Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE CROCKER STORY

Crocker engineer Paul Bigsby with rider Sam Parriot at Muroc dry lake, 1940
The story of Crocker motorcycles has been obscured by tall tales and myths since the very day they were introduced, first as Speedway racers, then big V-twins, and finally a scooter, all built before official US involvement in WW2 put a halt to civilian motorcycle production.  Wading through the murk around this famous American name, one bumps against vested interests and fast-held opinions, but enough facts emerge to which we can anchor our tale.
Paul Bigsby, Sam Parriot, and Albert Crocker at Muroc dry lake in 1940; Parriot recorded  136.87 mph on June 19, 1940 with the 'parallel valve' engine
Albert Crocker, born in 1882, had an engineering degree from Northwestern University's 'Armour Institute', an engineering school.  His first job was with the Aurora Automatic Machine Co, builders of Thor motorcycles, and Crocker not only developed Thor engineering, he was a keen and successful racer during 1907-09.  In the natural course of a racing career, he met and conversed with the pioneers of motorcycle manufacture and racing in those early days, including Oscar Hedstrom and Charles Hendee, the chief engineer and owner of the Hendee Manufacturing Co, makers of Indian 'Motocycles'.   Al Crocker developed a friendship with the Indian camp, and soon joined Hendee.  While working at the Wigwam, one of his supervisors was Paul Bigsby; their roles were reversed many years later.
Paul Bigsby and his 1936 Crocker 'Hemi'
By 1919, Crocker had opened an Indian dealership in Denver, Colorado, and there met, and eventually married, Gertrude Jefford Hasha, widow of Eddie Hasha, a famous 'Board Track' racer involved in the most notorious motorcycle racing disaster of the era.  On Sept.8, 1912, four schoolboys were killed (along with Hasha), and ten spectators injured, when Hasha's 8-Valve Indian went out of control, slid along the top safety railing on the banking, and clouted the four boys, who were craning their necks over the railing for a better look.  Spectator deaths generally mark the 'end of an era' for races (see also; Mille Miglia).  Crocker surely knew Eddie Hasha, given his employment at Indian at the time.  Gertrude and Al had one son (Al Jr), in 1924, the year they were married. 1924 was a big year for Al Crocker, with a new wife and infant son, he took over the Kansas City Indian dealer/distributor,  but by 1930, the call of the West could no longer be ignored, and he sold his dealership to 'Pop' Harding, and purchased the Freed Indian dealership at 1346 Venice Blvd in Los Angeles.  This address would become legendary as the home of Crocker motorcycles.
The Crocker 'conversion' engine, from an Indian Scout, in a Rudge speedway frame
In 1931, the legendary US speedway rider Sprouts Elder, who had been 'Thrilling the Millions' from England and Australia to Argentina, brought the sport of Speedway to the US, and it rapidly gained the kind of popularity it enjoyed in the rest of the world.  In response, Crocker put his engineering skills to the test, building a speedway frame to accept a '101' Indian Scout engine 45cu" (750cc).  This proved satisfactory, and in 1932, Crocker set about producing an OHV conversions for the Indian motor;  the bolt-on cylinder and head echoed Indian factory racing practice of 1925/6, when an OHV Indian '45' was timed at 126mph, running on alcohol. These first OHV conversions had a 500cc (30.50cu") capacity, and when tested in the Crocker-built speedway frame, proved satisfactory in power output, out-performing the Rudge engines which were then dominant in Speedway.  A few Crocker OHV kits were apparently sold to the public.
The Crocker 750cc OHV conversion for the Indian Scout motor
In 1933, Crocker and Bigsby developed a single-cylinder 500cc (30.50ci) OHV Speedway racer, undoubtedly in response to the lighter weight of single-cylinder engines vs. the Crocker OHV v-twins.  A side note here; while rumor considers Bigsby (later famous for inventing the 'Whammy Bar' or tremolo for electric guitars) to be responsible for the Crocker engine design, Al Crocker was a trained engineer who had worked in motorcycle engineering for decades with Thor and Indian, as well as being Bigsby's employer...and while Bigsby was known to 'blow his own horn', certainly the Crocker motorcycles had input from many quarters.
The 1934 Crocker Speedway catalog
The Crocker Speedway racer's first appeared on the Emerville CA speedway track on Nov 30, 1933, and won 9 of 12 heats in one evening, prompting The Motorcyclist (Dec 1933) to rave of their début, "...two spotless and keen pieces of racing equipment surely worthy of the best the country had to offer as their pilots. The first race was ridden by Jack Milne…speedman par excellence...and Cordy Milne....Two American-built night speedway racing engines swept the boards…9 first places and 3 second spots out of 12 starts…The call came suddenly for the builder, for Al Crocker who was in the pits…[He] came to the microphone. His speech was short, brief; just the sort of thing that the situation called for…He was glad that they [the bikes] were good…They would be better."
The Crocker Speedway racer of 1934
With limited production facilities, only 31 of the Crocker Speedway models were built; Crocker even built a pair of experimental chain-driven OHC engines in 1936, which were intended to counter the new JAP Speedway motor, with 42hp.  It was clear the Crocker Speedway engine would need further development to remain competitive, but rather than continue with Speedway racing, Al Crocker turned his attention to the project which would hammer his name in stone, the big V-twin.
Not a sanctioned Speedway outfit; the Crocker Speedway machine
Designed during 1935, the Crocker big twin was designed as a durable and powerful, yet fast and nimble machine.  Its 45degree V-twin engine had hemispherical OHV cylinder heads, and a nearly 'square' bore/stroke (3.25"x3.62" - 62 cubic inches displacement), and an incredibly robust 3-speed gearbox.  While Bigsby made the patterns, most castings were subcontracted, then machined in-house.  The first models (the 'Hemis') used HD valve gear, Indian timing gears and brake shoes, plus occasional HD or Indian headlamps and ancillaries, leading to later rumors that Crockers were built entirely from Indian or HD parts, which is of course untrue. The heavy steel gearbox formed part of the lower frame, its case being brazed in place, its 3-speed gears and shafts so overbuilt that damage is unheard of even today.  Their most unusual feature was a pair of cast-aluminum fuel/oil tanks, holding 2.5 gallons initially (the 'Small Tank' models).  Most ancillary parts were purchased from standard motorcycle industry suppliers like Autolite (electrics), Linker (carbs), Messinger (saddles), Splitdorf (magnetos), and Kelsey Hayes (wheel rims).

