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What was the first American production motorcycle?
There may be a half-dozen answers to that question, depending upon how you choose to interpret it. But this machine, owned by AMCA member Herb Singe and assembled by fellow member Jon Szalay, is certainly one of the very few with a potential claim to that title.
What you see here is an Auto Bi, powered by an E.R. Thomas engine that probably dates back to 1901. And it’s a rare example of the type of experimentation that was going on in the earliest years of the motorized-transportation age.
In the 1890s, the internal-combustion engine was rapidly progressing from a heavyweight curiosity to a practical source of portable power. The French led the way, with De Dion-Bouton building a lightweight engine that wasavailable to manufacturers around the world.
In this country, Edward Pennington had experimented with his “Motor Cycle” in the early 1890s. But, despite numerous promises, it does not appear the design was ever produced in any numbers. Augutus Moore Herring’s dreams of an innovative motorcycle design also went unrealized.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Skinner established the first American import company for De Dion engines in Boston, and they were used to build a number of prototype motorized bicycles, tricycles and velodrome pacers. Of those early De Dion customers, Orient may have been the most successful in delivering completed machines to customers, some with De Dion motors, while later versions used Aster engines before the company developed its own powerplant.
There were other names as well—George Holley, Albert Augustus Pope, W.E. Steffey, Emil Hafelfinger and the Marsh brothers. But while all of those firms were struggling to produce individual examples of motorized creations, one man in Buffalo, New York, was already ramping up production on a mass-market machine designed and built entirely in America.
Edwin Ross Thomas may have been in the business of selling gasoline-engine kits that could be attached to bicycles as early as 1896. Reports indicate that Glenn Curtiss, who would go on to fame in both the motorcycle and aviation worlds, purchased a set of Thomas motor castings in 1899 as the beginning of his experiments into this new technology.
During that time, Thomas was setting the stage for a bike he would call the Auto Bi.
“He bought the Globe Cycle Company in Buffalo,” says Szalay, “and he invested $250,000 in tooling to make all the parts for a clip-on motor that could be attached to a bicycle frame.”
In late 1900, Thomas began advertising two motorcycle models and two tricycles, all powered by motors of his own design.
“At the bicycle show in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1901, Thomas brought one of his Auto Bi machines and let potential customers ride it around a velodrome track there,” Szalay says. “He took 150 orders at the show, and built those bikes that year. Everybody else was still working on a design for a motorcycle, and these guys had all the tooling and were delivering bikes.”
Thomas lined up dealers who could provide machines to customers in one of two forms. Either the customer could bring his own bicycle into the shop and have a Thomas engine fitted to it, or the customer could buy an assembled bicycle and engine directly from the dealer.
Here’s how J.W. Meiklejohn & Co., an Auto Bi dealer in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, introduced the new machine in one of its advertisements promoting this remarkable new form of transportation for a new era:
“The 19th century has witnessed wonderful development in mechanical sciences—the railroad, telegraph, telephone, electric cars, and the bicycle, all of which are so necessary to the various elements of mankind that we wonder how the world thrived prior to their invention. The 20th century will witness greater progress, and the world is alive with expectations.
“The Thomas Auto Bi is a motor bicycle brought to a high state of perfection, and it will rank as one of the 20th century wonders as soon as its many charming possibilities become known, for it invites economy, pleasure, and utility to an extent not hitherto accomplished.
“The bicycle emerged from a state of crudity only a few years ago, and it is the comfort and delight of millions.
“From an entirely different direction the evolution of the gas engine was occurring. From engines of excessive weight, large consumption of fuel, and small power, have been evolved light engines, small consumption of fuel, and large equivalents of power and had the great geniuses who contributed to the development of each designed them for each other, their work could not have been improved.”
Various reports indicate that the complete Auto Bi machines offered by dealers featured an E.R. Thomas engine in a bicycle from the same company. But both Szalay and Singe question whether that was actually the case.
“I have been looking for 30 years,” says Singe, “and I have never seen a Thomas bicycle.”
“I think they made them Pierce bicycles,” says Szalay. “George N. Pierce (whose son, Percy, would go on to built Pierce motorcycles) had a bicycle company also based in Buffalo. And I think the ‘Thomas’ bicycles were just Pierces delivered to the dealer from Thomas.”
That is the way this particular Auto Bi was built, combining two products from Buffalo-based companies.
“I purchased my first Thomas motor about a decade ago at the (Perkiomen Chapter) Meet in Oley,” says Szalay, “ and I didn’t know what it was. It was a small motor that was made to be attached to a bicycle. Somebody had ground the name off the cases, so I talked to my friend Mike Lange, and he told me it was a Thomas motor.”
What Szalay had found was the smallest of the Thomas motors, a 19-cubic-inch engine that the company referred to as its “20-pound motor.” It also built two larger versions, a 35-pound motor and a 50-pound motor, mostly for use in tricycles.
“I started doing research into the company and found they were selling these completed bikes for about $200,” says Szalay, “which was pretty expensive for the time. So the audience had to be professionals, because they were the only people who could afford one.
“This would have been great for somebody like a doctor who had to make house calls,” Szalay adds. “Instead of riding a horse, they could buy one of these, stop at the hardware store for a little gasoline and go 20 to 30 mph all day.”
When he went to build a complete machine around the engine he’d found, Szalay had to make a decision about the frame he’d use. After searching for an elusive Thomas frame that may never have existed, he went with his instincts.
“I found a Pierce bicycle for it and restored it that way. I think the Thomas engine looks really good in the Pierce frame.”
The final product is extremely rare, and Szalay estimates that only six to eight examples of Auto Bi machines may still exist. He adds that Thomas continued building motorcycles through 1909, with the clip-on engine design (and the Auto Bi name) gradually disappearing along the way as its motorcycles became more like the machines produced by other American companies of the time. At some point, the Thomas name, too, disappeared, replaced by a new brand, the Greyhound, that remained in production into the early teens.
So is the Thomas Auto Bi the first American production motorcycle? Well, it depends. If your definition of American means that it has to have an engine built in this country, then the Auto Bi definitely qualifies. And if your definition of a motorcycle includes any two-wheeled vehicle powered by an engine—even one that was bolted on afterward—then it makes the grade on that score, too.
And finally, if 150 machines delivered in 1901 meets your definition of a production machine, then yes, it appears Thomas got their first, ahead of the more-famous names in American motorcycling.
“Basically,” says Szalay, “this is one of the machines that inspired companies like Indian and Harley-Davidson (who would bring out their own motorcycles over the next few years). And when you think about it, everybody else, too.”—Bill Wood