Over 12 years ago, John Simpson penned this piece for us, comparing and contrasting his own personal Yamaha Royal Star and Excelsior-Henderson. One is a Japanese take on an all-American motorcycling category, while the other comes with the name of a storied American company, trying to resurrect itself from the ashes (they ultimately failed). For this week’s Church feature, let Simpson tell you what it’s like to own a Royal Star and Excelsior. Included are snippets from Eric Bass and MO’s current Editorial Director, Sean Alexander.
Those looking for a bargain cruiser, and not willing to settle for less than 1300cc’s, need look no further than the Yamaha Royal Star, produced since 1996, and the Excelsior-Henderson, produced in 1999 and 2000.Both can be found in showroom condition, sometimes even still in the crate, for less than ten grand.
I bought my Yamaha, still under warranty for six grand, and my E-H for less than eight grand, both fully loaded with bags, sissy bar & pad, and windshield. Both have floorboards, heel and toe shifters, and Harley-like styling and riding position.
If you’re not patient, you have no business owning an EH. It will spend a considerable amount of time in the shop just getting it ready to ride. One of the shops does a package job of all the necessary mods for about $2500.
While my Excelsior Henderson is down for the mandatory upgrades — rebush the tranny, upgrade the air cleaner/throttle body plate, richen the ECU tune, replace o-rings with viton (all o-rings in the engine should be replaced, as the X tends to run hot and Viton o-rings can stand the heat soaking) replace oil pickup pump bushing — I’ve been riding the 97 Yamaha Royal Star that I picked up as a backup cruiser.
On paper, these bikes are similar in weight, styling, riding position, and purpose; they are both heavy cruisers. The Yamaha looks and feels like a heavy cruiser, but the E-H looks and feels more like a Sporty. The Yamaha has an outstanding advantage in its five year unlimited warranty as opposed to the useless warranty from bankrupt Excelsior Henderson. The Yamaha has excellent dealer backup, parts, and service. The Excelsior Henderson has a small but dedicated group of shops who are devoted to keep them running. These shops have rounded up dealer parts inventories, and Swift Motorcycle Company bought the remaining factory parts inventory at auction. In addition, the specialty shops have been developing improved replacement parts and upgrades to bring what was basically a prototype while it was on the sales floor up to production standards. Futhermore, the E-H has an excellent internet support community while the RS’s internet support community is all but non-existant.
Even though Royal Star is a four cylinder bike, the engine is rougher on acceleration than the E-H (that may be cured when the shop mechanic gives it two hours of work in it’s last month of a five year unlimited warranty!). The E-H goes into a turn at better speed and with lighter feel than the RS. The E-H brakes are far better than the RS, and the linked front end, similar in design to the early BMW Earles suspension, has no dive on hard braking. The E-H handles lighter even though the (advertised) weights are similar. The E-H fuel injection is smoother and starts easier than the RS carburetors (four of them!) and never needs synchronization!
Sidebar: Talkin’ With The X-Gurus
By Eric Bass
I spoke with Stan Cochran of Cycle Supermarket out of Lithia Springs, GA who can be contacted at 678-945-1541 or www.cyclesupermarket.com. According to Stan, he has become an expert at russling up whatever parts an E-H owner may need and servicing the locals in and around GA. I asked Stan what the most common problems he saw were and he said that far and away the looseness of the factory transmission bushings was the biggie. “They’re pretty inconsistent. I’ve seen one come unglued at 3,000 miles and others go 30,000 miles no problem, but anyone with an E-H should get it fixed”. Stan is even rolling up his sleeves and addressing some of the other common fixes with custom solutions.
One of the E-H’s bugaboos is a tendency to overshift into neutral when dropping down from 3rd into 2nd. Stan has engineered a shift kit to address the problem. He’s also remanufacturing the plungers in IEC valves from 98 Triumphs to substitute for their E-H counterparts. “That’s probably the hardest part to find”, says Stan. When the conversation turned to the E-H’s brittle throttle body brackets, Stan mentioned that X-Man Products in Alpine, CA (619-445-9993 or www.xmanproducts.com), has the best solution and that Bobby Baldwin is one of the high priests of all things E-H. He suggested that I give Bobby a call, and so who was I to argue with Stan the Man?
I asked Bobby for his take on the E-H and he said, “It’s a real good bike that was put out too soon by the manufacturer. They have the same issues over and over again, but fixes have been developed and they’re actually really reliable after that. It can be a problem if you’re a long way from home and have a breakdown since there isn’t a dealer network but we offer overnight shipping so we can probably help you out of a jam. The bikes were going for $18,500 new but you can pick one up for around $10,000 now so it’s a great deal”.
