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Road Test: 1923 Ner-A-Car

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 16:45
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Carl Neracher was born to make the Ner-A-Car; it was his name, after all!  That double pun –  his motorcycle was both ‘nearly a car’ and a mis-spelling of his name – was auspicious wordplay, for while his 1918 design was only built for seven years (from 1921-28), it sold very well, with a combined 16,500 units built in both US and British factories.   The Ner-A-Car remains the most successful hub-center steered motorcycle ever built, far eclipsing the sales of similarly constructed machines from the 1905 Zenith Bi-Car (not many built!) to the Bimota Tesi of 2008 (417 produced). Carl Neracher designed his radical hub-center steered motorcycle in 1918, right after WW1, and it was designed from the start to feature a car-type chassis and fully enclosed bodywork that protected the rider from road grit.  It steered with the same mechanism as an automobile, and offered much the same protection, so it was indeed ‘Ner-A-Car’, as it was sold in Britian; in the US, it was sold as the ‘Neracar’. The designer Carl Neracher himself aboard a 1922 Neracar [via Bruce Lindsay, published in TMIINYS – see ‘Sources’]

The Design

Carl Neracher (1882-1962) first emerged on the motor vehicle scene as a sales rep for the Smith Motor Wheel Co, that produced an auxiliary motor attachment (fixed on a third wheel) for bicycles.  He was next the Chief Engineer for the Cleveland Motorcycle Mf’r Co, reportedly designing their distinctive lightweight two-stroke single, with a cross-ways (transverse) mounted engine, that necessitated a 90deg bevel-drive to complete the transmission with a chain.  The little Cleveland had some sales success, and was used by the US Army as an on-base courier machine during WW1. The Cleveland’s 221cc transverse two-stroke single-cylinder motor would reappear in the Ner-A-Car a few years later.

The 1919 Cleveland Model B, still in military drag, but as designed by Car Neracher in 1915 [Unknown]Carl Neracher didn’t invent the Neracar in a vacuum: hub-center steering had been in production since at least 1904, in Britain with Tooley’s Patent Bi-Car, which the Zenith company licensed and sold at the Bi-Car from 1905.  The Bi-Car used a low-slung tubular chassis with its hub-center steering, but in the US, the Militaire of 1911 used a C-section sheet steel frame very similar to the Ner-A-Car, which held the front wheel between extended chassis arms. Carl Neracher’s 1918 prototype; note the simplified bodywork, solid disc wheels, and headlamp blended into the front fender, but also the fundamental similarity to the production machine. [via Bruce Lindsay, published in TMIINYS]Strangely, neither of these machines was referenced in a Patent plate affixed to the Neracar chassis in the US; it credits patents granted to John J. Chapin of the Detroit Bi-Car Co. of 1911.  According to a 1911 edition of The Bicycling World, the Bi-Car was “an attempt to construct a two-wheel vehicle embracing many desirable features of the automobile.”  Which principally meant protection from road muck for the rider, and stability on the road, in an era when motorcycles handled terribly, with very high centers of gravity, and zero understanding of using rake/trail adjustments in combination with a suitable wheelbase and good weight distribution to achieve stability.  Compared to any other machine on the road in 1911, a hub-center steered motorcycle must have been a revelation, as they’re stable to the point of being safe to ride hands-off.

Production

In the immediate aftermath of WW1, aircraft factories like Sopwith, Bleriot, BMW, and Sheffield Simplex found themselves without orders, turning to motorcycles to keep their factories occupied.  Motorcycles offered similar requirements for technical sophistication in manufacture, and offered a degree of panache/danger that seemed a natural fit for an aircraft firm. Sheffield-Simplex manager H.H. Powell was coaxed by J. Allan Smith (Carl Neracher’s business partner) to visit the USA and assess their new design in early 1919.  Sheffield-Simplex’s rival Sopwith Aviation had already committed to production of the flat-twin ABC motorcycle by 1919 (designed by Granville Bradshaw and the equal in radicality to the Neracher’s design), which may have encouraged Powell to take out a license to produce Neracher’s design in Britain.

