23rd December 2016

News: History Finally Comes Home

Cead Mile Failte is a welcome that is fired out at the arrival to our shores of Presidents and Popes, often devoid of any real sincerity and used as a mere marketing tool.

In 2017 every motorcyclist here should genuinely utter those words when a new brand enters our motorcycle market place for the first time in one hundred years.

The name Indian will now appear on our sheets and streets, accompanied by its brother brand Victory, both imported by Irish importer AKB.

So, why the excitement, why the fuss? For me, it is simple – Charles Bayly Franklin. Most will never have heard his name but guaranteed you will add it to your motorcycle lexicon by this article’s end.

Sitting here on our North Atlantic rock, we don’t have a history of motorcycle manufacturing and assembly like our neighbours, but back in the early 1900’s Ireland really played its part in providing areas for speed trials, the British Parliament ruling that the King’s Highway could never be closed for such frivolous behaviour.

In those early days, the Irish motorcycle scene was vibrant, a factor proven by our Motor Cycle Union of Ireland being formed in 1902, becoming a member of the Federation Internationale des Clubs Motocycliste, the FIM in 1906. The first President of the MCUI was a certain John Boyd Dunlop, inventor of the world’s first pneumatic tyre, his factory located on Stephen’s Street, just off Aungier Street, in 1898.

Also deep in the middle of all this frantic motoring explosion was an electrical engineer called Charles Bayly Franklin, a quiet Dubliner, born on our capital’s Whitworth Road in 1880 and educated at St. Andrew’s College, St. Stephen’s Green.

Charles was elected a member of the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland in 1904, becoming its vice-president in January 1905. He subsequently became a member of the Dublin & District Motor Cycle Club in 1907, becoming its vice-president. He competed on a variety of machines, his first recorded appearance taking place in September 1903 at a Reliability Trial, Dublin to Portlaoise return, on an FN with the heady output of 2.75 bhp.

Charles Franklin’s name and place in history is virtually unknown. Yet he has left a motoring legacy that unquestionably places him at the very pinnacle of motorcycle sport, engine design and frame development. His fingerprints are all over motorcycles in their early development in design and function.

Such were his results in competitions here and in England that Charles was the renowned motorcycle star of his day, his quiet disposition and mechanical genius acknowledged by those both in and outside of the industry. His results were such that he was selected on the British Team for international competitions.

Franklin became the first Irishman to compete in an international motorcycle competition, being selected on the 3-man Great British Team in the International Cup of 1905, a significant achievement for the Dubliner.

On returning from an international competition in July 1906, run at Pacov, Bohemia, now know as Czech Republic, Charles and his two team members, brothers Charlie and Harry Collier, the Auto Cycle Club’s Freddie Straight and their manager, the Marquis de Mouzilly de St. Mars, came up with the formula for a tourist trophy race meeting – the venue, the now legendary Isle of Man, where the first race took place on 27th May 1907, with Charles Collier the winner, Franklin having to withdraw his entry due to pressures of business. Our Charles Franklin was a founding member of the IOM TT.

At some unknown time and place between 1906 and 1908, he met with American ex-cycle racer, Harry Wells. The significance of this meeting was that Wells was a close friend of one George Hendee, who had a bicycle business in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Hendee Manufacturing Company Limited, which went into motor bicycle manufacturing under the name Indian in 1901.

He bought his first Indian in 1910, a twin-cylinder, 5hp, the same year he resigned form the Rathmines Electrical Works. His new role would be that of the Irish importer of Indian motorcycles, which also left him free to compete in many competitions, his prime focus being the 1911 TT.

The Indian Race Team of 1911 was formidable, their clean sweep in the Senior TT, where they took the first three places, Franklin came second. In 1912 he became the first rider in the world to cover 300 miles in less than 300 minutes.

In 1914 the Hendee Manufacturing Company opened up a retail depot in Dublin under his management, subsequently opening up a retail and service business at 10, Wicklow Street in May of 1915 – unfortunately a dodgy time in Europe and an even iffier time domestically, as foreign and domestic strife was most certainly in the air.

At this stage it cannot be overstated how Charles B. Franklin was seen in Irish and world motorcycling. This quiet man, whose technical knowledge was respected in equal terms as his forensic preparation and will to win had effectively gained him a legendary status which he, by and large, humbly ignored.

A combination of the 1916 Rising, plus new trade taxes on imported vehicles including motorcycles, the McKenna Duties, led to the closure of his shop in Wicklow Street. Keen not to lose Franklin, Hendee offered him a job in Indian’s design department in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Charles Franklin sailed out of Ireland on November 1st 1916 – he was 36 years old and would never return. On arriving in the United States his nationality was acknowledged as British and his race recorded as Irish.

In 1919 he was the head engineer at Hendee, and post the end of WW1, Indian was in dire need of a saviour. They had lost dealers and their rivals, in particular Harley Davidson, who were better prepared.

Franklin’s next motorcycle would place Indian forever in the hearts of motorcyclists. His 600cc Scout was given the production green light in 1919 and was launched at the National Motorcycle Show in Chicago. It was an immediate success.

Indian’s most famous Scout bore the engine number 50R627, its 21-year old owner smitten by it at first sight and handing over £120 to call it his. Burt Munro held onto his Indian Scout for over fifty years and in doing so won the hearts of all who call themselves motorcyclists.

Franklin went on to design a bigger version of the Scout, the Chief, enlarged to 1,000cc, its advanced technical offerings and appearance in 1922 receiving a warm welcome. In 1923, the Big Chief was added to the range, its capacity now 1,200cc. The Irishman’s legacy was surely assured.

Charles Franklin died on October 23rd 1932 – he was 52 years old. Despite all of his engineering prowess, development, success and sheer genius, there is little documentation or records to satisfy our need to know more about this man deserving so much of our reverence.

In searching out information on Charles B. Franklin I have to acknowledge the work of Harry Havelin, motorcycle historian and co-author of ‘Franklin’s Indians,’ a fantastic book on a forgotten Irishman and motoring doyen. My motorcycle companion across many miles, Shay Kirk, also deserves mention for his tenacity in seeking and searching out many channels of information on our man Charles.

A quote attributed to Charles Franklin from the October 1906 issue of The Motor Cycle gives us a rare and insightful look into the character of a true pioneer.

“I became a motorcyclist, as I recognised the possibility of obtaining a great deal of exciting sport out of a motor cycle, as well as deriving a lot of pleasure studying its details and trying to get the most out of the engine, so satisfying my engineering tastes.

I am a member of the Auto Cycle Club, and Vice-President of the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland. My successes include twenty-five first prizes, six second and three third. My favourite ground is undoubtedly the South and West of Ireland, both on account of the scenery and the hospitality of the people. Unfortunately the roads are not all one could desire, but the above compensates for their roughness.

At present I ride a twin cylinder JAP machine, 85 x 85, and do not find it difficult to manage in traffic. Also a 3hp Triumph, which latter machine is certainly the most comfortable touring machine I have yet ridden, but I like more power. I am no believer in the ultra lightweight pedal-assisted motor bicycle.”

Charles Franklin could easily fit into our today. We should be so proud of his sporting and engineering achievements. I know I am.

Welcome home Charles – It’s been a while.

Tony Toner


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