Archives: Tribute to Uncle Alan

Larry Lawrence | January 8, 2019

Archives: Tribute to Uncle Alan

Christopher O’Brien recalls hearing the family lore since he was a child. “While growing up in New England, I would hear about a relative on my mother’s side of the family named Alan Bedell.” Bedell made quite a name for himself in the world of motorcycling before his untimely passing. In 1917 Bedell became famous in motorcycling circles for breaking Cannonball Baker’s motorcycle cross-country record in 1917 on a 1917 Model G Henderson.

Archives: Tribute to Uncle Alan

O'Brien, Chris
Christopher O’Brien posing with the 1917 Henderson he had built as a tribute to his great-great uncle Alan Bedell, who set a cross country record on the same model machine. (Larry Lawrence photo)

A retired Neurologist from Vashon, Washington, O’Brien now has the time to pursue his dream to complete a similar trip on the same model of Henderson in honor of his great-great uncle.

It all came together late this past summer when O’Brien entered the Motorcycle Cannonball. O’Brien ran a 1917 Henderson Model G built as a tribute to his great-great uncle Bedell.

“On my mother’s side of the family, the Bedell’s were from New Jersey originally,” Chris explained. “Alan was an adventurous young man who began riding motorcycles for the fire service out west in Montana and Wyoming. Then he moved out to California and set up a dealership and began competing for cross-country speed records.”

A photo of Alan Bedell when he set a transcontinental record in 1917.

Bedell was just one of the scores of young men who were seeking fame attempting to set long-distance motorcycle speed records on some of the newly-built roadways of America. At first these were city-to-city runs and then longer runs such as the Three-Flags Run (Canada to Mexico) and the granddaddy of them all, the transcontinental. The record runs of this era were often sponsored by motorcycle manufacturers as a way to advertise their product’s speed and reliability.

Alan opened a Harley-Davidson dealership in Redlands. He hired a manager and repairman for the shop so he could focus on his record attempts.

With the U.S. entering World War I in April of 1917, record runs might seem to be a frivolous endeavor, but Bedell devised a way to tie in his transcontinental record attempt with the war effort. He was promoting motorcycles to the military, as a way to transport military data such as maps and photographs, which could not be sent via telegraph. With him on his cross-country ride, Bedell carried a message from General Hunter Liggett in Los Angeles, to General Franklin J. Bell on Governor’s Island, New York.

Bedell, sponsored by the Henderson factory, made his run on the stock Henderson four-cylinder in June of 1917, starting in Los Angeles and making it to New York City on June 13, having ridden 3,296 miles in 7 days, 16 hours and 16 minutes. That broke the previous record set in 1914, by three days and 20 hours.

Bedell’s accomplishment was featured as the top story in many of the motorcycle publications of the day. Henderson was quick to tout Bedell’s feat, and he was featured in advertising by company’s like Champion, which supplied the Henderson’s sparkplugs, Goodrich Tires to name a few.

Bedell didn’t get to enjoy the accolades of his cross-country record for long.

O’Brien’s Henderson that he ran in the Cannonball and a photo of his great-great uncle, record-setter Alan Bedell. (Courtesy the Motorcycle Cannonball)

O’Brien explains.

“Unfortunately, World War I was brewing and he enlisted and went to aviation camp in Louisiana in 1918,” Chris continued. “It was during the influenza pandemic and Alan, like many young military men of the time the influenza killed him. He was 22 when he died.

“Growing up my family talked about him. My grandmother knew him and she would tell me the stories. The motorcycle stayed in the family up until World War II in New Jersey and then was scrapped for steel during the War effort.

“My idea was to build a tribute bike to him, but I wanted an original ’17 bike. Once I got connected with the Henderson community, I got a frame from Dave Ciccalone, an engine from Mark Hill, a fork from Frank Westfall, everything came together and now she’s a lovely bike.”

I had the privilege to watch O’Brien and other Cannonball competitors as I covered part of event this year. The impression I had of the Henderson motorcycles in the run was that it was almost unfair. The bikes in the competition this year had to be at least 90 years old and it seemed a miracle that many of the early rickety, loud and smoky Single and Twin-cylinder machines of the era could make it through a single day of riding, much less traverse the entire country from East Cost to West. That wasn’t the case with the Hendersons. Those Detroit-made machines (later moving to Chicago when Excelsior bought the brand) were ahead of their time. With its longitudinal-mounted inline four-cylinder engine, the low-slug and long Henderson motorcycles sounded smooth and powerful and didn’t seemed all that far removed from modern-day machines.

O’Brien did the tribute right. He finished the Cannonball with a perfect score and finished the Run ranked 23rd out of the over 100 starters. Uncle Alan would have been proud.

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.