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1931 Henderson KJ (Bob English for the Globe and Mail)
1931 Henderson KJ (Bob English for the Globe and Mail)

Classic Motorcycle

Henderson KJ: The Dirty Thirties superbike Add to ...

“Unless you’re naked, please don’t touch.”

That warning, sometimes prominently displayed on pristine show vehicles, is one you’ll never see on the 1931 four-cylinder Henderson that once proudly patrolled Toronto streets with an officer in the saddle and later hauled tomatoes and served as an ice-saw on Lyn Ventress’s family farm.

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“If you’re naked, I don’t want you sitting on it,” says Ventress. “But if you keep your clothes on, get on the bike or jump in the sidecar.”

A restoration in 1988 transformed the Henderson farm workhorse hack back to the thoroughbred it once was and has seen it win a shelf-full of trophies since. But that’s still the open-arms invitation Ventress issues to all who take an interest in the big blue sidecar outfit that’s been in his family since the mid-1930s.

“It’s not a trailer queen and has suffered some slings and arrows over the years, but that’s what it’s all about. Kids love it,” he says.

It’s a good bet so did the unknown Toronto police officer who purchased it in 1931 from legendary Toronto motorcycle dealer Percy A. McBride’s shop. It appears city police officers had to purchase their own patrol machines in those days, as did members of the Ontario Provincial Police, in whose Orillia museum resides the 1931 Henderson KJ/KL Streamline purchased by Const. John Hinchcliffe.

And it would be an equally good wager Ventress’s father George, then working as a mechanic for McBride Cycle after leaving the family’s Brighton-area farm, was smitten with it when it was traded on a new bike in 1934. McBride Cycle was established in 1909 on College St. and would serve Toronto motorcyclists for almost a century before closing its doors.

The scrap book that records the Henderson’s history contains the two-page sales contract that showed the young mechanic paid $120.75 for it with $25 down and monthly payments of $8.05.

Ventress says McBride saw his father gazing out the shop window one day and asked if he was thinking of home and, when he replied yes, said that’s where he should go. So, after seven years in the city, George rode the bike back to Brighton – where he served as an agent for the shop while turning his hand to other things to make a living in the tough years ahead, many of which involved the Henderson.

Henderson is a name all but lost to the public ken, but still remembered by those who revere early American motorcycles.

The company was founded in 1911 by brothers William and Tom Henderson in Detroit, who created a 57-cubic-inch (934cc), seven horsepower, four-cylinder, single-speed motorcycle and began selling it early in 1912 for $325.

The Henderson four, with its motor mounted inline in its long-wheelbase frame proved popular and reliable as Carl Stearns Clancy rode around the world on one that year. Improvements were made; a better brake, lower seat, improved forks, a shorter wheelbase and a two and then three-speed transmissions.

The upgrades allowed Alan Bedell, mounted on a 1917 G Model, to average 48 mph for 24 hours. He then broke “Cannonball” Baker’s 1915 Los Angeles to New York time set on an Indian twin, with a new record for the 3,296 miles, over little more than wagon trails, of seven days, 16 hours and 15 minutes. Roy Artley rode one from the Canadian border north of Blaine, Wash., to Tijuana, the so-called Three Flags Run of 1,667 miles, in three days and 25 minutes.

But in 1917, the financially troubled firm was taken over by Ignaz Schwinn of bicycle fame, who had already acquired Excelsior [which made big V-twin bikes], and moved production to Chicago.

Hendersons had already caught the eye of newly mobilizing police forces – the first bike patrol was established in California in 1911 – that found the big fast bikes just the thing for reeling in recklessly fast motorists. By the early 1920s, a 28-hp Henderson was flashing past Chicago police brass at 98 mph and San Diego department honchos at an even 100 mph – demonstration runs followed by police orders that continued through the decade. New speed and distance records also kept the Henderson in the public eye and converted Henderson engines even powered light aircraft.

The ultimate Hendersons were the 80-cubic-inch (1,301 cc) KJ of 1929, followed a year later by the KL-Models. They produced 45 hp, had smooth top gear flexibility of eight to 110 mph, and were soon the darlings of police forces across North America.

But a year later, with the depression deepening, Schwinn yanked the spark plug leads off and the Excelsior and Henderson brands were no more, leaving only Indian and Harley-Davidson as producers of motorcycles in America.

The Henderson served the Ventress family for many years in a variety of roles – including summer and winter transportation with its Flexicar sidecar attached. But its most unusual use was as an ice saw. With the handlebars turned 180 degrees and the rear wheel replaced by a circular saw blade, it was used to cut hundreds of blocks of ice from frozen lakes, which were sold for 3-5 cents each.

Ventress’s earliest memories of the Henderson are of it leaned up against the back wall in the farm’s garage for many years before being put back into working order by his father in the early 1970s to attend vintage bike rallies. But, as his father grew older, the Henderson was once again relegated to static status and slow deterioration. It was restored it in his memory following his passing in 1988.

Ventress says his mother Gwen, who’d spent countless hours in the sidecar over more than half a century, was still doing so up to her death at almost 97.

“We’d go up and down the road. And she’d tell me whether it was running right,” he says.

Back in 1931

Supermarine’s sleek S.6B seaplane (on floats) wins the famed Schneider Trophy with a speed of 340 mph and later sets a world record of 407.5 mph. The design evolved into the Second World War Spitfire fighter.

Canada takes gold at the fifth World Ice Hockey Championship in Poland, ahead of the U.S. and Austria. Hockey Night In Canada’s predecessor, the General Motors Hockey Broadcast, airs on the Canadian National Railways radio network.

The electric guitar is invented. Top hits of the year include Good Night Sweetheart by Guy Lombardo And His Royal Canadians and As Time Goes By by Rudy Vallee. Born this year are actor and singer Tab Hunter, and singers Teresa Brewer and Ike Turner.

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