The American Ner-A-Car factory in New York in 1922 [Motorcycle Illustrated, April 13, 1922]In late 1919, the Inter Continental Engineering Company was formed in London, with Board members including many Sheffield Simplex executives, plus J.Allan Smith and Carl Neracher, and H.H. Powell himself.  Sheffield Simplex set up a factory for motorcycle production in Tinsley, near Sheffield, with a second assembly plant at Finningley, near Doncaster.  The Ner-A-Car, as it was called from its 1921 press announcements, was slightly altered from Neracher’s blueprints, and the introductory engine was a Sheffield Simplex two-stroke single of 221cc. The 1922 British Ner-A-Car brochure [author’s collection]In the US, the Ner-A-Car Corporation was formed in late 1921 with financial backing secured domestically, and a factory set up at 196 S. Geddes Street in Syracuse. NY.  The first appearance of the American ‘Neracar’ was at the Chicago National Motorcycle, Bicycle and Accessories Show in late 1921.

Positive Reviews

In 1922, Mrs GM Janson became well known for riding her Ner-A-Car in various observed trials, on-road and off-road alike. “It behooves me to bestow a word of well-earned praise on the Ner-A-Car.” [The MotorCycle, Dec 1921]

In 1921, Gwenda Janson makes an observed 1,000-mile ride to gain an ACU Certificate, and she gained a second Certificate in December that year for a non-stop ride of 300 miles. With its full enclosure, easy starting, and very stable ride, the Ner-A-Car was heavily marketed to women riders, and their advertising and brochures make an emphatic appeal to ladies, who had only very recently gained the right to vote in both the UK (1918) and the USA (1920).  It was an era when motorcycle factories in the UK and Europe made direct appeals to women riders in brochures and advertising, and built ‘Ladies’ Models’ – similar to Ladies’ Bicycles – to accommodate their clothing styles, before women wearing trousers became commonplace. In that sense, Ner-A-Car catered to a feminist revolution, supporting women’s identity as independently mobile individuals, whose competence mastering a motorized vehicle was unquestioned.  This my seem normal today (except in Saudi Arabia), but the early 1920s was still the Victorian era, when women’s social roles were extremely restricted, as were their property rights, and of course their right to vote.

Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker at the embarkation point (New York City) of yet another of his grand cross-country adventures, in November 1922, that took 27 days. Was he subsidized by the factory? [Unknown]In November of 1922, ‘Cannonball’ Baker rode a Neracar across the USA, traveling from New York to Los Angeles, a trip of 3364.2 miles, in 27 days, 5 hours, 28 minutes, using 45 gallons of gasoline and 5 5/8 gallons of oil, at a cost of $15.70.  He averaged 19.41mph over the horrific unpaved ‘roads’ of the day, and averaged 74.77mpg.  Baker had a few things to say about the Neracar, and was quoted in a 1960s interview, “I have ridden a lot of fine handling motorcycles in my day, but I NEVER RODE ANYTHING that would come so near to steering itself as a Neracar.  A popular demonstration of this Neracar by dealers and salesmen who sold it was to stand up on the footboards, ride it over rough roads, with hands behind their backs. I have pictures of Neracar riders standing in the saddle, other kneeling on the saddle with their hands locked in handcuffs.”  The word on the street, in the press, and in the ads proclaimed the Neracar as the most stable motorcycle ever built. The 1922 catalog caters explicitly to lady riders [author’s collection]Press response was very positive among reviewers.  In the Spring of 1922 Motorcycling and Bicycling featured a road test of a Neracar by LE Fowler, who was impressed by the bike’s easy handling, and how clean the bike remained over muddy roads.  After familiarizing himself with the machine on a trip from Syracuse to Auburn NY, he rode the Neracar standing on the footboards, with no hands.

