (Two Cycle Press, 2008), and thankfully his family has preserved a great archive of photographs, patent documents, and various motorcycles and parts, with which Ken was able to compile this most interesting history.

As mentioned, the Schickel was the first two-stroke motorcycle produced in the US, and has some very interesting features, including a slew of other firsts, including the first twistgrip transmission control (later to become common on small machines and scooters), the first rotating magneto spark advance, first hinged rear mudguard, a sprung front fork, and an aluminum gas tank which served as the top frame member, with tubing lugs for the lower and rear frame cast into the tank (see patent drawing).

Various aspects of his eventual production motorcycle were designed by Norbert Schickel (pictured above) while at Cornell studying engineering, and he built four experimental machines from 1907 -11. He was able to show a completed Schickel machine at the February 1911 Chicago Motorcycle Show, which garnered significant attention, which bolstered his decision to seek funding to begin series production.

He established his works in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1911, and hoped to equip the new buildings with enough tooling to produce his motorcycle by 1912, with a target price of $250. The first motorcycle made at the new factory was introduced at the Motorcycle Show in New York City on Jan.6, 1912, with the following specification:
- 30.5 c.i. motor (500cc), with a 'square' bore and stroke (3 3/8"), 5hp @ 3500rpm, top speed 50mph
- 3gal gas tank capacity, oil premix (1 cup oil/gallon), throttle and magneto controlled at handlebars, and a decompressor lever also on the 'bars.
- Pedal gear starting with band brake and optional coaster brake, and a belt drive with an idler pulley controlled by handlebar twistgrip. 57-inch wheelbase, 185lbs.
- Front fork was a patented short trailing-link design, with springs controlling both compression and rebound action.

Following this introduction, close to 70 dealers expressed interest in carrying the machine, and the author estimates that 75-100 were built that year.

In 1913, new models were added with larger (6hp - 600cc) engines and chain drive with clutch options (which retained the pedalling starter gear). Price for the deluxe all-chain 6hp model dropped to $235, and the 'Big Six' model became the best-seller of the four-model range.

In 1914, an optional 2-speed gearbox was available, but this was the year Henry Ford perfected his assembly-line production for the Model T, which allowed a car to be completed every 93 seconds, and dropped the price of the car from the original $850 (1908) to $480 by 1914. During this period, many small American motorcycle builders folded, as the only way to compete with the Ford was to build bigger and faster models (the route of Harley, Indian, Excelsior, Henderson, etc), or small utility lightweights which were significantly cheaper than a car.

Norbert Schickel's response was to design a lightweight motorcycle (95lbs) for sale at $100, with a 2.5 hp engine of around 200cc, and a bicycle-like rolling chassis. Many of the advanced features of the original 5hp model (cast frame/tank, sprung forks, clutch, starting pedals, adjustable spark) were dispensed with, and the little model was paddled off, and slowed down using a decompressor. The author claims it is "...possible to to come to an almost complete stop and then accelerate without stalling. To my surprise, when riding a 1917 Model with the same type of drive, I found it was easy to start and I was able to negotiate stop signs without stalling if waiting was not necessary."

In 1915, the company also introduced a motorized bicycle attachment (stinkwheel!) called the 'Resto Bike-Motor', for $25, utilizing the same engine, which could be attached to any bicycle.

An interesting publicity stunt was undertaken by M.E. Gale in June of 1915, in which a 'Big Six' chain-drive 6hp 2-speed model was attached to a 'prairie schooner' covered wagon (with motorcycle wheels replacing the original wooden spoke items). Gale set off with his family in tow from Stamford CT to San Francisco, with an expected travel time of 100 days. His two sons rode a Lightweight model with a twin saddle (side by side!). Gale was a professional rider who made his living performing endurance stunts for advertising campaigns. Whether he made it or not isn't mentioned!

In 1917, due to increasing hostility towards Germans as WW1 heated up, the Shickel became the S.M.C. (Schickel Motor Company). The Company was recapitalized, and a new Flywheel magneto was added to the lightweight model. In 1918, the Lightweight was renamed the 'Getabout', but due to America's entrance into WW1, motorcycle sales ground to a halt. The company took on work making rocker arms for V-12 Liberty Aircraft Engines, for which they received quite a few honors.

At the end of WW1 in Nov. 1919, only ten US motorcycle manufacturers remained of the 100 or so which had existed previously, and Norbert realized that the car had put paid to his modest-scale motorcycle ambitions. In an unusual move, he renamed his Lightweight the 'Model T', and painted it all-black, just like the automobile which had levelled the motorcycle industry. I'm not sure whether to call this 'can't beat 'em/join 'em' thinking, or some kind of homage to the invincible Ford. The company struggled on with this model until 1923, when Shickel realized he wouldn't be able to raise enough capital to continue production, and he tried to sell the company and/or his designs to several of the big motorcycle concerns (Excelsior, Ace, Indian, etc). In 1924, he called it quits.

As an interesting postscript, in 1924 Schickel successfully sued Indian for infringement on his sprung front fork patent, and they paid him $1750 - $.15/motorcycle which 'borrowed' his design (10,000 total had been produced), plus $250 for non-exclusive patent rights. He also sued Harley-Davidson for stealing his hinged rear mudguard patent, and they paid him $.10/motorcycle for his design (40,000 total) plus $1000 for non-exclusive rights to his patent.

The book is available directly from Ken Anderson here.


Anonymous said...

Wow Paul,

What a great find...I wonder if one will turn up one day? Do you know of any survivors? How did you ever find the book about this marque?

C-ya, Jerrykap

vintagent said...

Yes! Several of the bikes survive, of all models, and photos are included in the book. The family kept a lot of stuff, including motorcycles, as well. I found the book on ebay!

Anonymous said...

Hiya Paul.
I've seen a few pics of these over the years in some old books. Very interesting designs. I'm not sure that they were the first with a hinged rear fender though. Their first model sold in 1911, my '13 Premier has a hinged rear fender, and I'm sure there were others in that era.

vintagent said...

The fact that they successfully sued Harley for violating their hinged fender patent speaks for itself - usually you don't get a patent unless you're the first! As you, Mr Patent Holder, surely know ;)

Anonymous said...

Your review of my book is impressive. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for the publicity.

Happy Holidays!
Ken Anderson