Friday, March 04, 2011


A reader sent these photos of an unmolested ca. 1911 Pope motorcycle, imported in 1920 to a 'very wealthy family' in Argentina and now in the hands of a big collector, who would like to sell the machine.
Early American motorcycles are the biggest targets for fakery, but this looks to be a genuine machine, although of course, any six-figure bike demands a very hard look... and in this case, that look would require a trip to Buenos Aires, which doesn't sound so bad.  For now though, take a gander at these photographs; instructive commentary/opinion is welcome!
The Pope Motorcycle Co was one of the first production motorcycles to use overhead valves (Hildebrand and Wolfmuller was first; four valves per cylinder too).  With full suspension front and rear and that magnificent engine with shaft-driven magneto, plus all-chain drive and a proper clutch, the Pope was the most advanced production motorcycle in the world at that date, 14 years ahead of European bikes generally, and 25 years ahead of the first H-D production OHV machine - the 'Knucklehead' of 1936.  JAP produced an OHV engine by 1906, but any English chassis would have been belt-drive and clutchless.
Founded by Albert Augustus Pope in 1878 (Harford, Connecticut), to build the 'Columbia High-Wheeler' bicycle, Pope purchased Pierre Lallemont's original patent for the bicycle.  His canny business strategy of purchasing bicycle patents meant Pope collected royalties on the booming two-wheel market of the late 1800s, reaping huge profits.  It also meant Pope bicycles owned cutting-edge technology, which made them the largest bicycle manufacturer until nearly 1900.
The Pope Manufacturing Co. began selling motorcycles in 1902, which they did not manufacture but were bought in, and re-badged as 'Columbia' (below). They took a break from motorcycles in 1906, but returned in 1911, making their own motorcycles under the 'Pope' name.  True to their early bicycle form, they vaulted to the top of the technological heap, producing the very advanced v-twin as seen in these photos.  Unlike the bicycle craze of the 1890s, the early years of motorcycling were hardly profitable for most companies, and advanced spec meant a higher price, just as for bicycles, but on a larger scale than a bicycle price range.  A new 1911 Pope could well have been a year's wages for the average worker. 

While Albert Augustus was a big supporter of bicycle racing events, teams, and trophies, I've only ever seen one period photograph of a Board Track racing Pope (below), but many photographs exist of converted roadsters.  It seems unlikely that Pope funneled money into motorcycle racing - it could be the profits from his powered two-wheelers was disappointing, and as history tells us repeatedly, the motorcycle biz has always been very tough indeed.

At the advent of US involvement in WW1 (mid-1917), Pope chose to 'follow the money', and ceased motorcycle production by 1918, and reaped profits anew making machine guns for the US military.   Pope motorcycles are rare and highly coveted today; they shone brightly for only a moment, yet remain icons of the very advanced thought behind early American motorcycles.
Shaft-driven 'Armored' magneto, with choo-choo points cap!
Lumpy spots on the forks indicates a paint brush-over at some point in the past 100 years
A dry climate could have helped keep the metal from oxidizing...although a lack of dings raises eyebrows.
The Eclipse clutch.


occhiolungo said...

hola Paul.

Yep, Popes have some swell engineering. This bike has the twin shaft rear suspension, typically this goes on the bikes with the bigger twin motors. Singles and small twins had a similar suspension with a single vertical shaft. Coincidentally, a friend here in North California just mentioned last week that he's selling his big twin Pope project for a very reasonable price. Too much $ for me though. ;(

take care.

Dan said...

beautiful bike! but like you said, I need a vacation..I mean closer look.

Rhynchocephalian said...

the rubber caps on the magneto plug wires are in impeccable shape!

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

A beautifully elegant website which I have yet to fully read and appreciate. It deserves it! I hope i can live up to some of the characters you have posted on it.

Many thanks,

Jérémie Cometto-Lingenheim
Wright Brothers Restaurants

Eugene D. said...

awesome! Breath taking!

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to drop a line to say thank you for your wonderful blog. I am certain that you get a large volume of mail, so I will keep this brief. I have found your blog to be instructional, visually rich, and a window into motorcycling history that I would otherwise have little access to. In other words, keep up the brilliant and valuable work of documenting that past and present lives of these marvelous machines that many of us love so much.


Kent D. C
Milwaukie, Oregon USA

macfly said...

What a fascinating machine, it looks like a genuine brass era relic, but I have no idea if it is. The paint is an intriging LSWR Green over what looks to be a single locomotive grey primer. The unrestored condition looks gorgeous too, if it is a fake or a recreation it is a job very well done indeed.

snakehead said...

My gut instinct (I'm no expert)just tells me that this one is real and genuine after looking closely at the pics. It also tells me that Jay Leno will pay the equivalent of a modest house for it.

Essay Writer said...

i like the bike

snakehead said...

We all do, "Mr.Essay Writer". Your name is quite ironic given that you're clearly a man of few words, but there's great wisdom apparant here if one reads between the lines. We are grateful for the enlightenment and insights, oh great one.

Tutty Baker said...

They were selling Popes in Freeport, Illinois in 1914. They were advertised as "4 horsepower for $165 with a magneto and Free Engine Clutch."

Nice blog.

Unknown said...

I am amazed to find the bike it was manufactured by the pope manufacturing company my last name is Pope and I was raised in the West Coast and I've never heard of the pope manufacturing company it's amazing to see my name has some heritage and the bikes are awesome