Flying Merkel Shifter

At the turn of the 19th century, scientists has begun to make major advances in internal combustion technology, which allowed the motorcycle to become a reality. The first of these new products were developed by cycling manufacturers, and many of the first motorcycles were simply bicycle frames that had been adapted to accommodate motors.

During this unique era in two wheeled development, the Flying Merkel was one of the most innovative fusions. There are few surviving models in existence, but during the short time the small company produced motorcycles, founder Joseph Merkel created such innovations as the spring front fork, monoshock rear suspension (which is still used today on modern motorcycles), the use of ball bearings as opposed to bronze bushings in the engine, and several other things you’d have to be an engineer to truly appreciate.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to ogle on of these rare bikes at a motorcycle show and take a few pictures, so head past the break for a little slice of history in this special edition of MotoRumor.


Flying Merkel 1911

This is an un-restored Flying Merkel VS, which was produced in 1911. The Merkel brand began producing bicycles in 1902, but by the next year, they also started manufacturing single cylinder motorcycles.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (5)

One of the biggest innovations the company is known for is the “truss fork.” This patented spring fork was the forerunner of the modern telescopic fork, and was effective, it was utilized by other manufacturers on their race bikes through the 1920s.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (2)Before zip ties, there was leather. 

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (6)Whether four wheels or two, there’s nothing more important for performance than a good set of tires. 

The Merkel rolled on 36H 28″ rims. Insert stupid Enduro/650B joke here. 

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (11)

This Warner Cycle-Meter was found on a variety of vintage bikes of the era and is a combined speedometer and odometer. According to a copy of Motorcycle Illustrated published in 1911:

“The instrument consists of a cylindrical casing in which is mounted a cylindrical dial on hardened pivots, the dial being retrained by a hair spring from rotation. Under this dial is a ring magnet, driven from the flexible shaft, which in its turn is driven by a multiple snail gear on the front wheel. On the magnet revolving, the magnetic “drag” causes the dial to partially rotate in the same direction, and as the dial is marked with the speeds in miles per hour the correct speed is shown in a window in the outer casing. The trip and season odometer trains are driven from gearing attached to the upper end of the flexible shaft and constrained within an extension of the cylindrical casing.”

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (4)

One of the most distinctive elements of the Flying Merkel is it’s gas tank. Between the trademark on the tank, and the (once) shiny orange paint, you shouldn’t have any difficulties identifying one of these rarities.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (7)

Top tube mounted tool bag.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (1)
Unfortunately I failed to ask the owner of this motorcycle what these levers did, and couldn’t find any info readily online, does anyone know what they do? If so, please drop some knowledge in the comments.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (3)

According to the catalog, the basic model was powered by a “Merkel improved, ball-bearing, air cooled, 3.45″ bore, 2.35″ stroke,” single cylinder motor that could push 4 HP, and was capable of powering the bike up to 50 miles per hour.

There were two other racing models, the V & VS. The VS pictured here was the most powerful. This bike’s twin cylinder engine was capable of producing 7 HP when new, and hitting speeds of seventy miles per hour.

Flying Merkel Shifter

These engines were capable of being reliably ridden over 25,000 miles. Merkel largely attributed this reliability to the use of ball bearings rather than bronze bushings in the engine, which helped reduce friction to a minimum and were easy to replace.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (8)

Another major innovation was the spring frame, which pioneered the use of mono shock rear suspension. The frame is hinged at the pedal crank axle with a high grade bronze bushing, and a spring where the rear triangle connected to the main frame at the top tube/seat junction provided 4 to 5″ of squish. This suspension design was later popularized by Yamaha in the 1970s and is used on virtually all modern motorcycles.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (9)
If you were looking for the bicycle connection, here it is – pedals.

The lucky owner of this bike explained that while someone with strong legs could possibly pedal the Merkel around the block, they’re really only intended to get the bike started, and stop it.

In the early days, motorcycles didn’t have brakes. The first bikes relied on using your legs to slow to halt, but as they became faster, manufacturers improvised. While some settled on affixing a steel plate that could be pushed onto the front wheel to slow down, others like this Merkel utilized a coaster brake.

1911 Flying Merkel Motorcycle (10)

The Luggage Carrier rack was an additional $5 OEM accessory.

Flying Merkel CA Plate

Want one? A hundred years ago an entry level Merkel would have set your great grandpa or grandma (give or take a generation) back a cool $250. An additional $75 would have separated them from this hot rod VS model. The terms were 20% down with order, and the rest of the balance C.O.D. Recently though, an unrestored 1913 model sold at auction for $201,250.

To learn more about these awesome machines, head to The Flying Merkel.


  1. If an engine is well lubricated, with an active lubrication system, ball bearings offer virtually no advantage to plain bearings. However, a lot of old designs did not utilize oil pumps and splashing the oil around inside the engine didn’t always lubricate everything perfectly, especially at lower RPMs.

    Telescopic forks are in many ways an inferior design to designs with links, and monoshocks were also cheaper to produce than matching dualshocks in the rear. Monoshocks do offer the advantage of using linkages, that was a later innovation. I don’t actually think the pictured motorcycle has rear suspension.

    I’m not sure why the speedometer needed to be explained, all true analog speedometers on cars work this way too.

    Another plunger may be the choke, and possibly another one an oil pump.

    Also the motorcycle predates the safety bicycle.

  2. Anonymous, bronze bushing and pressure lubricaded plain bearings don’t have anything in common – not in theory or in practice.

  3. @anonymous – 07/02/14 – 12:07am
    THX! I was puzzled by the apparent lack of inlet valve. Heh, the sucker is suction operated.

  4. As long as we are nit-picking, this motorcycle was designed at the turn of the 20th century, not the 19th. The turn of then 19th century would have been 1799-1800.

  5. These engines used a total-loss lubrication system. Unlike many contemporaries which used a manual oil pump, there was an “automatic” pump which was more like a drip. The two rear knobs on the tank an adjuster for the automatic oil drip, and a manual oil pump. The gas tank has an oil tank at the back. Once pumped into the engine oil was blown out the crankcase vent.

    The front knob is the fuel petcock used to shut off fuel flow to the carb when the engine is stopped.

    You can see the fuel line going to the carb and the oil lines exiting the tank in this pic:

What do you think?