As Stan mentioned, X-Man has developed an air filter assembly which eliminates the stock throttle body bracket & also donates 8 hp by putting the KNN on there. The gears in the E-H are the same as the Yamaha V-Max except for 4th & 5th which have 2 more teeth. The problem is that E-H didn’t increase the width so the factory bearing isn’t the full width of the gear. The gears pop out like a cartridge and X-Man will put in new full-width bearings, create an oil groove and add new snap rings,re-machine it and send it back out to you. The E-H tends to run hot and has to use synthetic oil. X-Man adds an oil cooler and have figured out how to hack the software to richen the mixture. Bobby also says that the back wheel bearings are too small & get hot, hence the hub expands and leaves the wheel spinning inside the hub. Bobby feels that you can get away with about 10,000 miles by loosening the belt if you just got the bike, but that they put in bearings that are three times bigger to solve the problem.
My RS gets more attention than the E-H.
Maybe becuase the E-H is basic black and the RS is the Santa Fe Palomino model with sand metallic paint and tan leather. The RS is a more comfortable cruising ride with more generous saddle and softer suspension, but the E-H is more stable and more comfortable in high speed riding and aggressive cornering. The solid mount RS engine vibrates MUCH less at idle and lower rpm acceleration than the E-H (but so did all of my Harleys, solid or rubber mount!).
Both the E-H and the RS like rpm and must be driven more like sport bikes than cruisers to enjoy their performance potential. Although hp ratings are similar, the E-H feels MUCH stronger when accelerating and gets up to speed quicker.
The RS won’t get you a speeding ticket before you realize you’re going too fast, but the E-H will! If I have to let one of them go, it will most likely be the RS because the E-H will likely appreciate and the RS will likely not, even though RS’s were built in low numbers and this particular one, a Santa Fe with Palomino option is very rare.
Sidebar: There was no “Excelsior-Henderson”
By Sean Alexander
Excelsior roots trace back to 1876, when the Excelsior Supply Company first opened for business, selling bicycles and parts. Excelsior produced their first motorcycle in 1905. Schwinn (the bicycle company) purchased Excelsior in 1911, but motorcycle production continued under the Excelsior name. In 1912, the Henderson Motorcycle Company was founded. Also in 1912, Excelsior was the first motorcycle to reach 100MPH. In 1913 a Henderson was the first motorcycle to circle the globe. In 1917 the Schwinn Bicycle Company (surprise) purchased Henderson and transferred, tooling and manufacturing to Excelsior, though the two brands remained as separate entities in the market.
From 1912 – 1930, Excelsiors racked up numerous victories and records, on Board Tracks, Dirt Tracks and Hillclimbs. In 1931, Schwinn halted production of both Excelsior and Henderson. Fast forward to 1993, after noticing the conformity of the bikes at Sturgis, Dan, Dave and Jennie Hanlon decided that something different was needed. They searched the motorcycling history books for a suitable name to convey the American “Heritage” of their new venture. When they came to Excelsior, they found that Schwinn had let the trademarks lapse and they had the heritage that they sought. (I guess you can just buy heritage)
The company they created “Excelsior-Henderson” was state of the art and outlandishly expensive, with estimated funding of over $100,000,000.00, including a large chunk of change from the local government for the construction of a lavish manufacturing facility & corporate headquarters.
Unfortunately the purchase of all that state of the art equipment and large marketing expenditures left the bank accounts well below $0 before production/income got into full swing. After several years of band-aid loans and legal wrangling the “Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Company” succumbed to its losses and closed shop for good. We are left with a pretty American heavyweight cruiser, with some unique styling cues, a few quirks and a dwindling supply of spare parts.
It’s kind of like owning an old Ferrari; it’s temperamental, needs a lot of attention, but is exciting to ride.
Additionally, I’m really enjoying communicating with the E-H community. It is rivaled in tightness and helpfulness only by the International Harvester Cub Cadet community.
All in all, the E-H and RS are fairly equally enjoyable to ride, with the E-H holding an edge riding solo or performance riding, and the RS holding an edge riding two-up. Finding a good RS is likely to be far easier than finding an E-H, and service for the RS is around the corner instead of accross the country — my RS was still under warranty when I got it, and has needed no service yet. I’ve got $6000 plus tax in the RS and it needs a rear tire. That’s it.
I probably have close to a thousand into getting my E-H ready, so that’s about $8800 plus tax total in the E-H so far and it will always need something! It’s kind of like owning an old Ferrari; it’s temperamental, needs a lot of attention, but is exciting to ride. Remember, though, while the RS has a five year warranty, with the E-H, the rider is his own warranty station!
But, either way you go, you’re getting a whale of a bang for your buck!
John Simpson has been building and riding motorcycles for 46 years, starting with a Whizzer that later developed into a Whizzer/Triumph chopper. John is retired now and enjoys riding and restoring the unusual!
Parts are available from the businesses whose websites I list below. They have E-H parts, aftermarket parts, and even manufacture-improved parts. Parts are not a problem, but accessories are scarce. If you’ve got a set of E-H bags, you have something that is no longer available.
Here are the E-H people to talk to:
Lithia Springs, GA
Jamie & Marty Jones
5083 Bear Foot Lane Elkton, VA