Joseph Merkel was the founder of Merkel Motorcycles, manufacturer of machines better known as the "Flying Merkel." The Flying Merkel was one of the leading racing and road machines of the 1910s, earning numerous victories in a variety of contests of the day. Joseph Merkel was considered to be one of the finest engineers in U.S. motorcycling. He came up with dozens of innovative designs, many of which were copied by other motorcycle makers.
Merkel was born in Manistee, Michigan, in 1872. His father was employed in the logging industry and like many boys of his era, young Joseph went to work at a young age. He worked as an engineer on a logging railroad in 1886 when he was just 14 years old. At 15 Merkel went to work at a machine shop and learned the particulars of making machined parts that were light and durable. The practical mechanical experience gained in machining gave him a desire to learn more. He enrolled at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) to study mechanical engineering.
In 1897, Merkel accepted a draftsman position at E.P. Allis Co. (later to become Allis-Chalmers Co.) in Milwaukee. By the turn of the century, Merkel had opened his own business that manufactured bicycle parts. By 1901, Merkel was attaching small motors to bicycles and the Merkel Motorcycle was born. A motor-powered tricycle Merkel had built in 1900 was thought to be one of the first self-propelled vehicles built in Wisconsin.
Merkel didn’t stop at motorcycles. In 1906, his company built 150 automobiles featuring a powerful 30-horsepower engine.
In 1908, Merkel merged his company with the Light Motor Co. and the new Merkel-Light Motor Co. moved activities to Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
Flying Merkels were known for having one of the finest rides in all of motorcycling and also as one of the most reliable motorcycles on the road. Merkels were more costly than many motorcycles of the time, but Merkel engines utilized the best German-made bearings and other high-quality materials, which led to excellent reliability.
Merkel also helped design a unique front and rear suspension system on his motorcycles. The rear suspension was a mono-shock design that proved to be decades ahead of its time. Yamaha would later make a similar single rear shock design popular again on racing machines of the 1970s and beyond. Even more impressive than the rear suspension was the front fork of the Flying Merkels. The fork was so good (telescopic in principle, using dual coil springs, yet looking like an unsprung trussed fork) that many other manufacturers put Merkel forks on their factory racing machines even through the 1920s, years after Merkel had ceased production.
Riders such as board track stars Morty Graves and Fred Whittler, and dirt track racers like Maldwyn Jones and Cleo Pineau, brought fame to the Flying Merkel through racing. Merkel rarely got directly involved in the racing end of his company, leaving that to other employees, but he attended many of races. With few exceptions, Merkel did not field full-fledged factory racing teams, but the company did pay many Merkel racers' expenses through its sales division.
Early in 1911, Miami Cycle and Mfg. Co. purchased Merkel-Light and transferred all operations to its Middletown, Ohio headquarters. Merkel came along with his company in the purchase. Merkel stayed with the company he founded until 1914 when he sold his interest in the company. Merkel went on to design and patent the Merkel Motor Wheel, which was later manufactured by Indian Motocycle Co.
By the 1920s, Merkel had moved to Rochester, New York, to take over experimental design for the Cyclemotor Corp. Merkel earned a lot of praise from the motorcycling industry in the early 1920s when he convinced the New York legislature to assess lower highway fees on motorcycles since they caused much less wear and tear to the road than automobiles.
The Flying Merkel continued on without Merkel at the helm until just before the onset of World War I. After the war, Miami Cycle Mfg., like dozens of other American manufacturers, did not return to the motorcycle business. The Flying Merkel was relegated to the history books.
Little is known about Merkel after his stint with Cyclemotor in the early 1920s. He was an avid golfer and secretary of the Genesee Golf Club near Rochester. He was also a prominent booster in the Knights of Columbus and was involved in many charities.
Inducted in 1998