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Art Deco Henderson

April 13, 2016
henderson streamliner

The Henderson streamliner is simply irreplaceable, because there is nothing else like it

Story by Alan Cathcart
Photos by Kel Edge

Art Deco was an innovative and ultra-distinctive style of design that spanned the boom times of the Roaring Twenties and the bust of the Depression-ridden 1930s. It was the style of the flapper girl and the office typist, of the factory worker and daredevil car driver. Art Deco was avant-garde. It celebrated the newly mechanized modern world, yet embraced both handmade and mechanical manufacture of everyday products to exclusive works of art. It was everywhere, from cinemas to skyscrapers, from luxury ocean liners to exotic automobiles – and, yes, to some motorcycles, too.

But what is arguably the most resolutely Art Deco motorcycle ever built emerged in the United States in 1935 as the one-off creation of a Michigan-based metalsmith employed at the Oldsmobile car factory. The bike was based on his 1300 cc four-cylinder 1930 Henderson KJ Streamline model. His name was O. (for Orley, which he preferred to ignore) Ray Courtney, and though little is known of him, he built a handful of completely innovative custom motorcycles during his life, their style evoking the idyllic sense of optimism prevalent in the early ’50s, of a nation basking in the contentment of the postwar era.

A Metalsmith at Work

Henderson streamlinerRay Courtney rode his first motorcycle in 1908 at the age of 13, and acquired his first proper bike – a 1916 three-speed Excelsior V-twin – before joining the Army Air Corps to fight in the First World War. On his return home as a young man, he found work at Central Manufacturing in Connersville, Indiana, making body panels and fenders for luxury cars such as Duesenbergs. Later he moved to Lansing, Michigan, where he worked for the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors. He spent his life shaping metal for the prototypes coming out of these firms’ design departments, in the process acquiring a feel for the forms and styling that he’d try to adapt to two wheels. While working with metal was his forte, he also drove the drawing board pencil, making a significant contribution to the body design of the 1933 Oldsmobile F-33, today an American collectible.

The following years were a fertile time for car designers. They stopped thinking of automobiles as utilitarian transport and began treating them as a means to deliver comfort, speed and pleasure of ownership to their customers. And instead of most cars looking like a variation on the same Model T Ford theme, the importance of recognizing a brand by its styling came into play. The rapidly increasing understanding of aerodynamics that was emerging from the aircraft industry greatly influenced industrial design in other fields, from railway trains to skyscrapers – look at the Flying Scotsman, the Auburn Speedster or the Chrysler Building in New York. Streamlining became the modern design catchword, so that along with cars, trains and other products that actually moved, there were streamlined toasters, streamlined kettles and streamlined radios.

With a more favourable shake of the dice, Ray Courtney might have been a rival of iconic designers like Harley Earl or Raymond Loewy in the field of vehicle design. He was a bike-riding inventor whose thinking was influenced by an understanding of motorcycle dynamics.

The Henderson Takes Shape

Henderson streamliner dash At some stage, Courtney purchased a four-cylinder 1930 Henderson Streamline Model KJ motorcycle, which was actually devoid of any streamlining, but was presumably thus named for the same reason as the streamline toasters and radios: because it was a catchword that denoted up-to-the-moment design. Courtney much admired the Art Deco style championed by the Chrysler Airflow introduced in 1934, and soon began making sketches of a motorcycle encased in its own Airflow-inspired aerodynamic shell. He believed that the motorcycle industry had gone overboard for speed and high-
performance, and that designers paid scant attention to comfort in travelling over the poor road conditions then prevalent outside cities. He believed there was a place in the world of two wheels for a new style of modern, unconventional model that embraced the kind of streamlined styling embodied in the Chrysler Airflow.

Courtney‘s first interpretation of such an unconventional motorcycle emerged in 1935 in the form of a machine that was nothing like anything yet built, with his Henderson’s modified frame and engine enveloped in sheet-metal panels formed on bucks he’d created according to a set of detailed engineering drawings he’d previously prepared. On July 12, 1934, his patent attorney submitted the engineering drawings to the U.S. Patent Office, and during the next nine months, in his spare time from the day job at Oldsmobile, Courtney patiently constructed the requisite panels, which he first gas welded, then shaped to perfection with his favourite tool, the Pettingel power hammer.

Unlike Anything Before or After

Henderson streamlinerCourtney completed the bike in 1935, about six months before he was awarded U.S. Pat. No. 2,035,462 for his streamlined motorcycle body. Sitting low down on 10-inch scooter wheels – half the diameter of those on the stock Henderson – but fitted with high-profile balloon tires sourced from the aircraft industry, which provide it with a smooth ride by the standards of the pre-war era. The finished bike is fully enclosed in a gracefully shaped Art Deco-styled shell. The hidden but heavily modified Henderson chassis features the addition of hydraulic brakes, a shortened Henderson KJ fork in front, and a relatively modern swinging-arm rear suspension design unlike any seen before then, and containing front suspension parts from an Oldsmobile. The rounded nose and grille are clearly modelled after the Chrysler Airflow, and the fully enclosed wheels are hidden behind teardrop-shaped fender skirts, with the bodywork’s rear end running down to a point, not unlike the Boattail speedsters that were popular at the time.

There’s a low, wide seat for a single rider, whose feet rest on floorboards and is confronted by a car-type dashboard with copious instrumentation, plus a large headlamp that moves with the steering, which is mounted in front of a raked-back screen that deflects air onto the rider’s chest. Seen in the metal, the finished result is pretty breathtaking to look at – even by today’s standards – with seductive curves and many subtleties in its shape.

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