Friday, December 18, 2009

The Flying Merkel and Miami Cycle

My intent with this post is to share photos I’ve taken of Flying Merkels I’ve seen in the flesh during the past couple of years and, by way of introducing Flying Merkels, to provide some greater context to the story of Racycle bicycles.
Let me first state that I know only slightly more than nothing about Flying Merkel motorcycles, except that most were built by the same Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company that built my favorite Racycle bicycle.
The most comprehensive Flying Merkel information I found is at According to this web site, Joseph Merkel began producing motorcycles in 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (I tried to contact the web site administrator for permission to use a few photos, but the email connection appears dead. Hence, the historical photos and catalog pictures reproduced here from are borrowed temporarily until official permission can be obtained.) The first machines were single-cylinder jobs, but Merkel vee-twins were also produced. In 1909, Merkel sold his motorcycle company to Light Manufacturing, and production was moved to Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The machines were re-named from Merkel to Light-Merkel and finally The Flying Merkel. With the Model T Ford coming on the scene, 1909 would have been a good year to sell a motorcycle company. Two years later, the company was sold again, this time to the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company, and production was moved from Pennsylvania to the Home of the Racycle in Middletown, Ohio. Production of single and twin-cylinder models continued into the late teens. Most sources cite 1918 as the final year of Flying Merkel production.
Several years before buying the Merkel line, the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company had built its own motorcycles. In about 1905 or 1906 they introduced a Racycle motorcycle equipped with a Thor single-cylinder engine. During this same period, Racycle bicycles used mostly Thor hubs. By 1910, the Racycle motorcycle was using a very similar-looking engine but now with “Racycle” cast into the crankcase. The earliest machines used the engine cylinder as the frame’s seat tube.
Miami Cycle must have been familiar with Merkel as a competitor—and an imposing competitor at that—long before purchasing the company. Merkel motorcycles were technologically advanced with chain drive (on many models) instead of a belt, front and rear suspension, and a relatively stout frame that did not use the engine as the seat tube. I have found no information about Racycle motorcycles being actively raced, but my sources agree that Merkel’s machines were renowned for their competition successes. In the end, Miami Cycle abandoned Racycle motorcycles in favor of the Flying Merkel in 1911.
So it was that, from about 1906 to about the end of the teens, motorcycles were being constructed in the Middletown factory known as the Home of the Racycle. A review of advertising from the early teens suggests the company lost enthusiasm for its Racycle bicycles. After 1913, little to no advertizing championed the Racycle in particular. Instead, ads were taken out singing the virtues of the entire line of Miami Cycle’s bicycles: Racycle, Miami, Hudson, and, surprisingly, the Flying Merkel! (ca. 1916.) It appears that the Flying Merkel name was used on a bicycle as well as single- and twin-cylinder motorcycles. One could speculate that the absence of Racycle-specific advertizing indicates that the motorcycle business was taking center stage from the Racycle bicycle line.
The three Flying Merkels I have seen recently have all been orange, and all three were constructed in 1913. The most recent sighting was at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (see indoor shots) in Birmingham, Alabama. The example on display there is truly stunning. The display card notes that it might be the best original Flying Merkel. If I’m reading things correctly, this machine is also one of the most expensive motorcycles to have been purchased at auction. Prior sightings included one in the paddock at the Northwest Historic Races at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington, in the summer of 2008, and one that earned a class win at the Legend of the Motorcycle concours d’elegance (Half Moon Bay, California) in May 2008.