Old "Squibby" Henrich was hired as a test rider at Harley-Davidson in 1923. It was my pleasure to know him in his last years and hear about his adventures as a young man. One of his best stories was of a three month long test expedition that Bill Harley sent out to the Arizona desert. They don't do it this way anymore. -- H.W.
A tattered issue of MotorCycling from 1924 sets the
It was February right after the Chicago motorcycle show. In Milwaukee the winter doldrums had settled in. Snow lay knee deep along the street on Juneau Avenue and the guys down in Harley-Davidson’s road testing department were grousing more than usual. Head tester Dan Dresser had just come in from a long jaunt and was stamping the snow off his boots and feeling his nose and fingers for frostbite. At that moment “Bill” Harley came downstairs from the engineering department.
“Pretty tough out,” Mr. Harley remarked.
“You’ve said a mouthful,” Dresser responded, “and yet you’ve left a whole lot to the imagination.”
Bill Harley grinned. It wasn’t every day that Harley-Davidson’s chief engineer and company co-founder visited the test riders.
“Well,” said Mr. Harley, “you’ve done about all the testing of the new model that you can around here. I want you to pick out a place that is warmer but where the roads are tougher than hell. Take the machines out there and bust ‘em – if you can.”
“I know just the place,” Dresser shot back in his garrulous manner. “I spotted it in 1916 on my sidecar trip from New York to El Paso, Texas. It’s a place where hell is spread over thousands of square miles and only an inch or two under the crust in most places...Where you can broil yourself 100 feet above sea level or freeze at an altitude of 13,000 feet toward the sun...There are river washes that would stop the rush of a buffalo, and there are trails over extinct volcanoes that would wear off a mule’s hoofs an inch a mile and make a mountain goat look for new half-soles once a week. I only wish I had the flow of language to tell you what I know about that choice corner of Hell-Acres but...”
“Never worry about the lack of language,” Bill Harley broke in. “You’ve made yourself remarkably clear. Lovely place, this Arizona, all right. Just the place to show what this new 1925 stuff of ours is made of and how it acts up when properly provoked. Pick out the worst roads you can find and ‘ride ‘em, cowboy!’”
Take Anything You Want
In the older days of Harley-Davidson – from early AMF on back – road and experimental test riding was an honored profession. As early as 1907 Harley-Davidson had an employee to road test each machine. When he unexpectedly quit company president Walter Davidson took over the job for a time and used the railroad tracks behind the factory when the streets were muddy and he raced the trains. Some later guys in charge of road and experimental testing included “Sherbie” Becker, “Leo” Connors, Dan Dresser, Frank Trispel, Al Kiekbusch, “Freckles” Bonneau, and Cliff Jensen. That span takes in just about every Harley that rolled out of Milwaukee into the early 1970s.
Today H-D’s testing is done in the lab on rollers with so many probes and sensors hooked up that you’d swear these bikes were patients in a hospital ward. Road testing – such as it is – is largely done on controlled track conditions in Alabama where the climate rigors are less challenging than riding through a Wisconsin winter. Although if you hang around the Milwaukee plant long enough you might get lucky and see an occassional experimental machine painted flat black that unless you have a sharp eye won’t rate a second glance.
In the old days all road testing was done out of the west end of the Juneau Avenue plant, and the ramp used to come out of the basement is still there. Back then, the only probes were found in the seat of the test riders’ pants or what transmitted up through the handlebar. The only help you could expect if you broke down a hundred miles from Milwaukee was another motorcycle with a rope to tow you home.
It was the unwritten policy of Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers that everything was done by motorcycle. You could take anything in the way of spare parts or tools that you wanted so long as they fit in saddlebag or sidecar. Those Spartan traditions were adhered to right on down through the tenure of second generation president William H. Davidson. Maybe that’s why the bikes of years ago were actually more rideable in some ways than those of today that come new with “bald” tires and some are so overweight that taking them off the pavement into sand or loose dirt is asking for BIG trouble.
