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Coast to Coast on a Neracar
Written by Rebecca West   

Back in 1918, Carl Neracher designed a lightweight, feet first motorcycle that went on to be known as a Neracar. Unique for its hub-center steering and widely acclaimed for its stability, there were roughly 10,000 of them produced by the Ner-A-Car Corporation in Syracuse, NY, between the years 1921 and 1924. Shortly after production began in the US, Nerarcher licensed his design to the UK’s Sheffield-Simplex, where an additional 6,500 were manufactured for British consumers. By 1926, it was pretty much all said and done for both manufacturers, but this incredibly reliable bike lives on with alternative motorcycle enthusiasts even today.

Back in October of 1922, Erwin "Cannonball" Baker set out from Staten Island, NY, on a cross-country run to Los Angeles riding a stock 1923 Neracar motorbike. It had been delivered to him straight from the factory compliments of Messrs. Smith and Gordon only hours earlier in Perth Amboy, NJ. The only modification he made to it was the addition of a crossbar on the handlebars to stiffen them for what he knew would be "the rough stuff" that lay ahead on his journey. Cross-country runs were nothing new for the pioneer racer and adventurer at this point in his life, and he wasn't out to set any land-speed records with the little job or jigger, as he often referred to it. He wanted to see for himself and prove to others just how reliable and economical this scooter-type motorcycle could be and appeal to the masses in the process. There were never any doubts on his part as to whether or not he'd reach Los Angeles. In fact, he was dead sure he would make it. What he wanted to know was just how cheaply it could be done.

Not everyone was convinced of the little jigger's abilities over the transcontinental, least of all Allan Smith and E. K. Gordon, president and vice president of Ner-A-Car Corporation. Baker was not to be dissuaded, though, and set out just the same. Before departing, he established some guidelines he'd follow that included riding predominantly during daylight hours and keeping track of mileage, gas, oil, repairs, and start/finish times on small cards he'd had printed for the purpose of verifying his progress. They were to be filled out in duplicate and signed by whomever checked him at his many stops along the way before being mailed to the Neracar factory in Syracuse and J.J. O'Connor, editor of Western Motorcyclist and Bicyclist, in Los Angeles. It was with tremendous enthusiasm that he embarked on this ride, as evidenced some time later by his own chronicling of the experience. After reading it, you get the sense that he was much like a Pony Express rider or a mailman from days gone by delivering through rain, sleet, snow, and hail.

Beginning with bitter cold that caused him to wrap himself in newspapers, to slogging through knee-deep mud for days on end across the Plains states, to climbing mountain passes on the little bike he had likened to riding a roller skate (due to its size in relation to his own), he made the entire 3,364.4 mile odyssey on the same set of tires for under $20 in total operating costs. All along the way he was mobbed by throngs of interested onlookers straining to catch a glimpse of the freak machine. Entire towns shut down to come and see for themselves what all the fuss was about. Many of them joked and laughed at the Neracar's appearance and did little to hide their skepticism at the information they were being fed in connection to its performance. All of this was taken in stride by Cannonball, including the good-natured ribbing, as he made his way across country. He was a modern day hero to many during this time in American history, as the last of the great adventurers were making their marks by setting records and conquering various challenging feats. Fortunately, he's not the last of his kind — at least not on a Neracar.

Step into the 21st century and meet Bob Addis of Cohoes, NY, and his 1923 Neracar. Bob originally hails from Upstate New York, but has lived all over the U.S. during his lifetime. His major passions include cave exploration and old vehicles, the latter of which is how he found himself involved in the upcoming 2014 Cannonball Run departing from Daytona Beach, FL, on September 5, 2014. That, and the fact his good friend, mentor, and "spiritual adviser" just happens to be Mark Hill, rider #4 on 2012's run, didn't hurt. Mark will be riding a 1936 Indian four in 2014's event alongside Bob and his own little jigger. Between the camaraderie he feels with the participants, his love of vintage transportation, and the discovery of Cannonball Baker's reminisces of his own journey, it lit the fire for Bob to get involved beyond being moral support from the sidelines, as he had done in previous years. Like "Bake" before him, he has an adventurous side. When he was just 17 years old, he hopped on his 125 cc Vespa and took a 1000-mile spin around New York State on a summer camping trip armed with only a Cinderella license.

