Grounded by WWI, The Flying Merkel motorcycle’s spirit still soars

In October 1908, the most famous “Merkel” in America actually spelled his last name Merkle, and he was eager to escape the national spotlight. Fred Merkle, a slugging first baseman for New York Giants, drew the immediate ire of New York baseball fanatics after his base-running mistake cost his team a National League championship. Fortunately for Fred, a two-wheeled savior was on its way.

That same month, Joseph Merkel—a Michigan native who manufactured bicycles and cars before turning his full attention to motorcycles—made the fateful decision to merge his fledgling Milwaukee-based business with the Light Manufacturing and Foundry Company in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Thus, the Merkel-Light motorcycle was born. By 1909, the company began referring to its top-of-the-line motorcycle as “The Flying Merkel,” and eventually the name found its way onto the fuel tank.

Nuts and bolts

Flying Merkel motorcycle profile
Matt Lewis

The Merkel, wearing its iconic orange paint, featured cutting-edge technology like rear suspension and Joe’s patented spring front fork (forerunner of the modern telescopic front fork), as well as a throttle-controlled engine oiler that preceded those used in Harley-Davidsons and Indians. The Merkel was powered by a 6-horsepower V-twin engine with two-speed gearbox and belt drive, and Merkel used top-of-the-line German bearings instead of bronze bushings. Not surprisingly, Merkel motorcycles were among the costliest of the day, but they were known for their smooth ride, speed, and reliability.

“Technology was changing pretty rapidly at that time, and competition was fierce,” says Mark Mederski, Special Projects Director at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. “Merkel was an innovator. He wanted his bikes to stand out.”

Driven by racing

Merkel was convinced that racing success would prove that his cycles were worth every penny, and he employed board-track stars and dirt-track racers to make it happen. Early dividends came from Maldwyn Jones, who defeated Erwin “Cannonball” Baker in a 10-mile race, and Fred Whittler, who averaged 74 mph over 50 miles on a California board track. Maintaining a race team proved to be an expensive venture, however, and Merkel eventually sold the business to the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company in Middletown, Ohio, in May 1911. Merkel himself came along as part of the deal.

Flying Merkel motorcycle classic advertisement
Merkel Motorcycles

Miami Cycle dropped the costly factory racing team, but it still supported two of Merkel’s riders in a diminished capacity. Maldwyn Jones made the most of the opportunity by riding a Flying Merkel to a national championship. But in the competitive U.S. motorcycle market, racing success didn’t result in sales success. With the world on the verge of war, Joe Merkel left the company in 1914 to design and patent a bicycle motor known as the Merkel Motor Wheel.

Motor Wheel fails to make waves

According to the Standard Catalog of American Motorcycles (2006) by Jerry Hatfield, the idea behind the Motor Wheel “was to provide in-line thrust instead of off-center thrust.” Merkel “added the advancement of an overhead-valve engine, but in achieving in-line thrust, the wheel and engine became effectively inseparable from the bicycle frame. To mitigate that problem, Merkel sold butt-ended inner tubes that could be removed and replaced with the tire in place.”

Consumers weren’t buying. By 1918, Merkel was bankrupt, and Indian Motorcycles purchased the assets and modified the device.

Flying Merkel motorcycle gas tank
Matt Lewis
Flying Merkel motorcycle seat
Matt Lewis

Flying Merkel motorcycle engine
Matt Lewis

Meanwhile, back in Middletown, Ohio, the Flying Merkel forged ahead in Merkel’s absence. As World War I dragged on, however, those Bosch magnetos and Hess-Bright ball bearings that made Merkel engines so good soon became unavailable. By 1917, the Flying Merkel was no more.

“In hindsight, the war and some bad business decisions proved to be too much,” Mederski says. “It’s sad and unfortunate, but it’s understandable.”

Gone, but not forgotten

The mystique surrounding The Flying Merkel is alive and well, however. Original Merkel motorcycles are rare and highly sought after by collectors. The highest recorded amount paid for a Merkel was $423,000 for a 1911 Flying Merkel Board Track Racer at Mecum’s 2015 Las Vegas auction. Considering the scarcity of original Merkels, even faithful replicas (like the Merkel Light shown in the accompanying photos) are worth six figures. Both Bikes are on display at the National Motorcycle Museum.

Flying Merkel motorcycle tire detail
Matt Lewis

Greg Merkel, the great grandnephew of Joseph Merkel, owns The Flying Merkel brand and offers merchandise through his Flying Merkel Inc. website. He says the Flying Merkel and “all it stands for—groundbreaking design, pioneering spirit, classic detailing—is in our blood,” and although Merkel and his family “are starting out small, we are dreamers and are hoping to do great things.”

Somewhere, Fred “Bonehead” Merkle is still wearing an appreciative smile.

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