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Excelsior Hill Climber Under Restoration

By August 15, 2012General Posts

Editor's Note: This story is reprinted from the Fuller Report


We stopped by Lenny’s place in Sturgis while in town. Over the years he has helped people restore vintage tin by reproducing obsolete parts and building complete bikes. Easily, one of the highlights of my Sturgis trips every year!

As we walked past the NOS Indian 18″ Paddle tire from way back my mouth dropped….there was an Excelsior Hill Climber!!

Here’s an excerpt from the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s website about the “Big Bertha” and Excelsior Hill Climber engine: In the ’20s, the board-track racing era was coming to an end. Motorcycle competition on these massive, banked structures, some of them more than a mile in length, had grown out of the popularity of bicycle velodromes around the turn of the century. But the expense of maintaining the exposed outdoor structures, together with negative publicity following several high-profile fatalities, forced motorcycle racing to take new directions.

The most obvious move was to flat-track competition, conducted on dirt ovals designed for horse racing. But the other big trend of the 1920s was hillclimb racing.

While riding up hills on roads had been a test of motorcycles from the earliest days of the sport, American-style hillclimb racing quickly developed into a form of near-vertical drag-racing. One at a time, riders would launch specially built motorcycles straight up the face of a steep hill. In the early days, the hill often proved too much, and riders were ranked based on the distance they covered. But for those who cleared the top of the hill, the winner was determined on the basis of the fastest time.

The country’s most prominent motorcycle manufacturers—Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior—had waged factory warfare on the boards, hiring the best riders and building exotic, one-of-a-kind machines to claim racetrack glory. In the late teens and ’20s, those teams expanded into hillclimb racing, hoping to demonstrate technological superiority in every form of competition.

One of the rising stars of the new era was Joe Petrali, who had burst upon the racing scene with a win in a prestigious 100-mile board-track race in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1925. That win came in a one-off ride aboard a Harley-Davidson factory racer that became available when one of the company’s established stars, Ralph Hepburn, was injured. But Petrali was quickly signed to a factory contract for the rest of the year.

When Harley withdrew from racing at the end of 1925, though, Excelsior, part of the Schwinn bicycle empire, hired Petrali, who immediately proved his worth as a racer, repeating his Altoona victory in 1926 aboard Excelsior’s advanced 45-cubic-inch (about 750cc) SuperX.

But Petrali was also acknowledged as an engine technician, and he got a chance to demonstrate those skills in 1928, following a serious racetrack injury that took him out of contention in 1927.

In the race shop at Excelsior headquarters in Chicago, Petrali worked with the legendary Arthur Constantine, the man who had designed the SuperX, to develop a new overhead-valve engine for the 45-cubic-inch hillclimb class.

In addition, Petrali combined a crankcase from the SuperX with a set of special racing cylinders developed for the company’s single-cylinder, 30.05-cubic-inch (about 500cc) half-mile racing engines. The main advantage of this “M” type cylinder was that it incorporated an air passage between the cylinder and the pocket containing the inlet-over-exhaust valve configuration. The cylinder, developed by another famed engine designer of the time, Arthur Lemon, helped reduce heat distortion, making for an engine that could be tuned for more power without sacrificing reliability.
With two of the M-style cylinders atop the SuperX bottom end, Petrali created a 61-cubic-inch (about 1,000cc) twin that earned the nickname “Big Bertha.”

Mike Wolfe of American Pickers fame is having Lenny build it
Back into original condition. Tank was found with original paint on it! Rear wheel is an eBay item, and frame is an original Excelsior being stretched into a hill climber length.

Damn, I love this bike!!!