The Excelsior-Henderson Super X proved nostalgia alone doesn’t sell

Iconic Motorbikes

The Great Depression brought an end to countless manufacturers of interesting things, auto and motorcycle builders among them. At various times over the ensuing decades, some of those companies have been resurrected by big-eyed enthusiasts. And though their hearts may have been in the right place, the market, it turns out, was not. Such ill-fated comebacks pepper our newsfeeds on a semi-regular basis.

One example you might have forgotten about was the rebirth of Excelsior-Henderson in the 1990s. Most riders likely don’t recognize Excelsior-Henderson right away, but in the 1920s, Ignaz Schwinn’s motorcycle brand was third only behind Harley-Davidson and Indian in the American marketplace. And while Harley and Indian both survived the downturn, Schwinn simply pulled the plug in order to focus on his bicycle business, which he correctly figured would better serve millions of out-of-work Americans.

So how did Excelsior-Henderson’s second lease on life come about, and why did it run so short?

1999 Excelsior Henderson Super X Iconic motorbikes badge
Iconic Motorbikes

The brand’s rebirth was a gamble made by the Hanlon brothers, Dave and Dan, of Belle Plaine, Minnesota. After watching buyers sit on wait lists for years throughout the 1980s just to get a new Harley-Davidson, the pair felt compelled to revive Excelsior-Henderson from the ashes in which it had been sitting for nearly 60 years.

As for the short run, well, it might have something to do with the bike they built to kickstart the revival. The Super X was handed to the press in March 1999 and, understandably, it leaned heavy on nostalgic appearance. There is little other reason to choose the traditional and quite archaic leading-link fork or the row of three headlights out front of the wide-swept handlebar.

Quaint styling aside, however, the new bikes shared next to nothing with their ancestors. It seems the entire brand was propped up solely by the brothers purchasing the trademark and then merely producing a motorcycle that wore said brand.

The engine was a 50-degree V-twin, which one could argue has some Excelsior flavor, since in its heyday the company offered a V-twin and even owned the 750cc market. For the rebirth, the new 1386cc engine sported fuel injection and a wet-sump oiling system, and fed power to the back tire through a five-speed transmission and a belt drive. The curb weight was over 750 pounds. Despite all that displacement, the engine made just 63 horsepower and 70 pound feet of torque. Performance must not have been on the design requirements sheet.

1999 Excelsior Henderson Super X Iconic motorbikes front fork
Iconic Motorbikes

Value wasn’t, either. The price tag rang up to just under $18,000. That was double the price of a Sportster 1200 at the time. The Hanlon brothers gambled that nostalgia buyers would come out of the woodwork for the first model, and they weren’t wrong. The bikes sold to countless speculators and collectors who pickled—or never even uncrated—these bikes. Now, 20 years later, a curious buyer can seemingly purchase a new-in-crate or very-low-mileage example whenever they want. We found this one for sale over at Iconic Motorbikes auctions with just 7 miles on it.

Despite the buyers who went out and snapped these Super X models up initially, the brand declared bankruptcy and sold to an investment group in March 2001. Only about 2000 Super Xs had rolled off the production line in a factory equipped to produce 10,000 bikes per year. Even wilder, the new purchasing company attempted to pull the brand out of bankruptcy and started selling anything it could from the factory. Banks wanted their money back though, and lawyers got involved. Just hours before the final auction in December 2001, a second bankruptcy was declared, which left stockholders with nothing, and the creditors scrambled for pennies. Today, the intellectual rights of Excelsior-Henderson are owned by Indian motorcycle manufacturer Bajaj.

Was it a crazy plan from the start, or ambition that just didn’t pan out? We may never know.

1999 Excelsior Henderson Super X Iconic motorbikestop 3/4
Iconic Motorbikes

 

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Comments

    I road a demonstrator at the Laconia event when E-H was first produced. Very little power but great low end torque. My ride had drivability issues as it stalled at every stop sign. I got a nice E-H T shirt which I still have and a fun ride for an hour+ on a great day. It was father’s day so my son rode the demo too. Good memories.

    I was a castings and forgings supplier to E-H during those heady days. Rode proto Super X’s. It is bigger than it looks in the pictures–I’m tall and fit well. Harley put the squash on them–would not let ANY Harley supplier–eventually including the foundries I represented– make parts for them with the threat of pulling their tooling and thus business. They could not pull the same trick on Polaris with Victory and later Indian.
    The Hanlons had a VERY good time on the backs of the MN taxpayer and burned through I believe $20M not repaid. Threw a hell of a Sturgis party I was told. Although that’s chicken feed compared to what’s happening in MN now.

    You just reminded me that I have an E-H t-shirt stashed somewhere too…

    Low performance? LOL.. I never lost a race against any other cruiser (and one Viper who wanted to try his luck). Best bike I’ve ever owned. I just fired it up yesterday and she’s still my favorite.
    Can’t blame the author for not having any idea what he’s flapping his lip about though. After all, he was in 3rd grade when this was “news”. Go drink another soy latte, millennial.

    Funny how the spin works. An evo harley had 52 horsepower and much less torque than the the E H , but i bet u never insulted HD for those numbers. Ur obviously scared of hd, for whatever reason. These bikes didnt sell i think, because the messed up on the front end and fender. The hanlons raised money and wasted it on their palatial hq! They took a dump
    On The EH name . Then they had the nerve to write a rah rah book about achieving dreams and business. I met them inlaconia at a restaurant the first year the bikes came out. They were too tired to open the trailer to show the bikes . Had no merch to sell and didnt appear at too many events. The millions wasted on their hq, complete with cobblestone hallway and Antique gaslights would have been much better spent on having employees out riding bikes and getting the name out there at every get together nationwide. No reason for an HQ thats fit for architectural digest for a start up company.

    No it isn’t a dry sump motor. It has a faux oil tank under seat, but its actually the electrical box.
    Crate bikes are far and few between any more. Crate bikes were off the charts priced for the Super X market of today. A person can buy a very nice X for less than $10k in todays market, including most crate bikes.
    As for performance….. it’d eat same era stock HD’s of the day. Some hi performance parts were made, and the Super X will run with the big dawgs of today.
    One of the vendors of our community has built a 100hp.
    Love my Super X….. a high contender for ride control and ride…. amazing. 55000 miles and going strong.
    Love Hagerty articles….but need writers that lived the era.. or have accurate sources.

    Thanks for the comment Bruce. The dry sump reference came from multiple in-period reviews from sources that are typically trustworthy. After reading your comment I dug up the service manual (https://xhmotorcycles.com/pages/tech/pdf/EH_Factory_Service_Handbook_X.pdf) and see that you are correct. I’ll update the article to reflect this. It seems many of the early reviews were on pre-production models that were dry-sump while the production models are wet sump with the oil held under the transmission.

    I have a 2000 RED OYSTER. 33000 miles. Bought new from Neilsen in Lake Villa Ill.I wouldn’t trust this on any trip. She runs hot and likes cool weather nothing above 70. That said I never rode this in the summer. Fall or spring. not above 70 degrees. Have an oil cooler but with those short cooling fins its still runs hotIts not a primary bike you need another for trips. I love Harleys had a few. My number is 1393 so its not an early issue. All I can say is it costs for the upgrades. TRANS ect is it worth it? Too much nonsense for me should have kept one of the 2 fatboys I had…..

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