The Johnson Motor Wheel Company was an interesting late contender in the much crowded motorcycle market in the late 1910’s. Unlike most companies jockeying to create full bore motorcycles from the ground up, the Johnson Motor Wheel Company took a more casual approach to the field.
They offered a kit that could convert any bicycle of a 26” wheel size to a very lightweight motorcycle or motor bicycle- a bridge vehicle so to speak. The kit allowed bicycle enthusiasts to gradually get into motorcycles or the more lazy to get through terrain without much effort and with little cost. Laziness of course, was one such driving force for entering the market, as admitted by some of the Johnson brothers, who were the founders of the company. The motor wheel originally retailed for $80-$97.50 for the kit and at one point in their run, the company even had a fully pre-made bicycle + kit assembly that sold for $140...for those who didn’t even want to fiddle with the kit conversion.
The cheapness of the kit or the convenience of the pre-assembled Motor Wheel wasn’t what really made the Johnson shine. In fact, in order to get to the really interesting series of the events that led up to the Motor Wheel’s creation, one has to delve into the company’s incredibly rich history.
Louis, Harry, Julius, Arthur* and Clarence Johnson were born in Effingham, Illinois to Soren and Bertha Johnson. In 1898 the entire family relocated from Illinois to Terre Haute, Indiana. Soren Johnson was a machinist by trade and quite skilled at his craft. The Johnson brothers learned from him and were encouraged to pursue their interests- which happened to be making things and being in the outdoors. Much of their creativity came from necessity since both parents couldn’t afford to purchase things like sleds and rowing boats, so the brothers made them. On the Wabash River, the brothers would often row each other in their small boat, which was where they got the idea to make a motor that would do the work for them.
Around 1909 three of the Johnson brothers- Louis, Harry and Julius, put their attention into creating a monoplane that would use their own design from the engine to the frame of the plane. They were working in secret using their family barn until news of what they were doing was eventually brought to light. In spite of said revelation, the brothers didn’t let the news distract them nor the crowds that their test flights attracted. Most of the locals and aviation experts were content to vocalize their doubts about the brothers’ ability to succeed in aviation.
As we all know, flight was achieved by the Wright Brothers in 1903, but in the successive years that came after the initial feat was a time of fierce competition and the US’s general apathy toward airplanes. By the time the Johnson brothers had completed their monoplane, Europe was already ahead of the US in terms of innovation in the industry. In 1906, a French man named Louis Bleriot had become the creator of the first successful powered monoplane.
Even though the Johnson brothers were behind by a few years in terms of Bleriot’s success of claiming the first ever in the world, they weren’t that far behind. What made the Johnson Brothers stand out with their monoplane in that era were a few things.
They didn’t have any seniority in the aviation industry, primarily being motorboat engine makers. Information on creating planes were sparse in those days and given their relative isolation in Terre Haute at the time, none of the brothers were working off of the Wright Brothers’ designs or the designs of other innovators at the time. In an interview in the mid1950’s by a Smithsonian curator, the only similarity the monoplane had with another innovator at the time was the shape of the curved wings.
The first Johnson monoplane was workable but crude and had a typical wooden frame like many other planes of that time period. The engine was a completely different story. It was a V-type 2 cycle engine, the only one of its kind in that time period. In 1910 the brothers were extensively testing the plane and there were a slew of articles covering their attempts to lift off the ground.
Bad weather compounded with constant adjustments to the frame had led to disappointment all summer. Curious bystanders mocked them the first two weeks of testing, but the brothers’ persistence and constant ignoring of the crowd eventually led to the bystanders to disperse. The local press still did coverage despite the fact. In that time frame, the youngest, Clarence who was merely 12 at the time had come down with malaria due to the conditions of the field that the brothers were testing in. It wasn’t until October 10, 1910 that the plane was able to finally lift off with Louis Johnson as the pilot.
Even though that first plane had made lift off, the brothers weren’t satisfied with it. In 1911 they tore apart the entire set up, kept the engine and rebuilt a new monoplane from the ground up. Unlike their first attempt or even following the conventions of the time- they went with an all metal frame, one of the first ever to do so. Their second monoplane was an astounding success and many of the features built into the plane was at least 10 years ahead of its time. Features far too lengthy to cover in this already behemoth of an article.
