It’s thought that just 4 Excelsior “Big Bertha” Hillclimbers were ever made, and just 2 are known to have survived to the modern day – with this bike being the only one with its original engine in its original frame. The popularity of hillclimb racing in the USA was taking off in the late-1920s, just as the board track racing craze that had swept the country in the 1910s and 1920s began to wane.
Manufacturers like Excelsior, Harley-Davidson, and Indian were hiring the best riders they could find – often building them bespoke hillclimb racing motorcycles that encompassed the absolute pinnacle of the era’s mechanical engineering knowhow.
Big Bertha is perhaps the most famous of these specials, it’s also (arguably) the most successful – having won the National Hillclimb Championship in 1928 and 1929, and 31 hillclimb competitions in a row.
The key to the success of Excelsior Motorcycles Big Bertha was its V-twin, an engine that used the Excelsior Super X crankcase with a pair of Excelsior ‘M’ cylinders – these were racing cylinders from Excelsior’s 30.5 cubic inch single-cylinder, half-mile dirt track engine that had more effective cooling of the exhaust port.
Excelsior was a subsidiary of the iconic Schwinn Bicycle manufacturer, founded and managed by Ignaz Schwinn. Ignaz showed remarkable business acumen for a man who had been trained as a mechanical engineer, and as the dark curtain of the Great Depression descended over the USA he chose to end all motorcycle production and focus on far less expensive bicycle production – despite the fact that the motorcycle order books were full at the time.
This decision doubtless saved the company, and left designs like the Big Bertha as a final testament to the days when Excelsior was the most successful hillclimb racing motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
The bike you see here is chassis serial #SS104, the last known surviving original Big Bertha. It was bought from R.L. Jones by collector E.J. Cole – and it’s due to be auctioned by Mecum between the 25th of 28th of January in Las Vegas. If you’d like to read more about it or register to bid you can click here.