Evolution

The 1922 British Ner-A-Car – note the relatively light front mudguard for this first-year model, which would expand dramatically the next year for better rider protection [author’s collection]

By 1923, the English Ner-A-Car Model B got a larger motor (now 285cc), which gave a little more power, and the carburetor was moved to a more convenient location.   The next year the Model C offered a Blackburne sidevalve engine of 350cc, which abandoned Neracher’s original friction-drive system (that gave a kind of ‘automatic transmisson’) in favor of a conventional clutch/gearbox/chain drive.  In 1925, Ner-A-Car upped the ante even further, offering a 350cc OHV Blackburne engine for the Model C.  As the front hub was unchanged, there was no front brake, and the dual rear-wheel brakes of the Ner-A-Car would have been sorely tested by an 80mph motorcycle, although the chassis was quite capable of handling the speed.  A further model was offered with rear springing and a car-type seat (shades of the Wilkinson), but by 1927, British production was finished, after 6500 machines were built.

By 1923, the British Ner-A-Car gained a deeper front mudguard.  On the British version, electric lighting remained an option for several years, whereas it was standard on the American version. [Hockenheim Museum Collection]The American Neracar started out with a 221cc motor, which was increased to 255cc in 1924, and the original chassis configuration with friction drive was retained throughout the run of 10,000 machines. Over time the engine got better cooling fins, larger springs for the front suspension, a one-piece crankcase for better gas (and oil) sealing, and the carburetor was relocated to the left side of the engine, providing better access to the carb, and helping the intake mixture stay cooler. Options like balloon tires and carriers were available, and a second rear brake was added as required in most markets. A Blackburne-engined model, with sidevalve 350cc motor and standard clutch/gearbox [Hockenheim Museum Collection]Both Ner-A-Car factories struggled as the ’20s progressed and motorcycles became more competent, and many more small machines became available. The Ner-A-Car was a bright idea that had had its day, and without significant further development to keep up with the times (which might look like the Majestic?), sales faded.  Production figures, while the highest for any hub-center motorcycle in history, were still far less than the factories were capable of producing, and expected to produce. The late British model with car-type seating and a windscreen, plus the Blackburne 350cc sidevalve motor, and rear suspension. [Hockenheim Museum Collection]Radical or ‘better’ ideas have rarely been wildly popular in motorcycling, although most factories have tried one or two in their history – Wankel motors, hub-center bikes, fully enclosured bodywork, feet-forward riding positions, etc.  None have proved to be big sellers, not even something as mundane as a 4-cylinder motorcycle, which the American industry proudly produced from 1909 onwards, with no profitability for any 4-cylinder manufacturer (Henderson, Indian, Ace, Cleveland, Militaire, Pierce, etc). It took the Ariel Square 4 (1931), and then the Honda CB750(1968), to prove a Four could be profitably sold.

A Test Ride

Although I’d seen quite a few Ner-A-Cars in museums and at motorcycle shows, I’d never seen one actually ridden until I was presented with a test machine, at the Vintage Revival Montlhéry event of 2013. The original-paint, oily rag machine was the property of Jon Dudley, who’d purchased it while searching for ‘something unusual’.  He certainly got it, although of course the clergymen and nurses who were the Ner-A-Car’s primary customers in the UK didn’t mind, and appreciated not getting their clothes filthy during a ride to work.  That function would be classified as ‘scooter’ today, and in some ways the Ner-A-Car fits the definition, barring its exceptional handling.

