"The Merkel" brand first appeared in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1902 when Joseph Merkel set-up shop producing single cylinder motorcycles.
Merkel was among the most innovative of the pioneer motorcycle companies. By 1905 Merkel had decided to engage in competition and produced several racing machines. Merkel's motorcycles were to set many performance standards in the emerging American racing scene. These machines and their riders enabled Merkel to develop a patented spring front fork that was to become the forerunner of the modern telescopic front fork. This fork became the instrument of choice on racing machines of other builders. Also, the monoshock rear suspension was developed, a system used today on modern motorcycles. Merkel's slogan became: "All roads are smooth to The Flying Merkel". Merkel also used ball bearings as opposed to bronze bushings in the engine. In contrast to primitive atmospheric pressure intake valves, Merkel designed a cam-actuated mechanism. Merkel also pioneered a throttle-controlled engine oiler that long preceded Harley's and Indian's.
The company was purchased by the Light Manufacturing Company in 1909, and moved in its entirety to Pottstown Pennsylvania, producing machines with the "Merkel Light" and subsequently "The Flying Merkel" names. Joseph Merkel began immediately experimenting with frame and suspension improvements, and new engine designs. A young test rider by the name of Maldwyn Jones rode one of Merkel's creations. An inventive mechanic and talented racer, Jones set up the bike and defeated the reigning champion Erwin G (Cannonball) Baker in a ten mile race. The following season Jones turned professional and won three out of four races on a machine bearing "The Flying Merkel" logo on the tank. Jones went on to become a national champion racer and helped Merkel achieve recognition among performance enthusiasts.
In 1911 the Miami Cycle Manufacturing Company purchased Merkel, and production was completely moved to Middletown Ohio. The Miami Company, organized in 1895, was building bicycles and Motorcycles using names best known as Raycycle, and Miami. The Merkel acquisition gave Miami the high-end product that it needed to be regarded as a premiere manufacturer. The factory racing team by then expanded to include names such as LS Taylor, FE French, CF Pinneau, and W Wikel. In 1914 The flying Merkel won the National endurance run from Chicago to St Louis. Maldwyn Jones then broke a world's record on the Vanderbilt Course. When he returned to Middletown he was given a hero's welcome.
Engineering innovation, high quality, and racing successes were not enough to sustain this progressive endeavor. The onset of war, a contracting market, and increased competition caused production of The Flying Merkel to falter. The final Merkel machines were produced in 1917.
In the few years of its existence, The Flying Merkel became a true motorcycle legend. Although surviving Merkels are seldom seen these days, they are widely recognized as icons of the motorized world.
How could this small brand acquire such a high appreciation? The answer can be found in the innovative designs, the excellent engineering, the great racing successes, and the evocative brand name. It all originates from the company founder Joseph Merkel, who gained experience as a mechanic and educated himself by studying mechanical engineering. After working as an engineer for E.P.Allis, the biggest employer in the region, for several years, he founded his own little business in Milwaukee over a century ago.
In the struggle for survival, Joseph Merkel merged his business twice with other manufacturing companies. The company was relocated each time and the “Merkel” brand name was changed to “Merkel Light” and later to “The Flying Merkel”. This eventful history ended when production of motorcycles ceased during World War I. By that time, Joseph Merkel had already left the company.
In order to revive some of the history, please be invited to view the following pages with original photos of Merkel's creations over the years.