From 1911 through 1913 the brothers showcased their redesigned monoplane in various events. Sometime during this short time frame, the Johnson brothers were in the works of starting up an aviation school. Only two people had enough courage to actually follow through with learning how to fly from Louis Johnson- Ross L. Smith and Frank Schutt. Ross L. Smith became the Johnson Brothers’ main pilot, flying their monoplane for a span of three years.
The brothers eventually caught the attention of the Russian government in 1913 when their engine ran for 10 hours. The Russians put out a contract bid for fighter plane engines- if the Johnsons could build a 12 cylinder engine, then they may win the contract. The brothers agreed and met the challenge. Just as they had built a factory in anticipation of the contract, they didn’t win the bid and the Johnsons were left in debt. As if their luck couldn’t get any worse- In March 1913 a tornado ripped through Terre Haute and destroyed the Johnson Brothers’ new factory. Like many at the time, they were uninsured and almost lost everything. Their plane survived, but the Johnsons had to rebuild their livelihoods from the ground up. With families to care for, their attention turned away from aviation and focused on making motors for boats once again.
In 1914 the brothers entered a boat into a race that would go up against the fastest boats in the country. The Black Demon III took second place in a special match race not too far behind the Disturber IV- a monster of a boat that was twice the size and twice the horsepower. In comparison, the Black Demon was 23 feet, powered by two 12-cylinder high speed inboard marine motors that were 100-180 hp each.
Though they continued to produce inboard motors, the Johnson brothers soon began to play with the idea of powering bicycles with engines of their own design. Despite the interest in the motorcycle market as a whole, they were more intrigued with offering a bridge service than compete with full on motorcycle manufacturers. The decision to offer the kit was two fold. The brothers could diversify and see if their designs could compete. They developed a small, lightweight 2-stroke horizontal engine that could be mounted on the back wheel. While testing out their motor wheel, the brothers ran into a few issues, but Richard Oglesby was able to offer a solution through his ignition magneto and the idea took off.
In April 1916, Louis Johnson applied for a patent for what would become the Johnson Motor Wheel. In 1917 the Johnson Motor Wheel Company was formed and steadily cranking out a fair amount of units. It was around this time that the Johnson Brothers moved their facilities from Terre Haute to South Bend.
During World War 1, the Johnson brothers supplied similar horizontal 2-stroke engines that were work horses, pumping out water from trenches and providing power for generators. Ross L. Smith, the pilot who learned from Louis Johnson served as a civilian flight instructor for the war effort, teaching about 150 pilots. The Johnson Motors were also licensed to a British company in that time frame under the name of “Economic.” They were also found in army surplus stores after the war and the British were more than happy to stick the engine in a variety of vehicles...such as the Cambro cyclecar and Mohawk auto cycle. More than a few Johnson motors probably even found themselves in industrial applications out there.
Given the reliability of the engines, the Johnson brothers managed to enjoy the success of their motor wheel for a few years as it gained international popularity. It’s interesting to take note that one of the board members for the company was none other than Edward Lonn of the Great Western Manufacturing. The very same Great Western that attempted to make their own motorcycle back in 1904-1905. In fact, the actual Johnson Motor Wheel combined bicycle and kit that sold for $140 used a Crown Bicycle for its base with a rebranded Johnson badge.
However in 1922 Ford’s Model T was killing off the small engine market and numbing the public’s desire to own a motor bicycle or motorcycle for that matter. With a price point of $289-$320 for a vehicle that could hold multiple people versus $80-$140 for a single person, it was becoming more cost effective to go with a car than pay for a motor bicycle or motorcycle. Unlike most bicycle, autocycle, motorcycle or motor bicycle companies who didn’t have an out, the Johnsons were able to exit the market gracefully thanks to their unique engine design.
The very same small horizontal 2-stroke they had created to power their Motor Wheel could be re-purposed. The brothers looked back to their history, took their engine and modified it for boats once again. Unlike their earlier venture which was inboard, their new direction was to compete in the marine outboard market.
Through the 20’s the Johnson brothers dominated the market, holding a rivalry with Evinrude.
There’s a certain amount of irony that could be derived from the Johnson brothers and their progression into the motorcycle market and subsequent exit. Like their entry into the aviation field from a marine background, they were certainly an odd one out when it came to being a success in the motorcycle and motor bicycle field. Yet in spite of that, they were no less uncomfortable tackling that challenge any more than they were uncomfortable tackling the skies. In some regard they can proudly lay claim that they did what many companies back in the day were never able to accomplish. Conquer land, sea and sky.
Written by: Hannah Lee- Curator of IMCHS.