The test riders were the guys who took it in the chops. They were out in the rain, sleet, and snow. But no matter how much they complained, these expert riders loved motorcycles and bragged about the million “hog” miles they had accumulated. The experimental testers got to ride bikes long before they hit the showroom floor and some that never made it. Exotic experiments that Bill Harley tried out, but that ended up on the scrap heap, sometimes without even a photograph kept to record their existence.
At infrequent intervals Harley-Davidson also sent riders out on long trips during the winter to the Southwest. There was a trip to Texas in the 1940s to test the new hydraulic front fork and aluminum head OHV (Panhead) engine. Another took place in 1939 and teamed up the never-produced 45 OHV with the immortal 74 OHV. Then there was the adventure that Bill Harley slipped to Dan Dresser, Frank Trispel, and the youngster of the bunch, Al “Squibb” Henrich, when he sent them to Arizona for three months to test the new 1925 model in the mountains, desert, and everything in between.
See Old Squibby
Back in the early 1990s during an interview with the late William H. Davidson, he in turn referred me to an old retired gent in his 90s living outside of Milwaukee who in his younger years had been a factory test rider, hillclimber, and racer. “Go see old Squibby,” Davidson told me. “He was on that Arizona trip in 1924. He’ll tell you lots of stories.”
One summer day I rode out to Waterford and met Albert “Squibb” Henrich. Born in 1899, Henrich hoped to see H-D’s 100th year, but sadly he didn’t make it. At the time, however, Henrich was still active as an animal control warden. Squibb was a good and totally frank old timer, and he opened his 1920s photo album to me and shared his memories. His racing days began in the early 1920s and ended in 1935 at Milwaukee’s State Fair Park in a tangle of speedway machines when he lost his right leg below the knee. That wooden leg served him well in later years when corralling vicious dogs on his animal control warden beat. He’d offer the dog his wooden leg and when the mutt clamped down with its teeth, Squibb would snap on the leash.
Nick-named after a firecracker that burns, but does not explode – meaning there was something a little bit dangerous about him – Henrich went way back with motorcycles. His first bike was a 1916 Cleveland 2-stroke lightweight that his father gave him on his 16th birthday. In 1923 he was hired as a stand tester at Harley-Davidson, quickly became a road tester, and later an experimental test rider. In that last capacity Squibb rode the shaft-drive Harley in the late 1920s that never saw production, and is believed to have had a 90-cubic-inch V-4 engine. He also witnessed the drum-roller motorcycle that Art Constantine developed and may have gotten Art into trouble with the bosses. Henrich knew old time racers like “Red” Parkhurst, Ralph Hepburn, and Irving “the youngster” Janke. He knew the real old timers around the factory like “Sherbie” Becker who had been employed at Harley-Davidson since 1907 and who told Squibb of a supposed hidden room in the factory containing old pre-1910 bikes or parts. As Henrich remarked, “Sherbie knew everything.”
Henrich was virtual history book of Harley-Davidson himself. Some of his best memories were of the Arizona trip in 1924.
“Three of us were sent down there. Me, my boss Frank Trispel, who was foreman of the experimental department, and Dan Dresser, who was head of the test riders. Dresser always claimed to be a nephew of Marie Dressler, the film star who played Tugboat Annie.
“I was up for jury duty and needed to get off so I could go, but the judge said ‘Nothing doing.’ But Bill Harley stuck in there and got me off. Then they put me on a fast train to Santa Fe. Mr. Nortman gave me $50 and said spend it how you like, only don’t get into trouble. That was a lot of money them days. We stayed in Phoenix at the Jefferson Hotel. A ritzy place – once you got used to the water.
“We kept inconspicuous. We rode in the desert, the places where ordinary people didn’t go. I’d head off by myself and practice racing around the cactus. I went by a cowboy outfit where they were making leather goods and had a riding belt made with my initials on it. I wish I had it now. It was beautifully wide down there. Three months straight is a lot of riding, but I never got tired of it.”
