1915-1919 The Smith Motorwheel
My day-job is restoring and selling vintage motorcycles and bicycles. It’s my hobby too. Someone once told me you never get rich if you buy and sell things you like because you get too attached to them. But there’s something more important than money …job satisfaction.
We need some sort of discipline to remember we’re only custodians of these treasures, that they outlast our own short time on earth. My initial rule was if it has an engine, however fabulous it might be, it’s for sale. By selling motorcycles for my business, I could justify keeping bicycles for my hobby (though I got a bit carried away collecting bicycles so now sell some of them too). There are always regrets. I’m sorry I had to sell this Smith Motorwheel.
A.O Smith and the Motorwheel: Company History
Although A.O. Smith was founded in 1904, the company traces its history back to the mid-19th century, when Charles Jeremiah (C. J.) Smith emigrated from England to the United States. The journeyman metal tradesman ventured all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and, after being self-employed for a decade, went to work for the Milwaukee Railroad Shop. As a highly skilled workman, he made a good living, but went back into business for himself in 1874, when he opened a machine shop and began manufacturing baby carriage parts. Two of Smith’s four sons, Charles S. and George H., joined the family firm in the mid-1880s.
As bicycles became popular in the last decade of the century, C.J. Smith and Sons branched out. By 1895, it was the largest manufacturer of steel bicycle parts in the United States.
The patriarch called in his eldest son, Arthur O. (A. O.), an architectural engineer specializing in large buildings, to help build a five-story factory for the growing family business. After two years of close work with his father, A.O. decided to join the company permanently as treasurer. By then, C.J. Smith and Sons had declared itself the largest manufacturer of component bicycle parts in the world.
Increasing overcapacity in that industry and the advent of the automobile brought another change to C.J. Smith and Sons. In 1899 the family sold its business to the Federal Bicycle Corporation of America, a then-legal monopoly known as the ‘Bicycle Trust.’ A.O. retained management of the Milwaukee (or ‘Smith Parts’) Branch of the Trust. Arthur Smith indulged his personal interest in the composition and manufacture of automobile frames with two years of ‘tinkering’ that culminated in the sale of his first automotive frame to the Peerless Motor Car Co. in 1902. Word of his frame, which was lighter, stronger, more flexible, and cheaper than conventional ones, spread quickly: by the following year, Smith had contracts with six major automobile manufacturers.
A.O. Smith quit Federal in 1903, bought the Smith Parts Co. from his former employer, and incorporated it as A.O. Smith Company in 1904. The company’s sales totaled $375,733 and profits topped $100,000 that first year. Unfortunately, patriarch C.J. Smith also passed away in 1904.
In April 1906, Henry Ford contracted with A.O. Smith for frames. At the time, the company was producing only ten pressed steel frames a day. Ford needed 10,000 frames in four months, a tenfold increase in the prevailing production rate. Realizing that adding workers and space would only consume valuable time in training and construction, Smith looked for ways to increase efficiency through technological improvements. He and his team of engineers retooled existing presses to produce two corresponding halves of an auto frame simultaneously and arranged the presses to form a continuous assembly line. The delivery of 10,000 A.O. Smith frames that August helped Ford introduce his popularly priced Model N late in 1906 and attracted more automobile manufacturers to the supplier. Because A.O. Smith soon found itself turning away business, it built a new, larger headquarters on 135 acres on the outskirts of Milwaukee to accommodate demand. By the end of the decade, A.O. Smith was manufacturing 110,000 frames per year, over 60 percent of the auto industry’s requirements.
Three years later, when A.O. Smith died, his son Lloyd Raymond (Ray) was made president. Ray’s was not just a dynastic leadership, however. Both A.O. and L.R. Smith were later inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin Business Hall of Fame. The 23-year-old former company secretary had previously proposed manufacturing improvements that multiplied A.O. Smith’s production rate seven times: by 1916, the company was manufacturing 800,000 frames per year–half the auto industry’s needs.
Called ‘decisive, restless and a profound thinker’ by corporate historians, Ray Smith also propelled the family company into new ventures. Smith bought a license to manufacture ‘The Motor Wheel,’ a small gas engine that could be attached to a bicycle’s rear wheel to make a ‘motorbike.’ The company sold 25,000 of the vehicles nationwide from 1914 to 1919, and even applied the technology to a small wooden ‘sports car’ called the Smith Flyer.
L.R. Smith’s reluctance to pay for the marketing support necessary to maintain such products’ popularity, combined with the fact that the United States was thoroughly embroiled in World War I, brought diversification to a halt in 1919. A.O. Smith manufactured hollow-steel artillery vehicle poles and bomb casings for the war effort. By war’s end, the company was producing 6,500 bomb casings per day, thanks to a welding breakthrough that produced stronger bonds in less time.
1918 Smith Motorwheel fitted to Iver Johnson Truss-Bridge Bicycle
I fitted the Smith to an Iver Johnson Truss Frame.
The Smith Motorwheel was in excellent unrestored, original condition.
I sold the Motorwheel to someone in New Zealand and the Iver Johnson cycle went to Switzerland.
Both Iver Johnson and A.O. Smith are interesting American companies, with well-documented histories. ‘Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works’ of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, was a leading American manufacturer of arms and cycles in its day. Their popularity in the 21st Century is partly due to their excellent advertisements, particularly for the Iver Johnson pistol with its famous safety hammer.
The Iver Johnson truss-bridge design ran from the early 1900s until the twenties, and was very popular as it was well-priced and a well-made lightweight cycle.