Omahan rebuilds a namesake 1911 motorcycle
By Jeff Barnes
They were born in the same city and share the same name, but the only relative connection Howard Wagner shares with his 1911 Wagner motorcycle – on display at the Joslyn Castle Car Classic, July 27 and 28 – is that he knows it like no one else.
The 3.5-HP motorcycle joined the family in 1973 after the Omahan first came across it in Iowa City. “I was looking for some parts for an Indian motorcycle I was working on,” said Wagner, 86. “(The parts dealer) knew my last name and was sure I’d be interested in it. I tried to pretend I wasn’t – I figured it would cost too much and we still had two boys at home.”
He left it and returned to Omaha where he kept talking about it in front of his wife Ruth, who also appeared disinterested… or so he thought until she gave him a check for Christmas 1973 to buy the rare motorcycle (Mrs. Wagner died a little more than a year ago after their fiftieth wedding anniversary).
It wasn’t in running order. The front wheel was off, the oil and fuel tanks were off and repainted, several pieces were missing and the leather drive belt was shot. “Someone fooled around with it in trying to get it running, and the person I bought it from didn’t get all of the small parts when he bought it, like the fender braces and tank mounting,” Wagner said.
Wagner was able to find parts and re-fabricate others, sometimes borrowing from other Wagner owners to have the parts copied and duplicated. The motorcycle starts by battery rather than magneto (both options were offered in 1911) and Wagner finally found the batteries were carried by Radio Shack.
Like Wagner, the Wagner motorcycle was born in St. Paul, Minn., although in 1901. Its founder, George Wagner, manufactured the cycles until 1914 when the company folded, but during his dozen or so years of building, he was doing some unusual things. For one thing, he positioned the engine down low when most others were high. He used the looped frame as part of the exhaust system itself, and even produced a women’s model that his daughter rode and promoted. The vehicle, interestingly, was promoted for rural mail delivery, replacing horses.
Howard Wagner’s has always been a fan of the old motorcycles. His first job in high school was working part time at an Indian motorcycle dealer, and working for another one in Minneapolis after leaving the service in 1947. When he came to Omaha he tried for a job at the dealer here but was turned down and ended up working on heavy trucks until his retirement in 1991.
He was working on the Wagner at a leisurely pace for most of twenty years until he found out the brand would be featured at their fall 1990 meet of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America in Davenport, Iowa. He switched to high gear to get the motorcycle completed for the meet, getting it repainted in the original gray with red and gold trim. Wagner and his Wagner ended up taking all three of the available awards in Davenport; of the five Wagners at the meet, his was the only one running.
He went to another meet in Wichita in 2010 and again, his was the only one still operating. Topping it off, it was the cover story for The Antique Motorcycle magazine in 1991. “Oh yes – it still runs great,” says Wagner. “I’ve had it up to 40 (mph) but I think it could probably even do better.”
(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, July 27, 2013)