Over the next three months the test riders from Milwaukee took various routes out of their Phoenix headquarters to fulfill Bill Harley’s dictum to strike the whole range of road and weather conditions. They followed the Salt River Valley east to Roosevelt Dam and then to Globe. Another trip took them along the Sunset Trail to Springerville, the same route traversed by “Cannonball” Baker during his transcontinental record attempts. They rode the so-called Evergreen National Highway and the Park-to-Park Highway, although Dresser later said those roads would be better named the “Devil’s Highway.” They made their way to Yuma and spent several days in the region where movies about the Sahara Desert where filmed. They rode rim deep in sand with miles of low gear work and took photos to prove it. Some roads on their maps were labeled impassable for automobiles, but were apparently okay for testing Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“We rode to the Superstition Mountains and in the canyon of the Petrified Forest,” Henrich recalled. “We meet cowpunchers who had lost their pack horses and were looking for them. We saw Indians near the Mexican border with travois dragging behind their ponies. We’d wave but they wouldn’t wave back. We met prospectors with long beards coming in with burros and we talked about the Dutchman’s gold. We could see the Superstition Mountains in the distance. I can still see them. We camped out and saw mountain lion tracks, rattlesnakes, and Gila monsters. Those were still the primitive days. The real cowboy and Indian days.
“We rode those machines hard. The dust was so thick you had to hang way back. But we never got lost. Dan Dresser had a map glued to the cloth of a curtain winder. When he wanted to see the map, he’d pull it out, take a look, and let it snap back. That way he could keep on riding.”
The new model that the trio tested in Arizona was the 1925 “Stream-Line” Big Twin. The engineering department under Bill Harley had updated the venerable “JD” with some 30 claimed improvements. Foremost was a stronger frame with a bottom crucible steel truss for better protection of the engine base and rigid alignment of the transmission. The gear-box was strengthened and the bearings beefed up. For the first time the transmission had a drain plug so you didn’t have to “tear up” the bike to change and flush old oil. The new frame gave the overall machine a lower center of gravity for better balance and handling. A new saddle also made its appearance. This was the now classic solo-seat (“bucket saddle”) that remains a Harley-Davidson factory accessory to the present day. A longevity proving that true perfection really does exist.
But it was the fresh styling of the 1925 model that made it stand out. The traditional “square” tanks that went back to the early days of Harley-Davidson were replaced by sleeker “stream-line” tanks with a modern tear-drop or bullet shape that with some final tweaking in 1936 would remain a Harley-Davidson signature to the present day.
There were also stronger engine cases and longer sprocket shaft bearing for 1925. However, the basic 61 and 74-cubic-inch motors that powered all Harley Big Twins through the teens and 1920s were very much blood brothers to the original 1911 V-twin. But with the 1925 frame and styling updates, Harley-Davidson would squeeze a few more years out of the proven but aging F-head powerplant as it chugged happily along in the Big Twin until 1930 when it was bumped by the side-valve VL engine.
Testing in Hell
Compared with road conditions around Milwaukee, testing in Arizona was hellish. Dust-filled potholes were a danger in places. Flinty volcanic rock-strewn roads another. Mesquite thorns grabbed at the riders’ clothing and a spill meant landing in thickets of prickly-pear cactus with a “million needles to the square yard.”
But the big question was how well the new model would stand up. According to Henrich, the machines did quite well, although the trip was not completely trouble-free. “I carried an extra motor in my sidecar,” Henrich recalled. “The other guys carried tools and parts. We were all qualified to work on them if we broke down, and we did. We wrecked a back wheel and had to build up a new wheel in the desert. We never needed the spare engine. They were the big ones (74-ci). We didn’t have much trouble considering all that hard usage, although we replaced chains. But that was a good reliable machine considering how long ago that was.”
Although Squibb didn’t mention it, one of his photos of the trip shows one bike parked along the road with the transmission internals yanked. It may been taken apart to check for wear as alluded to in a later publicity piece. Looking at Squibb’s old photos of their machines traversing rocky trails, undergoing frame busting maneuvers, and caught rim-deep in sand, one could almost believe the Harley-Davidson claim of building a nearly indestructable motorcycle. Publicity accounts afterwards told that the frame and fork “stood up like a Santa Fe Mountain Mogul locomotive.” But a chance encounter provided an even better test.