Introduced in 1936, there was no 'standard' Crocker, as every customer, echoing Brough Superior practice, could specify the state of tune and displacment of the engine; the cylinder barrels were cast with extra thick walls, and could be extensively overbored; engines were built from 1000cc, to 1490cc, in the most extreme case.  The 'typical' 62cu" Big Twin produced ~55-60hp, which exceeded the current sidevalve Indian and HD models by 50%.  So confident was Al Crocker in the superiority of his twins, he offered a money-back guarantee for any Crocker owner who was 'beaten' by a standard HD or Indian, and of course, no such buyback was necessary.  Crocker had built the fast production motorcycle in the US, with speeds over 110mph the norm.  Harley Davidson introduced their first OHV v-twin - the model EL 'Knucklehead' - 6 months after the Crocker, but was 15mph slower.
Rider Homer Wood at Muroc dry lake with his 1936 'Hemi' Crocker
If not the fastest production motorcycle in the world, the Crocker was certainly in the same league as the HRD-Vincent 'Series A' Rapide, and while the Crocker's 3-speed gearbox and rigid frame was technically inferior to the Vincent's advanced swingarm and 4-speeds, the Vincent's bought-in Burman gearbox and clutch were unable to cope with the v-twin's power.  Conversely, one cannot imagine a Crocker racing at the Isle of Man!  'Horses for courses', it seems...
The 1936 'Hemi' Crocker engine, with exposed rocker and valve gear
The first 17 Crocker twins had hemispherical combustion chambers and a lovely 'Crocker' embossed rocker arm housing.  Known as the 'Hemis', their performance established the Crocker legend, although there were problems with valve train wear, as the exposed valves/guides/springs were vulnerable to grit and dirt.  Crocker redesigned the cylinder heads with parallel valves and enclosed springs, and what is effectively a 'squish head' combustion chamber.  Crocker continually developed his cylinder heads, and two different 'Hemi' castings were used (even on such a short production run), with four changes to the parallel-valve casting over its 5-year run.
The 1940 'Big Tank' Crocker which sold at the Bonhams Quail Lodge Sale for $302,000
To give his Crockers an extended range, the size of the cast-aluminum fuel tanks was enlarged in 1938, making all earlier models 'Small Tanks', and later models 'Big Tanks'.  Crocker continued to develop his motorcycles through his limited production of perhaps 72 total V-twins, but eventually ran into problems with ancillary suppliers, as the US geared up for WW2.  By 1942, 'war work' restrictions meant Crocker could no longer produce his motorcycles, and Crocker didn't resume production post-war.

The Crocker has rightly become a coveted and very expensive machine, deserving of its place on the Olympus of Motorcycles, with the Brough SS100 and Vincent Series A Rapide, the world's first 100mph production motorcycles, all big and impressive V-twins built in small numbers for a small and discerning clientele...
The red 1937 'Small Tank' Crocker which sold at Bonhams, also at $302,000
Bonhams is auctioning 3 beautiful  Crocker V-Twins this week at the Quail Lodge sale; two 'Small Tanks' (both 1937) and one 'Big Tank' (from 1940), all with the parallel-valve cylinder heads.  It will be interesting to see just how far into the stratosphere these legendary machines have flown...estimates for each machine range from $240,000-370,000.  For comparison, $243,000 is the current 'entry point' for my Top 20 Motorcycles at Auction...so if each machine meets its reserve, there will be some shuffling at the top; two Crockers were recently 'bumped out' of this list by recent Brough Superior sales in England, and a couple of GP Ducatis88, but no Crocker V-twin has sold at auction since 2008.  Maybe this American legend will duke its way back into the top of the heap...[Note, all the Crockers sold near $300,000, and entered my 'Top 20' at Auction]
One of two 1937 Crocker 'Small Tank's for sale at Bonhams

10 comments:

Hairy Larry said...

Very interesting article. All I've ever read has been about the roadbikes, had no idea of all the dirt racing history involving Crocker.

GuitarSlinger said...

Great article good sir ... especially in light if the myths being perpetuated about who did what at Crocker by Bigsby's bio in the automotive/motorcycle/music press of late . Methinks a full length - quality book is well overdue about the Legendary Crocker motorcycles and its creator / team

BTW I completely agree with the comment about Bigsby being one to toot his own horn ..... not to mention snagging more than his fair share of credit over the years .

drsprocket said...

Well done Paul. Paul Bigsby WAS a very talented and envolved motorcyclist. He was a founding member of the LA 45 m/c club. A very good tool and die man, pattern maker, and machist no matter what is said. Chuck Vernon and Ernie Skelton knew Al Crocker and Paul very well. I'm glad to have spent many hours with them in the early sixties and seventies and get alot of the stories first hand. It's amazing how many of these limited production fine machines have survived to this day.

Anonymous said...

Great read man, thanks a tons.

Cheers and beers
Hodge

GuitarSlinger said...

Crockers take the top three spots at the Bonhams auction ($302K - $291K ) Over and above the cars sold as well as a Brough .

Richard Worsham said...

Wonderful story. I've always been a bit confused about Crocker's relationship with Indian and Harley. Great stuff.

Thanks,
Richard

Jeff Crocker said...

Great article i did learn about the Thor era which i was unaware. Thanks for the info and yes a book would be awesome. LOL im trying to track it down and see if he was any relation. wish me luck.

Jeffrey A Crocker

Anonymous said...

The red, '33 Crocker twin conversion listed at 500cc is actually 750cc. It was built by Gwen Banquer for Mike Corbin in 1999 and was introduced at the Daytona Bike show that year. It has a 1933 Rudge frame (not Crocker), but this Rudge frame type was likely to have been utilized by Crocker before he began making his own. The 101 Scout engine does not have a factory stamped VIN#, so it was probably a race motor to begin with. I believe that this engine has the automatic oil pump which was on the '31 101 model.
By the way, I am the current owned of this machine.

Anonymous said...

HERE AGAIN WE HAVE CROCKER LACK OF PROPER KNOWLEDGE. ERNIE SKELTON AND CHUCK VERNON NEVER MET AL CROCKER, OR P.A. BIGSBY. ERNIE WAS BEST OF FRIENDS WITH THE LOOPER BROTHERS ESPECIALLY ELMO LOOPER. LETS GET CROCKER FACTS STRAIGHT. CHUCK VERNON IS ALIVE AND WELL AND HE WILL TELL YOU HE NEVER MET AL CROCKER OR P.A. BIGSBY. R. WIGGINS.

Daniel said...

Does anyone know if there exists any video archival footage of a crocker being raced?