History of Wagner Motorcycles
I get many questions about old bikes via the “Comment” link at the bottom of each article. Although they are pretty rare today, Wagner questions seem to come up fairly often. The author of this article, Tom Sheldon, has replied to several comments over the years with information, and has offered to share his thoughts on the marque:
Many of the roughly 2000 American auto companies started life making buggies or wagons. Similarly, many of the 300 or so American motorcycle manufacturers began as bicycle builders. This was true of German immigrant George Wagner. Around 1895 he began working for The Bird Cycle Co of St Paul, MN. In 1897 he formed the Wagner Cycle Co. Around 1900 George “started to experiment with motorcycles”. According to Wagner literature 1901 was the first year of manufacture. The 1911 Tenth Anniversary sales brochure states that 60 motorcycles were produced in that first year. The earliest ad, from 1903, that I have seen for Wagner states “The Wagner Motor Cycle has no equal” and in another 1903 ad “no you have not heard of us before because we have spent the last three years perfecting a motor cycle to offer to the public”. Through 1904 Wagner used a motor supplied by an unknown manufacturer. Models from 1905-1912 all used a motor of their own. Horsepower grew from an initial, at most, 2 1/2 HP in 1904 to 4 HP for the 1911-12 models.
Gorge Wagner designed and marketed a number of unusual motorcycles. The Model 4 catalog of 1904 lists a tandem motorcycle configured like a tandem bicycle as well as a tandem engined, tandem motorcycle. This bike they claimed to have 5HP (2 X 2 1/2HP). In 1907 their sales literature listed a ladies model, with dropped top bar for easy mounting in a dress. This model also had chain and belt guards (men, I guess, did not need guards) and canvas skirts on the front and rear fenders. Also in 1907, Wagner advertised “Adopted by the Fire and Police Departments of New York City”. Probably due to the work of their local agent George Lyons. The Lyons Agency was a big player in early motorcycling in New York City, they handled Wagner from 1905-1908.
George knew the power of competition. The old adage ‘race them on Sunday and sell them on Monday’ may have been used about 60 years earlier than commonly believed. A 1904 ad read “The 1903 Wagner finished every contest with a PERFECT SCORE”. In 1905 “The perfect scores obtained by our machines in the recent endurance run, from New York the Waltham, is only a sample of what they are doing every day, 250 miles in 6 hours including stops”. For 1907 “In the recent Century Runs of the New York and Brooklyn Motorcycle Clubs, Mr. Irving Mehrbach, the heaviest motorcyclist in the country, finished well within the time limit. Mr Mehrbach weights 305 pounds and the Century was his second ride on his Wagner” also written is “In the same contest Jack Dickinson and Sam Shaw on a Wagner with tandem attachment, finished third out of 75 riders and their Wagner was the first single cylinder to finish”.
Perhaps the most famous of the Wagner stories has to do with his daughter, Clara. She was the first female member of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) in 1907, she was just 15 years old. Together George and Clara competed in the 1910 Chicago to Indianapolis Western Enderance run and both riders scored perfect scores of 1000 over the 365 mile course. The judges, however, disqualified Clara because motorcycling was too dangerous for women. Her fellow riders though came through by pitching in and purchased her a gold medal. The free press from Clara and her motoring abilities had to help sales.
Over the course of production George held the course, always single cylinder motor, always single speed, always belt drive. One of the best things going for this simple, durable, reliable but perhaps boring bikes, was the advertising that George and Co placed in magazines. Advertising could be commonly found in ‘Cycle and Automobile Journal’. This magazine did a fine job of writing up (company issued) descriptions of many autos and cycles as well as being full of detailed ads. This makes these magazines invaluable for research. Other publications that Wagner used were ‘Telephony’, ‘RFD News’, ‘Automobile Review’, ‘The Medical World’, ‘Technical World’, ‘Popular Mechanics’, ‘Motorcycle Illustrated’ and ‘Motorcycling’. Of interest is a 1912 ad from ‘RFD News’ that states “4000 Wagners in daily use on R.F.D. routes”.
In 1912 George sold out to MASCO (Motorcycle Accessories and Supply Co.). MASCO ran their catalog business out of the old Wagner factory from 1912 to maybe 1918-1919. It is commonly stated that Wagner was in business through 1914, there is no evidence that any motorcycles were produced after the company was sold in 1912.
To follow I will let pictures show the development of Wagner over the production run. Most of these pictures are from existing motorcycles.
1905-1908 3 HP model
1909-1910 3 1/2 HP model
1911-1912 4 HP model
I have been researching Wagner for about 20 years. I became interested when I saw one in a friends garage and learned that they were built in the Twin Cities. I was interested in old motorcycles, but having bikes built in your home city struck a chord with me. Wagner was not a flashy or fast bike but proved itself with dependability and affordability. I have collected a great deal of original and photo copied literature, ads, photos/postcards and memorabilia. I would be happy to help anyone who has any questions about these bikes. I have some spare parts and also always interested in acquiring anything related to Wagner. Also interested in items from the other Twin City brands of Minneapolis/Michaelson and Thiem/Joerns/Cyclone, as well as other smaller concerns.
re_cycler(at)msn.com —Replace the (at) with a @ symbol.