One of six remaining, Steve McQueen’s 1915 Cyclone board track racer to cross the block in Las Vegas
Kurt Ernst on Feb 18th, 2015
From its debut in 1913 to its demise in 1915, the Cyclone board track racer was, perhaps, the most technologically advanced motorcycle of its day. It’s estimated that nearly 300 were built over three years of production, but just six are reported to survive today; when a 1915 Cyclone once owned by Steve McQueen crosses the block in Las Vegas next month, speculation is that the motorcycle could become one of the priciest bikes ever sold at auction.
Built by the Joerns Motor Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, the Cyclone’s most unique feature was its overhead camshaft 61-cu.in. V-twin engine, designed by engineer Andrew Strand. Featuring cams driven by a shaft-and bevel gear drive arrangement, the 45-degree V-twin also utilized semi-hemispherical cylinder heads with over-sized valves, measuring 1¾ inches on both the intake and exhaust side. Caged ball and roller bearings were used throughout the drive-line, reducing friction but increasing manufacturing cost, and the Cyclone quickly earned a reputation as a giant killer, handily beating machines from established manufacturers like Indian and Excelsior.
In the fall of 1913, rider J.A. “Jock” McNeil reportedly piloted a Cyclone to a then-unbelievable speed of 108 MPH at a board track in Minneapolis. A year later, in Omaha, Nebraska, McNeil ran his Cyclone to a calculated speed of 111.1 MPH, but the Federation of American Motorcycling flatly refused to accept the record on the grounds that such a speed would not be possible at the Omaha track.
It was a November 1914 speed contest, however, that would forever guarantee the Cyclone a place in American racing lore. Joerns Motor Manufacturing factory rider Don Johns (who, at age 19, already held numerous records earned at rival Excelsior) agreed to take on the legendary Barney Oldfield at the Phoenix State Fairgrounds, a track where Oldfield’s record of 48 seconds was considered unbeatable. Also looking to set a new record was aviator Lincoln Beachey, who would be using an aircraft in his attempt to best Oldfield’s time; at stake was a $1,000 prize for the fastest time of the day around the mile long dirt course.
To Oldfield’s utter amazement, Johns lapped the track in 46 seconds, beating Beachey in the airplane by over four seconds. Oldfield, driving a massive front-drive Christie racer, was not only unable to beat the time set on the Cyclone, he was unable to match his earlier time of 48 seconds, producing a best run of 48.8 seconds. The “best driver of the day” had been beaten by a young rider on a Cyclone motorcycle.
Such publicity should have produced record Cyclone sales for Joerns, but the company faced a series of mounting problems. Though ideal for board track sprint races (popular with spectators, who eagerly paid the admission fee to witness the carnage that would occur at nearly every event), the Cyclone proved unreliable for endurance racing, prompting the departure of Johns (for rival Indian) after a pair of disappointing DNFs during the 1915 season. Though the company did build road-going motorcycles, it focused its attention on racing, and as its reputation for reliability began to falter, even sales to racers dried up.
The Cyclone was a complex and expensive motorcycle to build, meaning that even under ideal circumstances margins were thin. As costs mounted and sales fell off, Cyclone production was halted by early 1916, and existing examples were often campaigned to the point of failure, then discarded as nothing more than scrap metal.
The Cyclone once owned by Steve McQueen was restored by early American motorcycle historian Stephen Wright, author of several books on racing motorcycles of the early 20th century. With Cyclone replacement parts unavailable, a modified Indian frame and fork were used in the bike’s rebuilding, but such modifications were common back in the day and will likely have little impact on the bike’s value. The last time a Cyclone crossed the auction stage was 2008, when a second 1915 example sold for a then-motorcycle-auction-record price of $551,200.
Last October, the Captain America chopper from the movie Easy Rider reportedly sold for $1.35 million, establishing a new benchmark for a motorcycle sold at auction. Given the Cyclone’s rarity and its ties to Steve McQueen, Mecum estimates that the screaming-yellow board track racer will deliver a winning bid between $650,000 and $750,000, making it the second-most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction.
Part of the E.J. Cole motorcycle collection, the 1915 Cyclone is set to cross the block on Saturday, March 21. For more details on the Las Vegas sale, visit Mecum.com.
UPDATE (24.March): The 1915 Cyclone sold for a hammer price of $775,000, becoming the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction. Last fall’s reported $1.35 million sale of the Captain America chopper from Easy Rider was never finalized.