MAN RETRACES HISTORIC RIDE ACROSS U.S. BY MOTORCYCLE
One hundred years ago, British RAF Capt. C.K. Shepherd landed in Montreal. It was June 3, 1919, and Shepherd’s stay in Canada was a short one.
That same day he crossed into the U.S. and made his way to New York City, where he bought a 1919 Henderson Z-2-E four-cylinder motorcycle. From New York, Shepherd rode across America, arriving in Los Angeles on Aug. 7.
“Roads? What roads?” Shepherd said of the route he took in the 1922 book he wrote about his adventure, Across America by Motor-cycle.
One hundred years later,
Capt. Mark Hunnibell of Yellow Springs, Ohio, is retracing Shepherd’s adventure, using the same make of motorcycle.
“In 1978, at my dad’s machine shop, I saw pieces of an old Henderson motorcycle sitting in a corner,” Hunnibell told me during a phone conversation as he was on his way to New York to start his trip. “I wanted to do something with it, and he gave it to me.”
After an initial survey of the project, Hunnibell says, it looked like it was going to be a bigger undertaking than he’d anticipated, and life soon got very busy. He joined the air force and flew with them for seven years. Then he became a commercial pilot. It wasn’t until 2000, after he’d had the four-cylinder Henderson for 22 years, that he began searching for knowledgeable people, books and other documentation pertaining to the machine.
“I found C.K. Shepherd’s book online, read it and filed it away,” Hunnibell says. But an idea began percolating — he wanted to retrace Shepherd’s journey on his own Henderson.
Henderson motorcycles were designed by brothers William and Tom Henderson of Detroit. They built their first in-line four-cylinder prototype in 1911 and began production of a 934-cc model in 1912.
The brothers sold the company to Ignaz Schwinn in 1917, and production was moved to Chicago. The 1919 Z-models, like the ones owned by Shepherd and Hunnibell, now had a 1,147-cc power plant that produced 14.2 horsepower. These motorcycles featured a three-speed transmission and a band-style rear brake.
For Hunnibell’s plan to become reality, he first had to have the Henderson restored. After one false start with a Canadian engine rebuilder, Hunnibell located Henderson specialist Mark Hill of 4th Coast Fours in upstate New York.
“I took the engine, that had already been worked on, to Mark,” Hunnibell says. “When Mark realized I wanted to ride the Henderson across the country, he said we’d have to start over with the rebuild — and we did.”
The frame and other components were restored and painted by John Pierce. According to Hunnibell, most 1918 and 1919 Henderson motorcycles had been finished at the factory in olive green. But Pierce, after carefully peeling back layers of old paint, discovered a vivid red colour that was in the nooks and crannies of the frame. While some enthusiasts thought he should paint the Henderson olive green, Hunnibell went with the evidence and painted it red.
A few changes were made to the running gear, including new rims wrapped in modern tires. A small Honda front hub was laced into the wheel to provide a modicum of braking — the original Henderson had no front brake. Hunnibell’s Henderson was finished late in 2018.
Hunnibell says Shepherd’s book was not written in a diary format, and it’s difficult to determine his exact route.
“I spent a couple of years going page by page, line by line, word by word, to reverse engineer his book to come up with a close approximation of his route,” Hunnibell says.
On July 4, Hunnibell left from Manhattan and began riding his Henderson across America. For the first 10 days of Hunnibell’s ride, engine restorer Mark Hill’s son, Loring, followed along. When he got to Ohio, another enthusiast took Hill’s place for the duration of the ride.
Hunnibell has reprinted Shepherd’s book, Across America by Motor-cycle, and has added to it hundreds of annotations.
In 2017, Hunnibell managed to track down Shepherd’s son, Charles, and met him in England. As he was leaving, Charles presented Hunnibell with his father’s compass — an instrument Shepherd carried with him on many adventures.
“This type of ride would be a pretty big adventure on a modern bike, and it’s probably a little bit insane on an antique one,” Hunnibell says. He pauses, then adds, “But when I’m alone out on the road in rural Kansas, I’ll feel a unique connection to C.K.”
Visit acrossamericabymotorcycle.com to follow Hunnibell as he covers, as accurately as possible, Shepherd’s original route.