Art of the Automobile

21 November 2013

Previous Next

Lot 137

1914 Flying Merkel Model 471

  • Engine no. 10339

Sold for $181,500


  • America’s original “superbike,” capable of 96 mph
  • Fully restored by specialists
  • Correct colors and original equipment


As the motorcycle industry burst from the crucible of bicycle production at the turn of the 20th century, Joseph Merkel, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, established himself as one of its most brilliant minds. Merkel had begun attaching motors to his bicycles in 1901, and a year later, he launched the production Merkel motorcycle upon an unsuspecting public. This occurred just months after the “Henry Ford Company” had been incorporated, and America’s most famous motor car, the Model T, was still seven years away from being introduced.

Every manufacturer has one model that ignites the flame of their legend. For Merkel, this was the Flying Merkel, reportedly christened as such by a spectator at one of the races in which the company enthusiastically participated. “All roads are smooth to the Flying Merkel,” the company boasted. From 1910, the name would appear, painted in a comet trail of letters visible even from a distance, on the Flying Merkel’s gas tank. By this time, it should be noted that the paved road in America was only one year old.

Merkel’s technical expertise places him beside George Brough, Albert Crocker, and Phil Vincent in the pantheon of early motorcycle legends. His skilled hands pioneered designs for front and rear suspension, with his front suspension design resembling the telescopic forks still used today. His rear suspension design is often assumed to have been developed by Vincent in the 1930s or Yamaha in the 1970s, but Merkel was years ahead of them both.

The engine itself was years ahead of its time and nothing short of mechanical brilliance. Tested up to 6,000 rpms, counter-balanced for smooth operation, and fed by a throttle-controlled engine oiling system and an industry-first gear-driven Bosch magneto ignition, the Merkel engine had, quite simply, no competitor. It would be years before the common automobile could keep pace with such a motorcycle.

Offered here is a V-twin track racer, exactly as it was presented from 1910 onward, when one could purchase the Flying Merkel from a catalogue. When built in 1914, it sparkled in Omaha Orange, all the better to set off the flare of its signage. This was the year in which professional racer Maldwyn Jones, the most famous Merkel rider, won a five-mile match race against a Mercer Raceabout, pounding the dirt of a Dayton, Ohio, track. Highlighting the speed and reliability of the big twins, Jones won the National Endurance Race from Chicago to St. Louis and then followed that up by breaking the record on the Vanderbilt Cup course. Nineteen fourteen was, quite simply, the Flying Merkel’s brightest year in the spotlight.

The buyer who saw such successes would have ordered this Model 471 V-Twin with its single-speed transmission and the desirable final chain drive, rather than the belt drive that was an option. It boasts a headlight, mounted on correct brackets, as well as a sporty foot-operated cut-out on a new “silent” muffler. Behind Merkel’s patented Truss Spring Front Fork, the improved loop frame is built from AA1 standard welding tubing, with Double D reinforcement at the joints and flexible joints covered by oiled leather. Despite 28-inch wheels, the Flying Merkel’s suspension permits a low seat height. A Musselman rear coaster brake is activated by back-pedaling.

The owner has researched this Flying Merkel’s history back to the early 1950s, when it was owned by noted racer “Shorty” Tompkins, of Sacramento, California. Tompkins was renowned for the quality of his collection, which also included the famed 1915 Cyclone board track racer. Following Tompkins, the Flying Merkel was owned by renowned collectors Stu Laidlaw and Loren Burch for many years, and it is, indeed, believed to have been a California resident since new, as evidenced by the 1914 California license plate. At the time, California’s state highway system was just being built, so one must imagine a motorcycle of such power and speed navigating these newly paved motorways. It must have seemed almost otherworldly to the average passerby!

No less loving has been its present owner, for whom the spectacularly detailed, ground-up restoration was completed, using entirely authentic and correct parts. The owner is an expert in Flying Merkels, but this is, without exception, the best one he has ever owned. It has never been fired and has been shown only once, at the 2009 Newport Concours d’Elegance in Rhode Island, where it was awarded Best Bike.

Perhaps the Flying Merkel’s days of dirt and thunder are long behind it, but that spirit survives here, in this bike, which is presented in spectacular condition and has been returned precisely to how men like Maldwyn Jones would have known it. It speaks of California sun and East Coast brawn, with white wheels rolling and “THE FLYING MERKEL” announcing itself to all whom it passes at 96 mph.


This lot will be offered on a Bill of Sale.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alexander Weaver

aweaver@rmsothebys.com

+1 864 313 6844
California, United States

Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

Augustin Sabatié-Garat

asabatie-garat@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 74 1511 4179
United Kingdom

Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a Car Specialist after more than a decade in the collector car hobby. Gradua... read more

Barney Ruprecht

bruprecht@rmsothebys.com

+1 203 912 7168
Ontario, Canada

Barney’s interest in classic cars began at an early age after being introduced to his father’s all-original 1965 Porsche 911. Barney l... read more

Cameron Smyth

csmyth@rmsothebys.com

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

Cameron Smyth joined RM Sotheby’s as a Car Specialist in 2015, working out of our corporate office and providing assistance on c... read more

David Swig

dswig@rmsothebys.com

+1 415 302 2247
California, United States

David Swig joined RM Sotheby’s West Coast division as a Car Specialist in May 2015. David is a life-long automobile enthusi... read more

Don Rose

drose@rmsothebys.com

+1 617 513 0388
United States

Don joined RM in 2006 after several years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputation as a noted... read more

Donnie Gould

dgould@rmsothebys.com

+1 954 566 2209
Florida, United States

Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

Gord Duff

gduff@rmsothebys.com

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

Gord Duff began his journey with RM Sotheby’s in 1998. Since then, he has gained an intimate knowledge of a variety of marques a... read more

Jake Auerbach

jauerbach@rmsothebys.com

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Jake Auerbach got his start in the automotive industry at an early age, spending his summers during high school working at a classic c... read more

Kurt Forry

kforry@rmsothebys.com

+1 717 623 1638
California, United States

Having worked for Bonhams’ Automobilia department for over 10 years, Kurt Forry joined RM Sotheby’s with more than a decad... read more

Matt Malamut

mmalamut@rmsothebys.com

+1 805 231 6410
California, United States

A long-time car enthusiast and Southern California native, Matt studied Automotive Technology at San Diego Miramar College and complet... read more

Michael Squire

msquire@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Michael Squire joined RM Sotheby’s European Division in the summer of 2016. He comes to RM with a prestigious racing background ... read more

Mike Fairbairn

mfairbairn@rmsothebys.com

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

As one of the three founding partners of RM Sotheby’s, Mike has a long-standing interest in the classic car industry. Graduating... read more

Oliver Camelin

ocamelin@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 75 0110 7447
United Kingdom

With an extensive background in exotic sports car history and sales, a particular passion for American curves, and fluency in three la... read more

Paul Darvill

pdarvill@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Paul Darvill joined the RM Sotheby’s European team at the beginning of 2015. Paul holds a degree in French and Politics from the... read more

Pete Fisher

pfisher@rmsothebys.com

+1 519 784 9300
Ontario, Canada

Pete Fisher was first introduced to antique cars in high school, working for Classic Coachworks in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario. ... read more

Shelby Myers

smyers@rmsothebys.com

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Shelby Myers grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to watch the R... read more

Tonnie Van der Velden

tvandervelden@rmsothebys.com

+31 653 84 19 60
United Kingdom

Tonnie Van der Velden joined RM Sotheby’s European division in September 2015 as a Car Specialist. A lifelong enthusiast, Tonnie... read more