America's pioneer four-cylinder motorcycle designer, William G. Henderson and his brother, Thomas, founded the Henderson Motorcycle Company in 1911. The Henderson was a large, expensive and luxurious motorcycle that featured a smooth-running, inline four-cylinder engine. The Henderson brothers sold their interests in their company to Excelsior's Ignatz Schwinn in 1918, forming Excelsior-Henderson.
William Henderson stayed on with Excelsior-Henderson for a couple of years before moving on to form the Ace Motorcycle Company in 1919. The Ace, like the Henderson, was a four-cylinder design and was considered the one of the fastest machines of its time and set many long-distance speed records. William Henderson died in a street-riding accident on December 11, 1922, in Philadelphia.
William G. Henderson was born in Cleveland on November 29, 1882. He became interested in motor design early in the history of the automotive industry. His father was a vice president of the Winton Motor Car Company. The young Henderson gained valuable experience as an engineer with a Cleveland-area machine shop.
Henderson saw a great future in producing a highly developed motorcycle utilizing features that had never before been incorporated in motorcycle construction. Henderson steadfastly stuck with the idea of designing and producing motorcycles, even though his father told him there was no future in motorcycles. Despite his objections, Henderson's father advanced him the money to build the first Henderson prototype.
His older brother, Thomas, who was working as a sales manager at Winton Motor Car Co., became interested and the two formed the Henderson Motorcycle Company in 1911 in Detroit. The new four-cylinder-powered machine was an immediate sensation with the motorcycling press and attracted world-wide attention. The small factory facilities and limited capital restricted the production of the fledgling company, but by 1917 the Henderson four-cylinder had become one of the premier motorcycles in the country and was being exported to foreign markets.
While never intended to be a racing machine, the Henderson gained tremendous recognition in 1913 when Carl Clancy, riding a Henderson, became the first motorcyclist to circle the globe. On the West Coast in 1916, Roy Artley began setting town-to-town and three flag (Canada to Mexico) records on the Henderson. A year later, Alan Bedell set a transcontinental record on a Henderson. In the early 1920s (after Henderson became a part of Excelsior), Wells Bennett set a series of cross-country and 24-hour records on Hendersons.
In January of 1918, the Henderson Motorcycle consolidated with Excelsior and the operations were moved to Chicago. William Henderson became chief engineer of the new organization. By the end of 1919, both William and Thomas had severed their relationship with Excelsior-Henderson. The Henderson four continued production through 1931.
In the fall of 1919, Henderson and Max Sladkin of Haverford Cycle Co. joined forces and formed the Ace Motor Corporation in Philadelphia. Henderson was once again chief engineer for the new Ace Motorcycle and he again turned to the four-cylinder concept. As a result of his agreement with Excelsior-Henderson, Henderson had to be careful to design a completely different machine from the Henderson. When the Ace was introduced in 1920, it was met with favorable reviews, like the Henderson before it.
Production of the machine was slow in the first year, but by 1922 the factory was going strong and Ace was on stable footing. Henderson was lauded for his successful designs. The Ace was successful in long-distance and cross-country contests. Erwin "Cannonball" Baker set a transcontinental motorcycle record on an Ace in 1922.
Henderson was tragically killed in a street accident when a speeding car came out of a side street and hit him while he was riding an Ace Sporting Solo.
Ace continued after Henderson's death with former Henderson engineer Arthur Lemon taking over as chief engineer. Ace was successful in hillclimb contests in the hands of "TNT" Terpening and "Red" Wolverton. Wolverton also set top speed records on a special Ace displacing 1,200cc and weighing a mere 285 pounds.
Ace failed in 1924. A reorganization was attempted in 1926, but the marque never regained its former glory and the Ace brand was eventually absorbed by Indian. Four-cylinder machines based on Henderson's Ace design continued in production under the Indian name until 1943.
Henderson will be remembered as one of the pioneers of motorcycle design. He took the four-cylinder concept guided it to fruition and proved its worth.
Henderson was said to have been an extremely considerate person. Henderson and Ace employees said they felt they were working with Bill Henderson instead of for him, and as a result always gave him their utmost cooperation and effort. Henderson was laid to rest at Westwood Cemetery in Oberlin, Ohio.
Inducted in 1998