A Short Trip Back in Time: Early American Motorcycles at SFO Museum

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1912 Flying Merkel Twin-Cylinder Racer
1912 Flying Merkel Twin-Cylinder Racer (Photos courtesy of SFO Museum)

When you make your way to an airport, most times you’re traveling to another place. But right now through the close of summer, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a worthwhile destination in its own right. The SFO Museum offers an opportunity to travel back in time, through a jewel of an exhibition surrounding 14 vintage motorcycles built before 1916. This amazing display includes a rare collection of old-time engines, photographs, and local SF Bay Area motorcycling history artfully blended together into a not-to-be-missed opportunity for riders and gearheads of all types.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles
Located in the International Terminal, Departures – Level 3, the “Early American Motorcycles” exhibit is open to the public 24 hours a day (no security screening required).

To give you the inside scoop on this gorgeous exhibit, we asked Daniel Calderon, Curator of Exhibitions at SFO Museum, to fill us in on some of the backstory.

Rider: As Curator of Exhibitions, does your job entail?

Daniel Calderon: I am one of two curators of non-aviation exhibitions at SFO Museum, which means I am responsible for developing exhibitions that draw from outside our permanent aviation collection of more than 250,000 items. These general exhibitions are based on a wide variety of subjects that are both interesting and educational, and we borrow objects from private collectors and from other museums for display. Working with these lenders and our exhibition designer, I source and select objects and accompanying images for exhibition, and then research and write the text and IDs that you see in the gallery. I also develop the content for each exhibit that we produce in a brochure, on our website and in educational programs and catalogs. 

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1912 Excelsior Auto-Cycle Model 4B
1912 Excelsior Auto-Cycle Model 4B

Rider: What are some of the more notable exhibitions SFO has offered in the past?

DC: SFO Museum has programmed a remarkable array of general, aviation and photographic exhibitions. In regard to motorcycles, we featured “Moto Bellissima: Italian Motorcycles from the 1950s and 1960s” back in 2011. More recently we have featured exhibitions on subjects as diverse as Japanese toys, African barbershop signs, California studio craft, psychedelic rock posters and custom surfboards made from rare woods. Currently, we have a fantastic exhibition on the history of women’s hairstyles, and another on instrumental rock ‘n’ roll and surf music. All of these exhibitions feature their own printed brochure and page on our website, sfomuseum.org.  

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1914 Jefferson Twin-Cylinder Racer
1914 Jefferson Twin-Cylinder Racer

Rider: What prompted you to arrange an exhibition of motorcycles?

DC: A lender visit prompted the “Early American Motorcycles” project. I was on a visit to History San Jose to look at typewriters in their collection and was struck by an early Harley-Davidson twin and an Excelsior single in their storage. Being a gearhead, that certainly stuck in my mind. On another visit to look for typewriters, this time to the Museum of American History in Palo Alto, I met board member Chris Carter, who was our second contact for motorcycles. After Chris generously offered his motorcycles for loan and connected us with Wes Allen and his collection, I knew we had the necessary momentum and asked that the motorcycle exhibition be approved by my colleagues.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1915 Harley-Davidson Model 11-F Effie
1915 Harley-Davidson Model 11-F Effie

Rider: Do you have any personal experience with riding motorcycles?

DC: I have surprisingly little experience riding motorcycles, just a friend’s knock-around 1980s Honda street bike, another buddy’s Suzuki 125 dirt bike and my sister’s old Trail 90, which was a really fun machine. I’ve been building and working on classic cars, racing airplanes and vintage aircraft for years, so a classic motorcycle is definitely in the works at some point.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1911 Pierce Four Cylinder
1911 Pierce Four Cylinder

Rider: How many motorcycles do you have on display, and how did you source them?

DC: We have 14 motorcycles made prior to 1916 on display, along with three early engines and a selection of rare photographs. Half of the exhibit was sourced from Chris Carter and Wes Allen. Then I found Dave Scoffone through the George Wyman Memorial Project website, and Dave generously opened up his collection as well. Looking for images, I discovered Cris Sommer-Simmons and her book “The American Motorcycle Girls.” Cris graciously lent images and her 1915 Harley-Davidson 11–F Cannonball racer “Effie,” along with an outstanding 1915 Iver Johnson twin owned by Cris and her husband Pat.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1915 Iver Johnson Model 15-7
1915 Iver Johnson Model 15-7

Rider: What other displays and materials are you offering in addition to the motorcycles?

