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By Ed Youngblood
The years between the two world wars were a fertile time for dreamers, designers and modernists. The knowledge of aerodynamics that had emerged from the fledgling aircraft industry influenced just about everything from art-deco decoration to the “streamlined” movement in industrial design.
The hallmarks of the era were unbroken curves, teardrop shapes and parallel lines suggesting speed. In addition to cars, trains and other things that actually moved, these design elements showed up in streamlined toasters, streamlined radios and streamlined cigarette lighters. Even the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, finished in 1930 and 1931 respectively, feature sleek, pointed peaks and dominant vertical lines from bottom to top, like great rockets ready to streak into the heavens.
This was the era that delivered the sleek GG1 electric locomotive (1934), styled by Raymond Loewy (who would later move Studebaker styling decades ahead of its competitors), and the Auburn Speedster (1933) of Alan Leamy, regarded by many as the most beautiful production car ever built.
Motorcycle styling also was influenced by the streamlining craze. Excelsior introduced a teardrop tank on its Super-X in 1930. By 1932, Indian had introduced a sleek chain cover and a smooth “saddle” tank that hid the upper frame tube, followed in 1936 by valanced fenders. Harley-Davidson streamlined its taillight into the rear fender in 1934, then broke from its styling traditions with the famous EL Knucklehead in 1936.
But for the most part, no one in the motorcycle industry was doing anything remotely as radical as Loewy and Leamy. No one, that is, except Ray Courtney, the designer and builder of this amazing machine, owned and restored by Frank Westfall.
Orley Ray Courtney was born in New Cardon, Indiana, on July 14, 1895, to Anna Jennetta Imel and William Lewis Courtney. Ray took his first motorcycle ride at the age of 13 and got his first big bike―a 1916 three-speed Excelsior―at the age of 21. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War I, then worked at Central Manufacturing Company in Connersville, Indiana. There, in addition to becoming a skilled metal worker, he was exposed to beautiful vehicle design, since his job included making body panels and fenders for such luxury cars as McFarlan and Deusenberg.
Later, Courtney moved to Michigan, where he worked for the Oldsmobile division of General Motors and the short-lived car manufacturer Kaiser-Frazer. Through it all, he remained active and knowledgeable as a motorcyclist, and it was his opinion that the motorcycle industry had gone overboard in selling speed and high performance, ignoring the needs of road-going motorcyclists for comfort and protection from bad weather.
Courtney believed there was a place for a new style of motorcycle for road riders, and he set about turning his vision into reality. Significantly, he chose as his base machine the four-cylinder Henderson―the one American brand that could not be accused of having sold its soul to racing.
Courtney's first interpretation of a thoroughly modern motorcycle emerged in 1934 in the form of this streamliner, powered by a 1,300cc four-cylinder engine from a Henderson Model KJ, the final generation of the company’s production. Courtney’s machine was like nothing that had come before it.
Sitting low on 10-inch wheels, its chassis was fully enclosed in a gracefully shaped shell that began with a rounded nose and grille similar to a ’34 Chrysler Airflow, and ended with a boat-tail reminiscent of the Auburn Speedster. Between, was a Coke-bottle-shaped body with a low seat for a single passenger.
By virtue of its small wheels, some people have referred to Courtney’s creation as a “scooter.” But its big four-cylinder engine makes it hard to think of the creation as anything less than a true motorcycle.
The flowing bodywork was shaped entirely by Courtney from steel, using a power hammer. The hidden chassis has a modified Henderson KJ fork in front and a complicated suspension system in back derived from the auto industry. The machine also features hydraulic brakes.
The finished product is so breathtaking that it’s difficult to do it justice in photographs. The graceful curves are seductive, and from every angle, new subtleties appear in the continuity of its form.
The streamlined Henderson was a pure concept vehicle, built to express modern concepts and Courtney’s artistic vision. The conservative motorcycle community of the era did not understand it. References to it in print often used the term “Buck Rogers,” treating it like something out of a futuristic cartoon.
In truth, that advanced design did bring with it some real-world problems. While beautiful, the machine would not have offered a very comfortable ride for the road-going motorcyclist Courtney said was his target. The seating position is cramped, especially for a tall person.
Furthermore, concept vehicles often employ shapes and materials that cannot be reproduced cost-effectively in serial production. This was certainly the case with Courtney's Henderson. He put nine months into shaping a body that would have been very difficult to duplicate in any significant quantity.
Courtney must have understood that there was a middle ground between his ultimate vision and practical design, because in 1941, he patented the idea of equipping a standard motorcycle with fully enclosed fenders like those found on his streamliner. It’s interesting that Indian had introduced its fully skirted fenders just one year before. This may have been a signal to Courtney that the public had become more accepting of extensive and stylish sheet metal on a motorcycle. But his patented design also may have been his statement that Indian had missed the mark; that it had fallen short of real streamlined design.