The 1923 Neracar that will be serving as Bob's steed in 2014 has a mysterious background, as he puts it. It changed hands many times over the years before he snapped it up in the spring of 2012. He believes it may have been rebuilt at some point in the little-scooter-that-could's history due to some very unusual bearings he found in the hub-center steering. But beyond that, not much is known about it. The vehicles themselves — originally marketed as low-cost alternatives to motorcars back in the day — came in three models. Bob's is a second phase 255 cc with a two-stroke motor and a five-position friction-drive tranny he likened to a snow blower. He will be supported in his efforts during 2014’s run by Team Arcane, an 11-member (give or take at any given time) group of friends and fellow vintage enthusiasts, throughout the trip. At 69 years young the day he departs from Daytona Beach, he will be one of the oldest participants to attempt this demanding challenge, but he doesn't appear to be too worried about it. He's even adopted Baker's motto of “no record, no pay” in his outlook regarding what lies ahead, and credits the small but tight-knit Neracar community with its intense loyalty for furthering it.

  • What do you think your biggest challenge will be? A. Mountains, if we travel through any. Steep grades and mountain passes will definitely be a challenge.
  • Speaking of mountains, are you planning on wrapping yourself in newspapers for this trip like Erwin did? A. I'd like to get my hands on an Aerostich riding suit. I'm looking into it. It's the ultimate riding gear. I'd love to have one.
  • Any other concerns you and your team might have that you're taking into consideration? A. Yes, weight. Due to the size and weight of the bike, we're concerned with keeping the actual weight it carries down. My own project personally will be to shed some pounds before our departure.
  • Are you prepared for all the attention the bike's going to garner on the road and the amount of time you’ll be pulled into spending with interested folks? A. (Laughs) Good question. Hadn't really thought about that, but it does get a lot of attention. I'm sure I'll be spending most of my time just trying to keep it up and running, though.
  • It's been reported Baker's Neracar consumed 45 gallons of gas on his trip. Do you expect to get decent mileage on yours, all things considered? A. Not really sure about that, but that is a real concern. I'll be doing a lot of test rides on it between now and the event to see what we're looking at.
  • Of course the condition of the roads as compared to 1922 are night and day, but are you counting on the spring action of the somewhat unusual front suspension to help you survive rough stretches? A. That, and the spring action of my seat. Seriously, I'm really counting on that to get me through. I'll also be making good use of the floorboards to be able to move my feet around and reposition myself.
  • It's amazing that CB was able to navigate through so many stretches of deep mud (leaving most other motorists stranded) and other generally unforgiving terrain on such a small bike. Is it comforting for you, before the outset of this trip, that the sturdiness and reliability of the Neracar in general will hopefully translate into performance similar to what CB experienced? A. It's definitely sturdy. The fact that it has few moving parts helps a lot. Fewer complications and less things to break, so yes.
  • How are you feeling about your single rear brake? Is there anything you’ll be doing to ensure you won’t need to be visiting any runaway truck ramps on your trip should you encounter higher elevations? A. Yes, that along with the electrical system and headlights, those are all things we'll be addressing between now and then. We've got some ideas about the brake, but we'll just have to see what we can do with it.
  • And finally, are you expecting to have the babes fawning all over you for a ride like Baker experienced in St. Louis and other towns along the way? A. (Laughs loudly) Oh, I definitely hadn't thought about that, but you know Baker had a lot of charisma. Me, not so much.

Check out Cannonball Baker's story called How I Crossed America on Neracar for Less Than $20.

Click HERE to learn more about the Neracar.

 
 

 

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