The Feilbach Motorcycle was manufactured from 1904 to 1914 by Arthur Otto Feilbach. Arthur built his first motorcycle in 1904 from within his small garage outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin with the assistance of his younger brother, William. The Feilbach motorcycle originally appeared as a single-cylinder model and for the first few years was built out of Feilbach’s own workshop and garage in very small numbers. These machines were mostly sold direct to the local Wisconsin market. Because they were manufactured with high precision and were good reliable machines, the motorcycles gained a certain popular following. It was simply named the Feilbach motorcycle. It was a small single cylinder engine, about 21 cubic (350cc) inches, and used a belt drive model. The exact engine specifications have been lost over the years. In the first few years of Arthur’s work the design evolved on an almost ad hoc basis. After the great success of his home built machines, Arthur decided that in order to expand he must formalize the design, manufacturing and marketing of the motorcycles. Finally, in 1907 he produced an all new and improved Feilbach motorcycle. In that same year the Feilbach Motor Co. was formalized within the city of Milwaukee. The official name of the company was “Feilbach Motor Co. Ltd.” All of the bikes he made that year (a total of three) were all sold before they were finished. These machines had an engine bore and stroke of 3¼ and 3½. In 1908 he produced five additional machines, which sold quickly. In 1909 seven more machines were manufactured, likewise selling quickly. In these two years 1907 though 1909 the design of the Feilbach motorcycle remained largely unchanged.
Then in the year 1910 Arthur Feilbach manufactured nine machines, all incorporating many new improvements to the design. The changes included a new engine bore which was increased to 35⁄16, and mechanically actuated inlet valves were added. Early in 1911 a patented spring fork was added, the gasoline tanks were made larger, and a magneto was added. The spring fork added considerable comfort to the ride. In 1911 a total of thirteen motorcycles were sold.
In late 1912 Arthur organized the Feilbach Motor Co., with the backing of several Milwaukee area businessmen, including former coworkers of the Wisconsin Bridge & Iron Works; where, interestingly enough, a young Bill Harley also worked for a time in 1907-08 after graduating from college. Arthur and the Feilbach Motor Co. produced 75 machines in 1912. This plant was located at 1148 Holton Street, directly east of the north side of the Holton viaduct bridge. Today, this is the location of the Edge Condominiums. This building was previously occupied by Stegeman Motor Car Co. who used the factory to manufacture commercial vehicles. This level of production was a great increase over previous years. On March 13, 1913 the Feilbach Motor Co. purchased a new site of 5¼ acres upon which a new building was erected. The Feilbach Motor Company moved to the new 7100 square foot plant located at the northern city limits of Milwaukee on Keefe Avenue. Feilbach Motor Co. increased its capital stock from $50,000 to $100,000 according to Motor Age magazine. A conflicting report one month later as reported in Iron Age, indicated the capital increase was from $20,000 to $50,000. The Horseless Age issue of November, 19, 1913 also reports the capital stock from expansion from $50,000 to $100,000. There are several other reports of raising capital at different times. Based on all the reports from the time there were in fact two rounds of funding conducted by Arthur. The first $25,000 and the second $50,000. With this capital backing, the new Feilbach Motor Co. secured the larger factory space and Arthur Feilbach was named superintendent. In today’s vernacular this is the CEO of the company. A local union trade magazine also reported Feilbach Motor Co. hiring a dedicated polishing person with one more person expected to be hired in this same year. Previously they had outsourced the polishing work to two other “job shops.”
During 1913 the Feilbach Motor Co., was looking like it had a bright future ahead of it. The twin model was introduced and 158 machines were already on the road. 108 of these were v-twins models. Also of interest during 1913, Feilbach Motor Co. was an exhibitor at several automotive and motorcycle shows. In early January of 1913 Feilbach Motor Co., displayed accessories and the current 1913 version of the v-twin at the fifth annual Milwaukee Motor Show Association. This show ran from January 11th to the 17th. The next month, for the first time in the history of the motorcycle industry a separate national show was held under the auspices of the Motorcycle Manufacturers’ Association in the Manufacturers’ Exhibition building in Chicago, where the show ran from February 3rd to the 8th. Their were 71 exhibitors who attended this very first motorcycle show which demonstrated that the motorcycle industry welcomed the opportunity to exhibit at a display of this character.
It is not known exactly how many machines were manufactured in 1914, most estimates place the number somewhere between 900 to 1000. The spacious and modern factory located on Keefe avenue was a large contributing factor to the rapid growth of the company. During this time the 1,130cc V-twin added offset cylinders vastly increasing power output. During this year, ads were purchased in several national motorcycle periodicals. The name “Limited” was adopted both as a tribute to the increasingly fast trains of the day, but also, it was claimed, due to the necessary “limited” production in order to ensure a high quality product was manufactured.
In 1914 the Feilbach Limited (twin) was the only Feilbach produced and production of the single cylinder was abandoned. For 1914, Feilbach Motor Co. announced a stunning Limited shaft-drive V-twin. The shaft driver version was also outfitted with a two-speed transmission and used a worm-gear drive mechanism to turn the shaft drive, making it, perhaps, one of the most modern and advanced American motorcycles of that period. It was reported that the worm-gear suffered from teething problems and production did not last long. At the time belts were quieter and cleaner than drive chains. Feilbach attempted to solve this problem by installing drive shafts on the new models. Very few shaft-drive models were ever manufactured and it appears that the both it and the chain driven Limited did not survive into the 1915 production season. The shaft drive version is the rarest of all Feilbach motorcycles ever produced. No known shaft drive Feilbachs are known to exist today. Read the 1913 Issue of Motorcycling Magazine.
With limited capital at his disposal and complications from the shaft drive model, Arthur Feilbach ceased production in late 1914 and shuttered the factory. At that time the first Feilbach machine was still owned by Arthur Feilbach, and it was said to have over 63,000 miles accumulated with no problems reported. Many Feilbach motorcycles were used by the Milwaukee Police in 1914 through 1916. It was widely speculated that Harley-Davidson used its then massive resources to put Feilbach out of business by constraining access to capital resources. Arthur was unable to secure additional financing to continue the production and marketing of the Limited. The company finally declared bankruptcy in 1916 and creditors made claims in 1917.
Several years later in 1920, Arthur, still laboring in northern Milwaukee, designed and marketed a new valve lifter for use in garage repair shops. These tools sold for between $7.50 and $10. Arthur Otto Feilbach died in 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 72.
By the standards of the day, the Feilbach Limited V-twin was a big, heavy, powerful motorcycle of 69 cubic inches, making it larger in displacement than contemporary Harley-Davidson twins. Although produced in small numbers, build quality was extremely good and at least two 1913/1914 Feilbach Limited chain-drive V-twin motorcycles survive today. With its imposing size and heft, along with the highly suggestive letters “FL” painted on the chain-drive model’s front chain cover, the Feilbach Limited almost feels and looks more like what you’d expect a Harley-Davidson to feel and look like than does the actual Harley-Davidson itself. As shaft-drive has yet to reappear on an American-built motorcycle, one would have an extremely rare antique of super advanced design if he could locate the bike shown in the photo. Almost totally forgotten today, the Feilbach Limited was a unique machine and one of the bright stars of the early Golden Age of American motorcycling.
If you have a picture of Arthur I would love to share it with the world. Below is the only picture I have ever found of Arthur.