by Tim Leary
Thanks to the efforts of Ky Michaelson of Minneapolis, MMM was able to revisit an early chapter of Minnesota’s motorcycle manufacturing history, a chapter that easily could have been lost. “I almost threw all of this stuff away without realizing it,” said Ky Michaelson pointing to a series of old brochures and photographs now neatly framed. “It was sitting in the bottom of an old wooden trunk that I’d been shifting around in my attic for years. I thought it was just full of old moth-eaten clothes, so I was going to throw the whole trunk away.”
As the grandson and grandnephew of the creators of the Michaelson and Minneapolis motorcycles, Ky had heard many stories about his relatives’ motorcycle ventures. Ky’s surprise discovery brought life to the many anecdotes he had heard over the years.
In 1908, four Michaelson brothers, Joe, Walter, Jack and Anton, founded Michaelson Motorcycle Company. Based upon their substantial mechanical experience, the brothers gained financial support from a local investor and began operation at 517 South Seventh Street in Minneapolis.
Their venture was quite risky considering that Twin Cities based Theim and Wagner motorcycles were already well-established in the region and had unblemished reputations for dependability. Five years later, the Cyclone would join the fray as well. But as great as these bikes were perceived to be, the Michaelson brothers felt that they could put out a more technologically advanced machine. By all historical accounts, they were successful in doing so.
The brothers manufactured two motorcycles, the Michaelson and the Minneapolis, with each brand having two models, a 36 c.i. single and a 72 c.i. twin cylinder. Local motorcycle aficionados say the Michaelson models came out before the Minneapolis, but confirmation of that fact could not be found. It’s not quite clear why two different brands of machines were made, especially considering that the machines were nearly identical. The Michaelson’s single cylinder head slanted foreword, but the internal workings and the rest of the machine were the same. And, for the record, the twin engine was supplied by the F.W. Spacke Machine Company of Indianapolis, while the single was entirely of the Michaelson’s design and manufacture.
The bikes produced by the Michaelsons consisted of some truly innovative designs. If not the first, the Michaelsons were certainly among the first to use an integral engine-transmission case. The transmission used a two-speed gear on a countershaft, with four-to-one and eight-to-one ratios for low and high gear. Other major manufacturers didn’t do this until 50 years later.
The Michaelson’s also pioneered the sprung rear wheel. This “Spring Frame” model dampened the rear wheel by utilizing an intricate triple-pivot at the top of the rear trailing arms. The triple-pivot mechanism compressed an enclosed spring mounted behind the seat post to create a more luxurious ride. Here again, the Michaelson’s were truly ahead of their time, as the next earliest use of hydraulically-dampened rear suspension came in the late thirties and was not readily available until the late forties.
Another cutting-edge design they used was the handlebar-mounted clutch lever. Most of the motorcycles of that time still used the awkward foot clutch. The Michaelsons also offered a wide variety of options like a luggage carrier or passenger seat, wide and knobby tires, bigger rims, carbide or gas lamps and a choice of three saddles.
In approximately 1909, the Michaelsons began to manufacture three-wheeled delivery “vans”. Eighty of these bikes worked the streets of the Twin Cities, having the ability to carry 300 pounds.
Despite all of these successes, the Michaelsons knew that the best way to increase sales was by winning on the racing circuit. In 1910, they assembled a team of five factory racers &endash; three twins and two singles &endash; and entered the sprints at the Minnesota State Fair. After the races, Joe wrote home to Zumbrota, “The Indian seven got the best of us one day, and we beat them one day, so we are yet even. The bunch took three firsts, nine seconds and five thirds. Nothing else but the Indians got a look in.”
The Michaelson team also competed at the three-quarter mile motordrome on University Avenue. A powerful Theim team proved to be a thorny opponent at their home-town track, however, and the wins were often divided.
In 1912, the entire operation moved to 526-30 South Fifth Street, across from the present location of the Star Tribune building. That year, those interested could choose between eight models which ranged in price from the $225 single to the $375 delivery van.
By 1913, however, the challenges of running their company without a significant chain of nationwide dealers became a burden. Although their substantial local and regional sales kept them buoyant, their brands became lost amid the nearly 80 other domestic motorcycles being manufactured at the time. To make matters worse, Indian was manufacturing a full half of all the motorcycles of the day, and other up-and-comers like Thor, Harley-Davidson, Pope, Cleveland, Flying Merkel and Excelsior were also swallowing large chunks of the market. The remaining morsels were big not enough for survival.
With the company doomed and no investor willing to risk the considerable odds, the entire stock of the Michaelson Motorcycle Company was sold to the H. E. Wilcox Motor Car Company of Minneapolis. The Wilcox Company vanished years later without ever having made an attempt to revive the Michaelson Motorcycle line.
Very few of the Michaelson and Minneapolis machines survive to this day. However, after making his treasure-chest discovery a few years ago, Ky Michaelson went on the hunt to find one to ride. That dream was realized in southern California a short time later. Watching a videotape of his historical ride on an unrestored but very well running Michaelson, Ky recalls, “This ride brought tears to my eyes.”