Failure to launch

The first—and ill-fated—electric start motorcycle

A hundred thousand V-twin Indians had been sold since 1907, and 31,950 motorcycles were built during 1913 alone. By 1914 the Hendee Manufacturing Company was the largest producer of motorcycles in the world and had over 3,000 Indian dealers.

The two-speed gearbox was introduced in 1910 and the success of the Indian race team at Isle of Mann in 1911 led to the design of the Tourist model the following year. The Tourist models featured dual rear brakes (drum and band), knockout axles, roller bearings on the rear hub, and were fitted with the new Gustafson kick starter. The innovation for 1913 models was the “Cradle Spring Frame” that, along with the front leaf spring of 1910, provided the company’s first complete suspension system. Something impressive was required for the next model year.

Seven Indian models were introduced for 1914, one with a single-cylinder engine and six V-twins. The Hendee Special was the elite model and featured the first electric starter used on a production motorcycle. Unlike the other two electric models where the batteries had to be removed and manually recharged every 12.5 hours (or less), the starter motor also functioned as an electric generator to automatically recharge the system. Another innovation was the use of waterproof condenser coils to provide the spark, which improved the reliability and efficiency of ignition and certainly made starting easier. It was a brilliant design and it utterly failed.

Charles F. Kettering developed the first successful electric starter for an automobile in 1911 and it was installed in the 1912 Cadillac. President George Hendee was inspired by the idea and proposed the development of a similar starter for the Indian motorcycle. Considering the popularity of sidecars—with configurations that included delivery boxes, flat beds, taxis and passenger seating—it was a valid concept, especially since the Hendee Manufacturing Company planned to make 4,500 sidecars in 1914. A component of Kettering’s starter had been, or was being, made by General Electric in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (formerly Stanley Electric Company), a factory noted for developing transformers and electrical devices. In January of 1913 the engineers at the GE factory began working on the electric starter for Indian motorcycles and by early spring the first prototypes were tested.

The starter motor/dynamo was designed with compound winding—two sets of wire windings each with two poles and two sets of brushes. When operating as a starter motor it required 12 volts, using both the shunt and series windings with all four poles and brushes. As a charging dynamo it used only the shunt winding with two poles and two brushes to generate 6 volts. A manually-operated, spring-return switch mounted in the front of the toolbox controlled whether it was used as a starting motor or dynamo.

The 12-volt 1.5-horsepower electric motor was connected to the engine by an enclosed roller chain (the same size as the drive chain) and had a 2:1 gear ratio that would turn over the engine at 500 rpm “when the batteries are at their maximum strength.” This was protected from the main crankshaft by a cone clutch that acted much like a shock absorber.

The 6-volt dynamo had a two-part magnetic regulator. A “vibrating” armature controlled the amperage to prevent the batteries from overheating. Their maximum charging rate was 9 amperes per hour. The second part was a battery cut-off that would disengage the charging system if the voltage increased beyond 7 volts and also to prevent the batteries from discharging themselves through the dynamo when the motorcycle was operating at slower speeds. The dynamo would begin charging the batteries when the motorcycle reached 8 mph in low gear or 12 mph in high; it developed its maximum output (i.e. 9 amp/hr) at 12 mph and 16 mph, respectively.

The Hendee Special used two special 6-volt batteries that had 35 Ah (amperes/hour) capacity (12-volt, 70 amperes when in series). These differed from those used in the Tourist model by having their internal plates protected by wooden spacers that also acted as baffles to prevent battery acid from slopping around. The pair of batteries weighed 23 pounds.

A number of innovations were used in constructing this electrical system. One was the use of waterproof coils with their own condenser (one for each cylinder) to replace the standard magneto. The other was the inclusion of two removable “interrupter” plugs under the saddle. These were nothing more than copper rods with insulated ends that broke the circuit when removed and prevented the motorcycle from being started and stolen. (Ignition keys had yet to be invented.)

It’s commonly believed that Hedstrom and the engineering staff opposed the release of the Hendee Special and that President Hendee pushed it through over their objections. Another rumor is that Hedstrom objected to the $100,000 that allegedly was spent to develop the new electric system. This might well be true, although no evidence of such exists in the Indian archives. Hedstrom retired from the company on March 24. At this time the board of directors held the controlling stock in the company and was in the process of falsely inflating its value. Perhaps Hedstrom read the writing on the wall and departed ahead of disaster, or maybe he was tired of the weekend commute to his home in Portland, Connecticut. Whatever his reason for leaving, it is unlikely to have been the Hendee Special months before its release.

The 1914 V-twins were rugged machines and E.G. Baker set out on a Two-Speed Tourist Standard to break the transcontinental record. The only modifications made to this stock electric model were the addition of an engine belly pan and 3-inch-wide tires that required removal of the rear fender. He covered 3,378.9 miles from San Diego to New York in 11 days, 12 hours and 10 minutes and earned himself the nickname “Cannonball.”

The company certainly knew that a problem existed and resorted to including an extra set of batteries (another 23 pounds) with the sale of the Hendee Special, but not for the other two electric models. This has created the misconception that the batteries were at fault. The rough roads of the era would have been one cause for the system’s failure, but the batteries for the Special were constructed with baffles and spacers while those on the other two electric models were not. Yet Cannonball Baker brought his electrified Tourist model cross-country without reported incident.

Just doing the math shows that under ideal conditions at maximum output (over 12 mph in first gear; 16 mph in second); it would require four hours to recharge the batteries from half strength to full capacity. However, around town or on rough roads, the cut-off system (under 8 mph /12 mph) would frequently be engaged. The real problem was the rapid depletion of battery charge with repeated starts, which was compounded by the dynamo cut-out and slow (maximum 9 Ah) charging rate. The long electrical leads between the batteries and starter would have exacerbated the problem due to electrical resistance and increased the number of amperes required. Although the 61c.i.engine didn’t have high compression, the 1.5-hp electric motor had only a 2:1 gear ratio to assist in cranking it. This suggests that a substantial number of amps would have been required to “spin” the engine.

The 1914 Indian reportedly could only sustain between one and two dozen starts before the batteries failed to deliver sufficient amps to turn over the engine. In comparison, a modern Harley usually has an 18 Ah battery and an alternator with a minimum of a 32-amp output. (Subtract the number of amps required to run the bike from the alternator output and divide the battery capacity by the remainder to determine the time required to recharge the battery.) Even on a modern motorcycle a considerable amount of battery capacity is used when starting the engine, due to high engine cranking pressure. If the alternator on your Harley has ever failed or you’ve had difficulty getting your ignition to fire or you made too many starts and stops between runs, you undoubtedly experienced the same frustration as an owner of a Hendee Special.

The Hendee Special electrical system was a technological accomplishment that failed and production was discontinued in March of 1914. Some sources claim that less than 100 of these were built, but this seems too low for the premier model of a company with 17 assembly plants located from across the United States as well as in Canada, England and Australia. One of the few surviving examples—engine number 76F700—was made in Toronto and is fitted with the only known example of the specially-designed kick starter that was retrofitted to this model. Ironically, a couple of surviving examples have been fitted with modern batteries, but then again, these valuable machines have not been subjected to rough roads or started repeatedly. Regardless of why, in light of the failure of the Hendee Special, an electric starter wouldn’t reappear on a motorcycle until1958 and Harley-Davidson wouldn’t introduce one until 1965.


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