Made in Minnesota Motorcycles

by Tim Learymchistorylogo

I don’t know if you’ve seen them yet, but those Minnesota made bikes sure look sleek. Innovatively designed and engineered with the latest technology, they push the envelope on reliability, comfort and excitement…The Polaris Victory and the Excelsior-Henderson Super X aren’t bad either.

Although the development and manufacture of the new Victory and Super X are certainly cause for much Minnesota chest-thumping, it’s not the first time that bikes have been manufactured in the land of 10,000 Lakes. Between the turn of the century and the Great Depression (that’s 1929 for those of you who were out riding rather than attending history class), there were at least seven motorcycle manufacturers in Minneapolis and St. Paul alone! If none of those local manufacturers produced a bike that suited an enthusiast’s fancy, there were another 200 American manufacturers to choose from.

The earliest-known production bike made in Minnesota was the 1904 Wagner made by the Wagner Motorcycle Company in St. Paul. Its 2.5 horsepower engine moved the rider along at a brisk 25 mph. Though it looked very much like a regular bicycle with a gas tank below the crossbar and a small engine just in front of the pedals, Wagner advertised their machines as the strongest, quietest, cleanest bikes available. Later, manufacturers began to promote their cycles as more than just recreational vehicles. Motorcycles’ superiority to horses became commonplace in ads, with some even breaking down the cost of horse feed and care in comparison to that of gas and oil.

mchist16Gas mileage was always an important marketing point with some bikes boasting mileage as high as 150 miles per gallon. This lent itself well to later marketing efforts which promoted the use of bikes as highly efficient delivery vehicles. The U.S. Postal Service, police, fire departments, doctors, telephone companies, newspaper deliveries, delivery companies, the U.S. Army, even Saks (as in Saks 5th Avenue) department store got into using the motorcycle as an affordable means of doing business.

Today, even the toughest Minnesota rider’s season is only eight months long. For the average Joe, it’s six months tops. In those days, It wasn’t uncommon to see bikes cruising all year round. Some of the advertising of the period even pits motorcycles against cars and shows the pain of trying to decide between the two.

As the years wore on, Harley-Davidson and Indian distinguished themselves as the leaders of the motorcycle industry. They both strongly pursued more than just the recreational market, winning contracts with the federal government for military and postal uses. That strategy paid off, as their diversification helped them to become the only two survivors of the stock market crash.


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