The “Steer” Test
Always a daredevil, Henrich got into trouble east of Phoenix. It was dusk and the boys from Harley-Davidson were speeding along to get a room in Winslow. Henrich took the lead with his throttle wide open and going about 65 miles per hour. He led his pals by about a half-mile when out of nowhere a herd of longhorn cattle dashed across the road and into the beam of Henrich’s spotlight. By luck he managed to “wiggle” through them and just when he was congratulating himself on his lucky escape a steer with lowered horns loomed up in front of him. It was too late to do anything but pray and Henrich thought it was all over except “for the flowers.”
The impact tossed the steer onto the sidecar and together machine, beast, and rider careened about 100 feet into the ditch. Luckily Henrich wound up under the sidecar machine which “bridged” and by a lucky stroke protected him from serious injury or worse. Still wondering if he was alive, Henrich’s buddies pulled up and everything got real quiet. Henrich managed to crawl out but couldn’t talk at first. Dresser and Trispel stood there as if in a trance thinking they were seeing a ghost.
“That was as close to a bullfight as I’d ever want,” Henrich admitted. “The steer’s horn had sliced my pants at the knee and left a big scratch on my leg. Then a cow puncher came along and put the steer out of its misery. But you know, if you hit a cow on the range, you’re at fault. So the next morning the sheriff came to Winslow and presented us with a bill for $50. They released us after we wired the factory and they promised to pay, but as I heard afterwards Harley-Davidson never did pay that bill.”
In Old Mexico
The boys from Harley-Davidson also crossed the border and visited old Mexico during their three month stint. While near Yuma, they crossed over into Mexicali where they stopped at a gambling joint.
“That’s where I learned how to lose money,” Henrich remembered. “It was early and nobody was around. I went by a big roulette wheel and the guy asked, ‘Got a quarter?’ Pretty soon I had a big pile. Then people started coming in and he took it away until I was down to my last quarter and I said good-bye.
“I’ll always remember that place. A girl was singing, ‘Who’s sorry now.’ It looked like she was the sorry one. Afterwards she came over in the restaurant and sat by me. The guys said, ‘Oh, oh, Squibby!’ They thought maybe I’d stay down there.”
Crossing the Mexican border a second time near Nogales, Squibb got into trouble again. They needed gas and pulled into a filling station. It was closed and the guy in charge wouldn’t come out. This was less than ten years since General Pershing on Harley-Davidson motorcycles had chased Pancho Villa and his bandits back across the border. Now Squibb and his pals acted like American bandits in reverse!
“That guy was afraid of bandits or something and wouldn’t come out,” Henrich told me, “so I went up to the pump and took the lock and shook it and it just broke. So we took gas and rode away. I know that I did something I shouldn’t have done. We helped ourselves to that gas, but we were out and couldn’t go anyplace without it. After that we had Frank scared. Every time the buzzards were flying I’d say, ‘Frank, they’re after us. Those buzzards are going to eat you.’ We were worried. We rode like hell to get back across the border.”
The Limit of Endurance
All those things happened a long time ago. The three test riders came home to Milwaukee and went their separate ways. Trispel and Dresser died many years ago, and today JDs are prized vintage stuff. Of course the desert is still there, and so is the Dutchman’s lost gold – maybe. But the memories and pictures that the guys from Harley-Davidson brought home are maybe just as valuable, perhaps more.
The last time I saw Squibb Henrich he was ailing and had just days to live. He never saw three centuries like he hoped to. The bikes he rode have vanished into history, although he still had some petrified wood he’d picked up some sixty-five years earlier. “Adios,” he said to me, and then he was gone too.
But if men are flesh and blood and motorcycles pass away too, there is something immortal about motorcycling itself and the Harley-Davidson name that spans generations of bikes and people. An immortality hinted at in this 1925 publicity piece: “You’ll probably never have to fight 50 miles of desert sand, rim deep, when the mercury is pushing the top out of the thermometer, and you won’t be hitting a boulder strewn mountain goat path as fast as you can travel. But you’ll know your 1925 Harley-Davidson can do it and stand up under the punishment...You’ll never find its limit of endurance. We don’t believe it has one.”
Signed Dan, Frank, Al
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