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RIDING AN EARLY BIKE #1: “Myths about Indians and guns”

May 2, 2010


Riding a veteran bike (pre 1915) is the most fun that a rider can have on a motorbike. But it isn’t easy to know how to start, ride, or stop an early beast, until you have taken some time to study it.


Tim Simkins_Model A_VeloceTim Simkins on the Pioneer Run.  He is riding Ivan Rhodes’Veloce two stroke.  Tim runs a rental chalet in one of the finest parts of the UK and it’s available for holiday rental…


The mosquito abatement emanating from the exhaust pipe is an added benefit of early bikes!  (Tim has since sorted the over-oiling issue).



















Handlebars During the pioneer and veteran eras, bike makers had not standardized on the control layout that is employed on modern motorbikes. Clutches were often engaged with the right foot, or a lever on the left handlebar, or on the left hand of the petrol tank. Gear shifting could be foot controlled, or possibly with hand levers on either side of the tank, moving either forward to engage a higher gear, or rearward for a higher gear.


sc0053ce50 Indian controls, from Victor Page


Rear brakes could be from either foot lever, timing controls could be on the handlebars, mounted to the side of the petrol tank, or on the top frame tube, and throttle levers may open wider by pushing them away from you, or maybe by pulling it towards you. Mmm, lever throttles… Top lever controls the air, bottom lever controls the fuel. Unlike modern controls, neither lever has a spring return to shut down the carby.  This allows the pilot to ride the bike without keeping their right hand on the controls. Of course, early twist throttles didn’t have a spring return either…


sc0053f185  Controls of a Brown bike, again from Page’s book



 Vintage Motorcycle PhotographsPremier petcock, photo of my bike from this link. 

Additional levers can be found in many places on early bikes: to open oil or petrol taps, or to wash the cylinder with raw petrol, to open or close an exhaust cutout, or even foot operated oil pumps! Other fun can be had jiggling the controls of an acetylene generator, with its carbide pellets and dripping water, or with an exhaust whistle, like a choo choo train, or a police-bike rotary klaxon horn as heard in all the WWII war movies just before the air blitz on the unsuspecting city.






042003-collgwd 011

My old 1914 Rudge Multi TT model, with foot operated oil pump


Rudge graphic stolen from Leon’s vintage Motorcycle pages, originally from an old book or magazine.



Speaking of twist throttles, Sylvester Roper invented used those back in the 1870’s for use on his steam bikes (as did pedal bicycles of the 1860s). It turned out to be a pretty handy method to control a motor. (that was a handy pun). You might recall that Indian placed the throttle on the left hand twist grip, not the right. Don’t believe the old story that it was placed there so that the bike riding sheriff could ride with his left hand while he shot his revolver with his right hand! The truth is much less dramatic… Early motors responded strongly to variable ignition timing, due to their low compression and mild cam timing, and the primitive carburetion of the time. Indian made the decision to put the ignition control in the rider’s right hand, and relegated the throttle control to his left hand. As motors developed, and throttles became the dominant control method, Indian stayed with their layout. As an option they eventually did offer reversed controls, to help sell bikes to riders who were used to right hand throttles. (And Harley sold bikes with “Indian type” controls too, trying to woo customers away from Springfield). More police bike info here.


machinegun-PoliceTommy gunner





042003-collgwd 007

My ‘14 Rudge.  This particular bike was built for racing on the Isle of Man; the handlebars were long and low.  Multi lever is the black handle on the left side of the tank.  Timing lever is just ahead of it.  Useless front brake is on the right end of the handlebar, exhaust lifter on the left one.  Senspray lever throttle, opens when pulling the levers towards the rider.  (my 25 Rudge has Senspray levers that open AWAY from the rider.  That can be confusing when switching bikes…)  another Senspray link here.

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