Motorcycle Supreme: Thor Motorcycles of Aurora, Illinois
By Jennifer Young
Love is the feeling you get when you like something as much as your motorcycle.
–Hunter S. Thompson
The Daimler Reitwagen was the first petrol-fueled internal combustion motorcycle. It was invented in Germany in 1885 and set in motion a series of motor bike productions that is still going strong. In fact, today’s motorcycle industry is expected to top $10 billion by 2025 in the U.S. alone.
In those early days—some might call the heyday—of motorcycle craftsmanship, various companies put their stamp on the development of a conveyance that still, to this day, represents the freedom of the open road, the joy of wind in your hair, and the healing power of the ride. One of those companies was based in Aurora, Illinois. In 1901, the Aurora Machine and Tool Company founded its own brand of ‘moto cycles;’ Thor thundered onto the pages of motorcycle history with its V-twins and magneto ignitions.
You do not need a therapist if you own a motorcycle, any kind of motorcycle!
During those first years of the 20th century, The Aurora Machine and Tool Company didn’t just produce parts for any motorcycles; it was closely associated with Indian Motorcycles. Aurora had been supplying the Hendee Manufacturing Company (founder of Indian) with castings for its bicycles. When developing its motorcycles, Indian worked closely with the Aurora company to create parts—like its engines.
By 1902, the company created roughly 150 ‘Thor’ motor types for Indian. Once Indian established its own foundry and began to produce its own motors and other parts, the Aurora Machine and Tool Company was free to produce its own bikes in entirety and began selling them on the open market in 1907.
The Aurora Company continued to produce forgings and other motorcycle components for other companies, but its Thor brand focused on making advances to its own cycles. The motorcycle industry and racing culture were growing in popularity. Thor created automatic intake valves for its engines and added acetylene lamps for light. One of its last major design advances was its three-speed transmission added to the bikes in 1916.
“I had a dream about a motorcycle,” said Harry, remembering suddenly. “It was flying.”
Unfortunately, sales of Thor Motorcycles were not soaring. Indian, the company that Thor motors helped put on the map, had developed into the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturing company by WWI. By the end of those first two decades of the 20th century, Harley Davidson came roaring into the market, making it difficult for smaller manufacturers like Thor to keep up. Competition with Reading Standard, Merkel, and Henderson also impacted Thor so that by 1920, its board of directors decided it was too costly to produce motorcycles; instead, it would focus on home appliances like dishwashers and washing machines.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
–Robert M. Pirsig
Going from motorcycles to washing machines is not, perhaps, the most romantic of endings for a brand, but Thor has a well-cemented place in the history of the motorcycle. During its glory days, a Thor Motorcycle was featured in the 1913 Charlie Chaplin film titled “Mabel at the Wheel.” Today, world collectors of vintage motorcycles and parts compete at auction for a chance to own a piece of Thor motor history.
I want to ride my motorcycle up the side of the Luxor to the light and vanish.
As far as it’s known, there are only four surviving Thor Model 13U motorcycles in existence. One of them is showcased at the National Motorcycle Museum in Iowa, a must-visit venue for vintage bike enthusiasts. Surely, there are still many fine-weather days left in the year to get out on your own bike to enjoy a ride, but when the coming rains, sleet, and snows keep put a damper on your road trips, give the following reads a try: