Thursday, December 27, 2012


From today's New York Times:
1905 'Leo' motorcycle, made in Oakland, CA; the only survivor?
"Only Known Leo Motorcycle to be Auctioned
LAS VEGAS — The recent discovery of the only known example of a Leo motorcycle, which is scheduled to be auctioned here Jan. 10 by Bonhams, raises more questions than answers.
The 107-year-old Leo, found in complete and original condition in a storage area at a Massachusetts museum, has motorcycle historians and Bonhams valuation specialists stumped. The motorcycle, made to a high standard of fit and finish, offers a freely turning two-stroke motor with strong compression, a purpose-built heavy gauge tube frame, spoked rims, Thor pedals and a Troxel leather saddle.
Thor pedal crank used on the Leo (more Thor history here)
Why was the Leo apparently manufactured for only one year, in 1905? Whatever happened to the company that made it, the L.A. Mitchell Manufacturing Company of Oakland, Calif.? Is it possible the company, and the bike, were victims of the 1906 earthquake that devastated the San Francisco Bay Area? No one seems to know, Evan Ide, a Bonhams specialist said in an interview, although it is hoped – as often happens in cases like these – the publicity around its discovery may lead to a source of more information.
“There are references to the Leo in quite a few books,” Mr. Ide said. “People were aware that Leo was making bikes in 1905. None were thought to have survived, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Leo was the only California bike of the period,” he added. [No, there were others, including the Nelk motorcycle, built at the same date, in Palo Alto, which still exists, and a few 'Calfornia' (later Yale) machines - Ed].

The bike’s California provenance is especially interesting, he noted. Only a few examples of California-made motorcycles have survived, like the 1901-02 California brand motorcycle, which later became Yale, and the 1930s-era Crocker. [Also, obscurities like the Nelk motorcycle and scooter, made in Palo Alto CA in the same period, with a single survivor of each type, both in the History San Jose Museum, albeit tucked away in their storage warehouses.  It should also be noted that Glenn Curtiss supplied his engines to a dirigible factory in San Francisco prior to 1906, when the 'Quake destroyed the warehouse of 'Captain' Tom Baldwin - Ed.]

Mr. Ide says he believes the Leo name represents the first name of its likely founder, Leo (or Leonard) A. Mitchell. Searches of Oakland business directories and census records reveal one Leo A. Mitchell, listed as a master mechanic, living in the area during the period the motorcycle would have been manufactured. Later in life, he listed himself as working on steam-powered railroad engines.
A robust two-stroke single-cylinder engine of ~3hp
Mr. Ide said he was impressed with the Leo’s purpose-built motorcycle design, construction and functionality. “If you compare the Leo to things made by other motorcycle makers of the time – Mitchell, Thomas, for example – they were literally a bicycle frame with a motor clamped to the down tube of the bike, light gauge wheels, wooden rims,” he noted.
“The big thing with the Leo is really the engine – so different from anything of the time,” Mr. Ide said. “Despite its ruggedness, it’s not a heavy machine. The motor is quite light for the power it would have produced – on the order of three horsepower, which is reasonably high for the period.” He praised the engine’s design as “simple, clean and elegant.”

Mr. Ide said he was unsure how to value the motorcycle for the auction. Although a presale estimate of $25,000 to $35,000 has been established, Mr. Ide expects the Leo will sell for more than that.
“We sold three Crockers this summer – incredibly rare – and all in excess of $300,000,” he said. “Stuff that’s made in California is usually great stuff, but the products are so rare.”
He noted that early California-made automotive products are considered as having been designed and manufactured to an unusually high standard. He cited Miller racing cars, Crocker motorcycles and Murphy custom coach-built bodies for luxury cars as prime examples.
“Miller’s racing cars were some of the most exquisite mechanical machinery ever to be made. Crocker – phenomenal,” Mr. Ide said. “I don’t think any of them were financially successful, but all made great stuff that we remember. They probably weren’t great businessmen, but they were skilled people.”
Nick Czap contributed additional reporting."

The Vintagent's Note:  I've uploaded my own pix of the Leo, for better detail resolution than the NYTimes website.  As noted in my comments inserted above, the Leo was one of several pioneer California motorcycles built - they're all very rare now, and include the Leo, the Nelk, and the California (Yale).  With more Billionaires per acre in the SF Bay Area than anywhere else in the world, I'm hoping a few Cali moneybags might keep treasures of our history within the area...
Full disclosure; Bonhams is the principal sponsor of The Vintagent.


Anonymous said...

Very cool; the motor is very unusual for sure... chassis looks to be stock Thor though... nicely done. Hope it does well at auction.

- John Szalay

Anonymous said...

Cool!... We do have a lot of money bags out here,

Philip R.

The Vintagent said...

@Jon Szalay; agreed, the frame could have been built from Thor lugs (so many early motorcycles were...), but the engine is unique. More insights welcome!

Anonymous said...

A frame with the seat mount also serving as the uppper motor mount. Very interesting article!

- David Morrill

The Vintagent said...

Thanks David Morrill; if people haven't seen your excellent contributions to The Vintagent, check here:
and here:

Anonymous said...

My guess, Indian Motorcycle Museum,but don't recall it ever being on the floor displayed? I wonder if the late Andy Anderson had his hand in building this, like he did on The Warrick? And others? Hmmmmm it is puzzling!

-Brian Keating

The Vintagent said...

@ Brian Keating, the catalog mentions being found 'in the back of a museum'...could be you're correct. The tank looks original, although everything else looks like an older resto...

Anonymous said...

With regard to the limited amount of Californian made motorcycles, here is a clip from a 1899 Horseless Age magazine describing the Steffey made in San Diego(not to forget there is a mention on a Butikofer, anyone heard of that?). You better go out hunting guys :-)


Anonymous said...

OK, so now they have found a LEO in the attick of a museum. The LEO I had never heard of before, great write up on The Vintagent Paul. When will an 1896 Strieker & Blum be found?

-Sverre K. Gerber

Kai Vallon said...

I absolutely love this story, the mystery and the beauty of this early bike are exactly what gets me out of bed in the morning. My thanks to Paul and all the other historians who make this such a rich experience for a young enthusiast like me.

Carl said...

I think the California connection has little to do with the value. The reason Millers and Crockers bring the big bucks is simple. They are Millers and Crockers.......period. They would bring huge amounts if they were built on the moon. Duesenbergs don't sell for millions because they were built in Indianapolis.

Anonymous said...

The museum the Leo spent 30+ years in was the Larz Anderson Museum outside Boston, Mass.

The Vintagent said...

Thanks for that; the Museum is interesting...I wonder if the Andersons originally purchased the Leo, or if it was a later bequest?
For info about the Larz Anderson Museum, go here: