Small tank | Albert Crocker | V-twin motorcycle | Paul Bigsby | 1346 Venice Boulevard | 61-cubic inch | Indian
1938 Crocker Small Tank
You know how it is when you're prepared to sell your soul to satisfy your latest must-have motorcycle obsession (but can't find a convenient devil to negotiate the trade?) Well that's how it is for us whenever a Crocker motorcycle comes up for sale as this example is about to on 18th - 20th August 2016 at Monterey, California, courtesy of Mecum Auctions.
This particular example is a 1938 model built by Albert Crocker at his factory at 1346 Venice Boulevard, Los Angeles, California USA. Commonly referred to as a "Small Tank" Crocker due to the 2.5 gallon (US) capacity, this 61-cubic inch/1,000cc OHV, 45-degree V-twin was, and probably still is, good for around 110mph—with, it's said, a money back guarantee if any Crocker owner is beaten by a rider on a standard Indian or Harley-Davidson.
Albert Crocker (1882 - 1961) served his time with the Aurora Automatic Machine Co in Aurora, Illinois, a one-time heavily blue-collar manufacturing city west of Chicago, but now a suburb of the great Windy City metropolis.
The Aurora Automatic Machine Co began by building machined parts for bicycles and suchlike. Later the firm manufactured Thor motorcycles. Albert Crocker was an engineer/machinist during the week, and a motorcycle racer at the weekends. He became friendly with George M Hendee (1866 - 1943) who, with partner Oscar Hedstrom (1871 - 1960), had founded the Indian Motocycle Company (correct spelling in this instance of "Motocycle").
Hendee persuaded Crocker to join Indian, or so the story goes. And Albert Crocker accepted the opportunity and worked under Paul Bigsby (1899 - 1968), a man famed among electric guitarists for designing the Bigsby tremolo arm (technically a vibrato arm or tailpiece). Bigsby was also a motorcycle racer, an inventor, a patternmaker and an engineer.
Albert Crocker, Indian Motorcycle dealer
Later Albert Crocker became an Indian motorcycle dealer, first in Denver (1919) and then in Kansas City (1924). In the early 1930s he relocated to Los Angeles, bought an Indian dealership (Freed Indian) and remained at the aforementioned address of 1346 Venice Boulevard (now an electrical motor services shop)
▲ Albert Crocker also designed single-cylinder speedway bikes and built an OHV conversion kit for the Indian Scout. These kits turn up from time to time and in replica form. Click the following link for more on the Crocker Indian.
Within five years Albert Crocker had developed his first V-twin. Paul Bigsby had since joined him in LA, now working beneath Crocker as the factory foreman. The new 61 cubic inch V-twin engine featured hemispherical combustion chambers with a bore of 3.25-inches and a stroke of 3.62-inches. The 3-speed constant-mesh gearbox is reputed as near indestructible, the steel shell of which was brazed as part of the frame.
The first production models appeared the following year (1936). From the start, customers could, up to a point, specify their needs and Albert Crocker and Co would do whatever they reasonably could to accommodate such whims and desires.
▲ 1937 Crocker Small Tank. This example is one of the early hemi-engined bikes with exposed valve gear and rocker gear housings embossed with the Crocker name. It's said that these cast iron heads were prone to developing cracks under hard use (and pretty much all Crockers were ridden hard), hence the revision to the later parallel valve heads. Image courtesy of Bonhams. www.bonhams.com
The cylinders were cast extra thick thereby allowing the bores to be opened wide enough to accommodate up to 90-cubic inches, and possibly 100. The first 27 motorcycles featured exposed (90-degree) valve gear with beautiful "CROCKER" embossed rocker arm housings. That soon changed, and the valves were subsequently repositioned side by side in enclosed rockerboxes.
The pushrods for each cylinder shared a common tube (often being mistaken for bevel gear drive shafts). The compression ratio was 7.5:1. Horsepower was around 50 @5,800rpm. Weight was kept down to around 480lbs, largely made possible by having the engine cases, footboards, generator cover, instrument panel, tail light and even the petrol/oil tank cast in aluminium. Later bikes featured larger fuel tanks, hence the Small Tank/Large Tank nomenclature.
During the Crocker development phase, it's fairly common knowledge that parts from Indian and Harley-Davidson were used (up-cycled?), but very soon the Los Angeles factory was manufacturing pretty much everything needed to get these fantastic motorcycles up to speed.
▲ Parallel valve Crocker engine for 1937. It ain't as pretty as the earlier "27s", but Albert Crocker was in it for performance, not poise, and these heads were more reliable.
The price of a Crocker V-twin was around $500 - $550. But neither Harley-Davidson nor Indian were particularly worried about this West Coast upstart, at least not financially speaking. His hot-rod bikes were semi-bespoke machines built up to a price for a very discerning clientele who demanded the best, meaning the fastest, and at any cost, whereas Harley-Davidson and Indian ran mass production lines catering to the "ordinary" man who was more satisfied with having bikes that were "merely" good enough. Nevertheless, it was no doubt galling to see that Albert Crocker's machines were mostly viewed by rivals ahead of a cloud of dust.
Crocker versus the Harley-Davidson Knucklehead
Note too that in 1936 Harley-Davidson had released the famed E and EL (high compression) Knucklehead, a 61-cubic inch OHV, four-speed V-twin that wasn't backward about getting forward. And the "Knuck", which in 1941 was enlarged to 74-inches, went on to become one of the greatest American motorcycles of all time, not least in the hands of racer Joe Petrali who in 1937 propelled one (or was propelled by one) to 136 mph at Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1936, a Knucklehead cost around $380 new, significantly less than a Crocker. The "Knuck" stayed in production for 12 years and was succeeded by the FL Panhead.
With the advent of WW2, production of Crocker motorcycles ceased. After the war Albert Crocker, aged 63, chose retirement. He died aged 79 having put himself and his creations (with Paul Bigsby's highly skilled help) firmly on the motorcycle map. It's unclear how many Crocker V-twins were built, but the number 75 is commonly quoted, and we've heard anything up to around 104 machines (but not necessarily all completed bikes)
This 1938 Crocker (main image at the top of this page) spent most of its time in the USA. In 2004 it was relocated to Australia. The bike has since undergone some mechanical restoration work, but it's said to have been very sensitively handled with due attention to the required patina.
It's Lot S169, and the estimate is a cool—or is that a "smokin'"—$300,000 - $350,000.
UPDATE: The Crocker didn't sell at auction, but a buyer was subsequently found for $338,000.
— Big End
£14.99 plus P&P
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