This is an original 1914 Flying Merkel Model 471, it was a superbike in every sense of the word, with a top speed of almost 100 mph, front and rear suspension, and one of the best engineered V-twin engines in the world at the time.

The Flying Merkel was the creation of brilliant American engineer Joseph Merkel of Milwaukee. It was one of the most advanced motorcycles of the time not just in the United States but in the world, and many of its innovations would be copied for decades by other manufacturers.

Fast Facts – The Flying Merkel

  • The Flying Merkel Model 471 was a groundbreaking early American superbike with a top speed nearing 100 mph, featuring advanced front and rear suspension systems and a famously well-engineered V-twin engine. It was considered one of the most advanced motorcycles at the time of its release, with many of its technological innovations being copied by other manufacturers.
  • Joseph Merkel, born in 1872, was a brilliant American engineer who significantly influenced motorcycle design. His innovations included the motorcycle “truss fork,” an early version of the modern telescopic fork, and a precursor to the modern monoshock rear suspension. Merkel was also an early pioneer of features like automatic inlet valves, preset outlet valves, and an automatically dripping oil feeder which was later adopted by major brands like Harley-Davidson and Indian.
  • Introduced in 1911 by the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company, the Flying Merkel was notable for its bright orange paint and advanced suspension, leading to the slogan “All roads are smooth to The Flying Merkel.” The motorcycles excelled in early board track racing and set numerous cross-country records.
  • The specific 1914 Flying Merkel Model 471 shown here has a 997cc V-twin engine and has a notable history, having been owned by racer “Shorty” Tompkins and later collectors Stu Laidlaw and Loren Burch. It underwent a meticulous restoration and won Best Bike at the 2009 Newport Concours d’Elegance. It retains its 1914 California license plate and is set to be auctioned by RM Sotheby’s with an estimated price of $60,000 to $80,000 USD.

Joseph Merkel of Milwaukee

Joseph Merkel was born in Manistee, Michigan in 1872. His father worked in the lumber industry and, as was common across the country at the time, he left school early and went to work to help support the family. His first job involved working as an engineer on a logging railroad in 1886 – he was only 14 years old.

Joseph Merkel

Image DescriptionThis is Joseph Merkel, he was born in Manistee, Michigan in 1872 and died in 1958, enjoying a long life by the standards of the time.

By the time he was 15 he would be working in a machine shop, where he was an apprentice learning how to use the machinery and manufacture parts within tight tolerances. This work fit him like a glove, and as a result of his natural aptitude for it he decided to enroll in the Michigan Agricultural College (now the Michigan State University) to study mechanical engineering.

For the world of motorcycling, it would turn out to be a remarkable stroke of luck that Merkel had taken himself off to study engineering, because he would invent a slew of new technologies that would help move motorcycles from little more than motorized bicycles, into a well-established class of motor vehicle alongside the automobile.

By 1900 Merkel had started his own company manufacturing bicycle parts, and by 1901 he had begun experimenting with attaching small motors to bicycles. These early experiments would lead to the establishment of Merkel Motorcycles, one of the most important of the early motorcycle manufacturers.

By 1903 Merkel had started producing single-cylinder motorcycles, and in 1906 the company released a Merkel automobile – selling 150 of them. By 1910 the first V-twin Merkel motorcycle would go on sale, it would be these V-twin Merkels that the company is best remembered for today.

Merkel’s Engineering Genius

As with many manufacturers in the formative years of the motorcycle, Merkel went though its share of mergers and acquisitions. Joseph Merkel remained with the company through all of them, focused on his primary passion – motorcycle design and engineering.

Flying Merkel Motorcycle Vintage Ad

Image DescriptionAds for the Flying Merkel always made a point of extolling the virtues of the model’s advanced engineering – nearly all of which was thanks to Joseph Merkel himself.

It would be Merkel who designed the motorcycle “truss fork,” an early predecessor of the modern telescopic fork. It’s been said that brands like Harley-Davidson and Indian were fitting Merkel truss forks to their racing machines, as they were superior to anything else in production, and this carried on well into the 1920s.

He also designed an early predecessor of the modern monoshock rear suspension, a design that was literally 60 years ahead of its time. Vincent HRD would use a similar system 30 years later, and engineer Lucien Tilkens would design the first modern monoshock in 1972.

Merkel engines also had their fair share of technical wizardry with automatic inlet valves and preset outlet valves. These were later superseded by automatically controlled valves. It would be Merkel who would pioneer the automatically dripping oil feeder, a design which was then hastily copied by both Harley-Davidson and Indian, among others.

The Incredible Flying Merkel

The first “Flying Merkel” appeared in 1911, now with the company under the ownership of the confusingly named Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company of Middletown, Ohio.

The name Flying Merkel was a stroke of marketing genius, as was the choice of bright orange paint – it made the motorcycles immediately identifiable from a distance, even to those with only a passing interest in bikes.

Flying Merkel Motorcycle 1

Image DescriptionThe prominent headlight, swept back handlebars, solo leather saddle, and a fuel tank slung between the two upper frame tubes were characteristic of motorcycles from this era.

Thanks to the advanced suspension, the marketing slogan became: “All roads are smooth to The Flying Merkel”

Flying Merkel’s did very well on the early board track racing circuits of the day, and they set a slew of new cross-country records. The company was one of the best-known motorcycle brands in the United States at the time, which is why many were surprised when the company shut down in 1917.

The outbreak of WWI had caused motorcycle sales to drop off a cliff, with local demand all but completely drying up. Sadly the company would never recover, and it now remains an interesting story from the early days of the motorcycle.

This may not be the end of the story however, the great great grandnephew of Joseph Merkel has now successfully reclaimed the brand name Flying Merkel Inc. and he has plans to get a new Merkel motorcycle into production.

The 1914 Flying Merkel Shown Here

The motorcycle you see here is a 1914 Flying Merkel, specifically it’s a Model 471, with a 997cc V-twin and both the front and rear suspension designs that Joseph Merkel became famous for over a century ago.

This Merkel is said to be capable of 96 mph, but in 1914 the difficulty would have been in finding a road good enough to attempt it, then hoping the tires held out as the speed climbed. It’s believed that this bike was owned by noted racer “Shorty” Tompkins, of Sacramento, California back in the 1950s.

Flying Merkel Motorcycle 10

Image DescriptionHere you can see both the front and rear suspension, given away only by the small rubber boot at the top of the forks, and at the bottom of the monoshock at the back. This was hugely advanced by the standards of the time.

Since that time it has been owned by noted collectors Stu Laidlaw and Loren Burch. It’s been a California resident its whole life, and still carries its 1914 California license plate. It now benefits from a ground-up restoration by an expert in Flying Merkels. It’s only been publicly shown once, at the 2009 Newport Concours d’Elegance in Rhode Island, where it was awarded Best Bike.

It’s now coming up for sale with RM Sotheby’s in a few days time with a price guide of $60,000 – $80,000 USD. If you’d like to read more about it or register to bid you can visit the listing here.

Flying Merkel Motorcycle 5 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 11 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 9 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 8 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 7 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 6 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 4 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 3 Flying Merkel Motorcycle 2

Images courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

Published by Ben Branch -