O. Ray Courtney’s 1936 K.J Henderson Motorbike
In 1936, at the height of the Art Deco movement, O. Ray Courtney built this custom motorcycle, based off of the 1930 K.J Henderson model.
Little is known about Courtney, who built a variety of custom motorcycles throughout his life. In a Popular Science article from 1953, Courtney was briefly mentioned alongside photos of other motorcycles he had modded during the early 1950’s, the style of each bike evoking the idyllic sense of modernism prevalent in the atomic-age, cocktail generation of the fifties.
Although the man himself remains a mystery, his motorcycle designs give us a great insight into his aesthetic palette, as well as the influence of the shifting culture around him. His 1936 custom shop KJ Henderson is the most enduring and fascinating of all his motorcycles.
In the shadows of large motorcycle companies such as Indian and Harley Davidson, Henderson motorcycles struggled to compete throughout The Great Depression. From 1912 till 1931, Henderson produced 4 cylinder motorcycles that, at the time, were the largest and fastest motorcycles available.
In 1929, shortly before the owner of Henderson Motorcycles, Ignaz Schwinn, closed the company due to an escalating fear that The Great Depression would continue for another decade, Henderson released The Henderson Streamliner model, commonly referred to as the “KJ”. The Streamliner model featured improved cooling and a return to the IOE (inlet over exhaust) valve configuration. The Streamliner was fast – capable of a genuine 100 mph (160 km/h), and advanced for its time, with such features as leading-link forks and an illuminated speedometer built into the fuel tank. The Streamliner model was produced from 1929 until 1931, and sold for $435. This bike is the original foundation of the O. Ray Courtney model.
The art-deco influence in Courtney’s motorcycle is obvious: the smooth curves, the angles, the influence of Cubism, and the aerodynamic design that had become a predominant feature in everything from architecture to household appliances. Outside of the art-deco influence, the bike can be looked at as a physical manifestation of the social consciousness of 1930’s America, a society that was increasingly romantic about high technology, futurism, and novelty machinery; a general outlook on design that favored form to function. All of the mechanics of the O. Ray Courtney motorcycle are hidden, covered up with the black metallic surface of a stealth jet. This was a time when most motorcycles were a triumph of design, with exposed cooling fins, brake drums, and suspension springs. O. Ray Courtney altered that to create a motorcycle that looks slightly menacing and neo-futuristic, even by today’s standards; something you might see a high ranking military officer driving down the smooth marble streets of a distant utopian society.
The bike is now owned (and was restored) by Frank Westfall of Syracuse, New York.