DC: Racer and author Don Emde and the San Francisco Motorcycle Club (SFMC) lent numerous photo images to the exhibition, some of which are truly remarkable. The backdrop for each of the two galleries was created from two rare panoramas from the SFMC and are quite dramatic in person. Twelve of the motorcycles are featured on our website, and everything is documented in an online catalog that showcases some wonderful images taken by our photographer. In fact, everything that you see in the exhibit and online was created in-house by staff at SFO Museum.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1903 Indian Motocycle
1903 Indian Motocycle

Rider: You have created a comprehensive self-guided tour and impressive supplemental teaching materials aimed at parents and teachers of students in grades K-12. Tell us about the educational focus you build into this exhibition and others.

DC: Each year we select at least two exhibitions for our educational programs, which are designed to be led by either parents or teachers in the galleries. We also try to design the educational program as a standalone source of information that parents and children can access while at home. Given the current COVID–19 pandemic, the ability for the public to access our exhibits from home is even more important. Once things get back to normal, we hope to start offering our aviation-based education programs again in the Aviation Museum and Library at the International Terminal.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1914 The Flying Merkel Model 470
1914 The Flying Merkel Model 470

Rider: What kind of reactions have you gathered from people who have taken in your exhibit?

DC: Many people have been surprised to see these machines at the airport given their rarity, and we have heard great things from the public so far, which is always rewarding. I hope that as flights and passenger traffic increase, more people will take the time to view the exhibition and offer their feedback.

Listen to the Rider Magazine Insider podcast interview with Daniel Calderon

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1912 Marsh-Metz Magneto Twin
c. 1912 Marsh-Metz Magneto Twin

When Daniel mentioned Chris Carter’s name, it gave me the perfect excuse to call up a longtime friend. We first met back in the 1960s at the Yamaha dealership A&A Motors in Redwood City, long before he went on to do a few things like earning a Gold Medal at the 1976 International Six Day Trials (ISDT) and founding Motion Pro, supplier of trick tools to nearly everybody.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1912 Indian 8-Valve Racer
1912 Indian 8-Valve Racer

“Working on this airport project with Daniel has been a fun time,” Carter told me. “We both love motorcycles and we wanted to share the experience and awareness that these vintage bikes bring. Over the years, vintage bikes such as these have become more and more hidden as they’re acquired and stored away out of sight by their new owners. However, it’s a real commitment to offer up a bike for loan; between the organization and actual display time, the bike will be tied up for about a year. For me, the best part was seeing how many of these bikes on display came right out of collections in the Bay Area and Northern California. I’ve been focusing on finding vintage bikes with a pedigree, trying to preserve some of the history surrounding old racers and other bikes of note. And that’s exactly what we see right here in this exhibition.”

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1907 Curtiss Double Cylinder
1907 Curtiss Double Cylinder

In addition, SFO Museum’s exhibition and educational materials do an excellent job of sharing the long history of women in the motorcycling scene, from intrepid travelers Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, who rode from New York to Tijuana, Mexico, and back in 1916, to modern-day Motorcycle Cannonball competitor Cris Sommer-Simmons, who not only rode the Cannonball three times, but also happens to be an author, antique motorcycle collector and AMA Hall of Fame member.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1902 California Motor Bicycle
1902 California Motor Bicycle

All educators and parents should take advantage of the free, downloadable educational materials provided in PDF format on the SFO Museum website. They are outstanding in quality and will open up young minds to the adventures of motorcycling! These materials interpret the display in a friendly and engaging manner that makes this one topic in history class an A+ experience.

“Early American Motorcycles” will be on view at SFO Museum in the International Terminal, Departures Level, until September 19, 2021. For more info, visit sfomuseum.org.

SFO Museum Early American Motorcycles 1910 Yale Single
1910 Yale Single


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