Vintage Motorcycling in Toronto

vintage motorcycling Toronto 1
Keeping it steady on the CNE dirt track, 1911.

This is the first time in two years that I haven’t ridden a motorcycle and it’s absolutely depressing. I’ve always loved most anything with an engine and wheels (up to and including vintage tractors), but motorcycling puts a mile-wide grin on my face.

It also left me with several patches of missing skin and a banged up leg. But who can resist the allure of the wide open road; wind and bugs in the face, the stink of gasoline, exhaust burnt shoes, and oil stained pants? Surely nobody sane.

What’s more is that I suffer from an unhealthy interest in old motorcycles – the older, the better. Even when my 40 year old bike broke down in the pouring rain and I was soaked to the bone, I still enjoyed the experience because it made me appreciate what it was like to ride a motorbike in the “early days”.

Somebody who lived through those “early days” would probably slap me for saying that.

vintage motorcycling Toronto
Triumph Model P loses it just before the crest. Hillclimb, Rosedale Valley, 1925

Perhaps I’m a masochist, but there are many more out there like me. While initially rage-filling, roadside breakdowns became fun experiences; especially in the rain. Every challenge providing an opportunity to learn something new about my middle aged bike. It also made me wonder what riding in the early half of the last century was like.

So, having somehow made the past relevant in that last sentence, I bring you once again to old Toronto – where herds of early motorcycles grazed and ran free of automotive adversaries…err, or something like that.

As depicted below, motorcycles were a cheaper alternative for transportation and often used for utility purposes (even by the TTC). There were no water-cooled, inline fours, winding to ludicrous revolutions and breaking 300 km/h. These bikes were often 10hp, single cylinder, intake over exhaust setups with either smaller chain or belt drives. Their frames were not much more than stretched and reinforced bicycle frames; with the addition of either rudimentary coil springs, or leaf springs for front suspension. Braking equipment consisted of rear brake only (coaster or early drum), and carbide (later electric) headlamps were an option.

vintage motorcycling
1910’s Harley-Davidson, in service with the TTC as a utility vehicle, 1927. Note “Main 3644” telephone number on cart.

Combining all those factors with the deplorable road surfaces and skinny “clincher” tires of the day made riding a daunting task.

Long-extinct marques, sporting those features, such as Excelsior, Iver-Johnson (they also made guns), Scott, and Monarch would have graced the streets of Toronto; jockeying for positions against automobiles and streetcars (sound familiar?). While other brands such as Harley Davidson and Indian proved more popular; a short-lived Indian factory being located in Toronto for a few years before WW1. However, it was dirt track racing at the CNE, ice racing in the harbour, and hill climbing in the Rosedale Valley and High Park that really put these machines through their “recreational paces”.

With photos from the the Toronto Archives.

vintage motorcycling
Starting line at CNE, 1911. Excelsior motorcycle (far left) and a couple of Indians.
vintage motorcycling
Motorcycle hillclimb, Toronto. Foreground L-R: Scott Squirrel, Harley-Davidson, Indian, and what appear to be three more Harleys. The cylinders on the handlbars are seperate batteries for the electric headlamps.
vintage motorcycling
Competitor in a hillclimb, crests the Rosedale Valley, 1925.
vintage motorcycling
Early Indian Scout (stripped down) and rider, cresting the Rosedale Valley,1925.
vintage motorcycling
Two motorcycles race an ice boat in Toronto harbour, c. 1912
vintage motorcycling
Bill and Joe James (smoking in sidecar), riding a single cylinder Monarch (a re-badged Reliance motorcycle). Bike is belt driven with gear lever astride gas tank. No front brake, equiped with carbide (acetylene gas) headlamp and wicker sidecar.



About Christopher Butters 6 Articles
Born and raised in Toronto, Christopher Butters is a contributor with a strong passion for history, art, and anything motorcycle related. When he's not writing, he's often taking motorcycle trips to parts unknown, camping, or working on an oil paint sketch in a messy studio.