The Jon Dudley 1923 Ner-A-Car loaned for our test [Jon Dudley]Pushing the bike around with a dead engine doesn’t inspire confidence, with a wiggly feel transmitted between the front wheel and handlebars, which had the earlier, simpler linkages, which were replaced with ball joints on later models.  But no matter, once the carb is tickled, one steps on a starter pedal mounted just behind the left side footboard, in the manner of an early BMW.  With only 221cc, it’s an easy start with a decent spark from the flywheel magneto, hidden within the very housing that drives the friction wheel and hence the rear wheel – true design economy.  An easy press down and the motor is soon pop-popping away underneath that bodywork, while the exposed cylinder top heats up.  Fuel mix is controlled by a lever throttle on the right handlebar (with an air lever for starting), and on the left ‘bar is a twistgrip (funny they didn’t use one for the throttle!) which dis/engages the flywheel friction drive.  There isn’t actually a clutch, but the twistgrip disengages the friction wheel from the flywheel that drives it. Our road test subject; a 1923 Ner-A-Car as built by the Sheffield-Simplex Company, in ‘oily rag’ condition [Jon Dudley]With no gears and no clutch plates, engaging the drive is more akin to a lever-pull automatic transmission, starting with the long ‘shift’ lever in low, and pushing through the five notches on the lever gate to ‘high  gear’, at which point you’re north of 30mph.  Ner-A-Car didn’t like top speed quotes, and the Board actively sought to keep top speeds DOWN to reduce intimidation for new riders, but the two-stroke version of the Ner-A-Car is good for 35mph, which can apparently be maintained ad nauseum. The author on his first acquaintance with the test subject 1923 Ner-A-Car, at the 2013 Vintage Revival Montlhéry [Francois-Marie Dumas]Such was my experience anyway, as I burbled onto the steeply-banked historic autodrome, and pulled the lever all the way to the ‘bar, and the speed lever all the way forward.  A muted two-stroke howl and a stately pace soon led to a realization that my hands were no longer required on the ‘bars, and so I commenced to take photos of all the other riders passing me by, as I hugged the inside of the course.  Even through the chicanes set up to bring riders off the banking and slow them down, the Ner-A-Car needed no assistance, only a shift in weight to arc through the curves, and so I carried on that way…for 3 full laps of the circuit! With the hands free from the burden of steering, photography could be indulged with ease [Francois-Marie Dumas]There’s no rear suspension, so Montlhéry’s notoriously bumpy concrete surface was felt through the sprung leather saddle, and although the front end did bounce gently over the worst of it, the plot never wavered from straight ahead.  Such is my experience with every hub-center steered motorcycle I’ve ridden – absolute stability, at the expense of agility.  The Ner-A-Car, being light, relatively small, and underpowered, never felt sluggish in steering or stubbornly unwilling to change direction, but was easy-peasy to ride around the paddock and even turn in fairly tight circles.  The Ner-A-Car is a bike to inspire confidence in any rider, especially novices, with its stability and ease of use.   The Ner-A-Car was a noble attempt to provide a machine that fills the niche of the scooter, combining weather protection, ease of use, and a feet-forward riding position. It would take another 25 years before the scooter would be perfected by Piaggio and Innocenti, but for fans of unique engineering, the Ner-A-Car is an intriguing proposition. A publicity shot in 1923: an early instance of ‘bathing suit ladies’ being used to sell motorcycles. In truth, Harley-Davidson and Excelsior had inaugurated this tactic back in the ‘Teens. Ner-A-Car’s advertising showed far more sensibly clad women actually riding their machines [unknown]Ladies in cloche hats in active revolt! Aboard an easy-to-manage Ner-A-Car. From the 1922 catalog [author’s collection]Sources:

  • The Motorcycle Industry in New York State [referred to as TMIINYS above], 1999, Geoffrey Stein, NY State Museum, Albany.  This is a remarkable book, and the only one of its type about American motorcycle production.  In Europe, there are dozens of such books, such as Bernard Salvat’s ‘600 Marques Motocyclettes de Paris et la Seine’ (you read that right; 600 mf’rs in the Paris area alone!). France and Germany are the leaders in ‘local pride’ publications, which are an invaluable source of information.  TMIINYS is essential reading; while many of  the 146 NY manufacturers have scant information, other brands, like Ner-A-Car, Emblem, Curtiss, etc, have information found nowhere else. Kudos to Geoffrey Stein for his excellent book, which can be purchased here.
  • The MotorCycle magazine, 1921-28 editions
  • MotorCycling magazine, 1921 – 28 editions
  • Motorcycling and Bicycling magazine, 1922-24.  A very difficult-to-find publication, and essential for early American motorcycle research.
  • The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Motorcycling, 1999, Tod Rafferty.  Courage Books, Philadelphia. A very useful shorthand guide to 78 American motorcycle manufacturers, with great color photos.  Available here.

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Source: https://thevintagent.com/2018/01/30/road-test-1923-ner-a-car/

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