Bicycles and Motorcycles
In 1898, William Turnor Lewis and his son, William Mitchell Lewis, formed a working partnership and bought the Beebe Wheel Works, renaming it “Wisconsin Wheel Works.” The factory was used to manufacture bicycles and motorized bicycles, shifting gears from the wagon production that had been dominating the mechanical world at the time. It didn’t take long for the young William Mitchell Lewis to start producing what he thought would be the next big thing in transportation. By 1899, motorcycles had been added to their line of products, though the first models were slower than a manual bicycle.
By 1902, after a few years and a huge investment into this vehicle of the future, the Mitchell “automobike” was ready for its first public demonstration. Early that year at Racine’s Lakeside Auditorium, William M. made the bike available for spectators to try for themselves. The frame was 110 pounds in weight, and the bike could reach 35 miles per hour. Experienced bicyclists enjoyed the added power that the motor gave, and one reporter predicted that Lewis was going to sell more motorbikes than he could manufacture. Lewis’s machine traveled all over the United States, from New York to Chicago, demonstrating its versatility and new technology. The orders for the new vehicle began piling up.
By 1902, the motorbike hit its peak in popularity. Motorcycles races were on the upswing as well, and A. A. “Rainmaker” Hansen, the company’s professional racer, set many records on the motorbike. In that year alone, 600 motorbikes were produced in the Wisconsin Wheel Works factory. During the 1902 Milwaukee motorcycle races, the Mitchell motorbike didn’t crush all of the competition, but it did show itself as a serious contender. Despite the bike’s popularity, 1902 was also a year of reinvention. Mitchell engineer John Bate gave the motorbike frame a much-needed overhaul. The frame needed to be lighter and the engine bigger, in order to be more maneuverable, but more importantly, to reach higher speeds. The new design, although weighing in at a hefty 160 pounds (due to the larger motor and more mechanical parts), did have a lighter frame and could reach speeds as high as 60 miles per hour.
The new frame debuted in 1904, and the competition was quick to capitalize on the Mitchell’s “loop frame” design for their machines. This design involved moving the motor from the top of the frame to the bottom, giving the bike a lower center of gravity and therefore better handling, especially on hills and in curves. Despite the innovation, 1903 would be the last big year for the motorbike with regard to Mitchell-Lewis family business. William Turnor Lewis already had his eyes on the next big thing: the automobile. The big publicity surrounding the motorbike was cooling off by 1906, but it was still a historic year for the Milwaukee Motorbike Races. The Mitchell Motorbike and the Indian Motorcycle each took first place in one race. More importantly, the Mitchell Motorbike won against a soon to be very famous competitor: the Harley-Davidson. The first Harley was raced during the 1904 motorcycle races; only three had been produced up to that point. It was an unknown name, and although it didn’t take first place, it did do a steady job of beating out many of the competitors. Even though the Mitchell Motorbike held the honor of being the top selling motorcycle manufacturer in 1902, by 1906, the motorbikes were no longer being produced. Instead, they were set aside to make room for the production of the automobile. In 1906, the family sold the bike business to Western Bicycle Company to truly focus on the newly developing automobiles.
In February of 2018 we welcomed our “unicorn” — a 1902 Mitchell motorbike that we had never expected to find. It’s only the fourth motorcycle known to exist, and it was found near Oxford, England, about 30 years ago by a collector in The Netherlands named Johan Beenan. He parted with it reluctantly in order to help me fill in the missing piece in my Mitchell collection.