There has been no record found that Courtney actually prototyped these fenders or attempted to market them. Perhaps he thought that Harley and Indian eventually would have to evolve in this stylistic direction, and when that happened, he would have his patents in hand. Of course, that never happened.
Courtney continued to work in the automotive industry, but he created a sideline business, in partnership with his son, Ray William. That company, which he named Enterprise, was involved in building and repairing sheet-metal panels for racing cars.
Then, in 1950, Courtney created a second radical motorcycle―this time one that was designed with limited production in mind. He gave the new machine the Enterprise name from his company, and even produced literature to promote its sale.
Like the Henderson streamliner, the Enterprise was sleek and low, with a fully enclosed chassis. It was longer than the Henderson to provide room for two passengers, and a prototype was powered by an Indian Scout engine, which would be cheaper and easier to come by than powerplants from Henderson, which had been out of business for nearly 20 years.
The chassis was actually designed to accept any number of engines, and Courtney offered to custom-build an Enterprise for anyone who would send him an engine and $2,500.
The Enterprise attracted a significant amount of attention, and was the subject of a feature story in Popular Science magazine for March 1953. But there is no record of anyone buying an Enterprise, which is not surprising, since in 1953 you could buy a new, top-of-the-line Chevrolet Bel-Air for about $1,800.
That could have been the end of Ray Courtney’s visionary machines. But not far from his home in Pontiac, Michigan, was a younger man who would become a motorcycle custom design icon in his own right: Ron Finch. Finch met Courtney and benefitted from the older man’s experience.
“He knew a lot more than I did at that time,” says Finch, “and when I ran into some kind of problem with fabricating something, I would go see him. He always had a solution and was always very helpful.”
After Courtney's death in April 1982, Finch purchased both the KJ Henderson and the Enterprise from the family. “We were going to get them running and ride around Daytona during Bike Week and blow everybody’s mind,” he says. But with the press of other business, that never happened, and eventually, Finch sold both machines to Mike Gagliotti, a collector from Syracuse.
There, they attracted the attention of fellow Syracuse collector Frank Westfall, who recognized their historical importance, enhanced by the fact that both machines, plus a collection of documents about them, were still together.
Westfall notes that when he learned about the machines, the Enterprise was original and intact, but the Henderson was in boxes. And he remembers that he was instantly attracted to them.
“I fell so in love with the bikes that I had to own them,” Westfall says. “I actually brought Mike a box of cash and put it on his kitchen table and told him he had to sell them to me.”
Westfall’s appeal must have been convincing, because the bikes and related memorabilia became his on Friday, July 13, 2001. Westfall declares, “I’ll always think of Friday the 13th as my lucky day.”
A few years ago, Westfall got the Enterprise running and showed it at several AMCA National meets. But the Henderson machine was another matter. It required restoration from the ground up, something that would prove to be a massive undertaking for the hand-formed steel bodywork. For that task, Westfall turned to Pat Murphy, an automotive engineer and automobile restoration specialist who lives near Syracuse.
“When I took on the project, I knew this would be some sort of prison sentence,” Murphy says. “But I underestimated how long it would take. I do car work, and I could have finished two cars in the time it took to do this.”
“We spent 600 to 700 hours bringing this thing back from a pile of parts,” says Westfall. “But you have to ask yourself: ‘How long did it take Courtney to create it?’ ”
The work was completed just in time for the AMCA’s Rhinebeck Meet in New York this June, where the one-of-a-kind machine created a sensation. Many spectators could not believe that the motorcycle they were seeing was a prototype from the 1930s, rather than a latter-day custom built around a Henderson.
As he put it on public display for the first time, Murphy said, “I sit here and look at it, and I just can’t describe all the details of the bodywork that we found as we worked on this. I’m a body man, and there’s so much to what he did on this that it’s hard to believe. I just want it to be seen and appreciated―not because I restored it, but for the history in it.”
Photos of the machine went viral on the Internet, and Westfall’s phone began ringing as people―including a New York art dealer―told him they wanted to buy it. But Westfall says he can’t envision the circumstances under which he would sell this example of Ray Courtney’s futuristic vision.
“This is simply irreplaceable,” he says. “There is nothing else like it. In the words of (AMCA President) Rocky Halter, I am in possession of motorcycling’s finest example of American industrial art.”
Ed Youngblood is the editor of Motohistory, an online publication focused on antique and classic motorcycles. You can find it at www.motohistory.net.