Did You Know That Holley Started Out Making Automobiles And Motorcycles?

Author: John Gunnell | 12/30/2020 < Back to Motor Life Home

Holley is a name well-known to hot rodders, but few people realize that Holley made attempts at building a motorcycle and a car early on in the company's history, before George Holley settled down to supply Henry Ford with carburetors for the iconic Model T. From these roots came the automotive aftermarket giant that exists today.

George M. Holley was born at Port Jervis, N.Y. in 1878. After he got out of school, he devoted his life to car, motorcycle and carburetor making. Following a move to Bradford, Pennsylvania, George and brother Earl began tinkering with foundry work. They learned how to make wood patterns and green sand castings to build a one-cylinder engine. By the time George was 19, he designed and built a three-wheel, single-cylinder buggy that could go 30 mph. George’s car weighed 306 lbs., had a 60-in. wheelbase and used a two-cylinder 9-hp engine. It had a transmission with two speeds forward and no reverse. By 1899, the seeds to George’s first manufacturing company had been planted. In 1901, after a visit to Paris, France, Holley and his brother Earl obtained a license to produce and sell the French Longuemare carburetor (known as the "iron pot") in the United States. That year, George built his first motorcycle. It could go about 25 mph.

According to the Holley Motor Cycle section of The Historical Bradford Illustrated 1901 (edited by Vernelle A. Hatch), the Holley Motor Cycle--or more correctly Holley “Auto-Bike”--was a machine of unique construction. It was a motorized bicycle that required five years of careful study and experimentation to be perfected. George Holley claimed it was “the first of its kind for practical everyday use that has yet been built.” The Holley Auto-Bike combined the conveniences of a common bicycle with the power and speed of the automobile. Holley called it “The best of both worlds without the annoyances of either.” To quote from a sales circular, “The manufacturers have deviated from the common custom of bolting a motor to some part of an ordinary bicycle and instead have made it an integral part of the frame by brazing it at the crank bracket, the lowest and strongest part of the bicycle. By this means, the motor will generate its full power and the scientific distribution of weight doing away with the vibration, will add to the durability of the machine and increase the speed and easy running qualities.”

The standard 2-1/4-hp motor could propel the Holley Auto-Bike at a rate of 35 mph over an ordinary country road of the era. It would also ascend a 20 percent grade without use of the pedals. The gasoline tank had a capacity of one gallon, which was sufficient to run the motor 50 miles. The frames were either 22- or 24-inches high and the wheels were 28 in. in diameter. All standard equipment was made especially for this machine. The Auto-Bike was manufactured in Bradford, Pennsylvania by the Holley Motor Company in a factory on Davis Street. By 1901, George said that the business that had started in September 1899 had “passed the experimental stage.” George served as chairman of the board, chief engineer and salesman. Earl was president and handled business and finance, since he had once worked as a bank teller. The factory claimed to be equipped with the best machinery and had enough capacity to produce five Auto-Bikes per day.

According to The Bradford Era's "Broke All Records" article (Aug. 22, 1901): "George M. Holley and his motorcycle did some rapid traveling. He had just returned from Buffalo, N.Y., where he exhibited his machine at the International Bicycle races in Pan-American Stadium. Holley rode a 5-mile exhibition against championship records and broke all existing records from one to five miles."

A publication called The Express contained a reference to the event, as well. "Another feature of the day was the performance of G. M. Holley on his single motor,” it read. “Holley was tearing about the track after the 5-mile record when he lost control of his whirling engine close at the finish and went bounding off the board platter. The only damage was to stir up the officials. Holley never lost presence of mind nor attempted to dismount, but shut off the power and continued the trip over the sod. After a rest, he came on again and was successful in lowering all existing marks for five miles.”

The August 22, 1901 article from The Bradford Era continued: "In Event No. 4, a five-mile exhibition run on single motor bicycle ridden by Holley, the time by miles was: First, 1:24; Second, 2:50 2-5; Third, 4:16 3-5; Fourth, 5:44. Going into the fifth mile, Holley ran off the track, but he broke all records up to four miles. The previous motor-bicycles records were: One mile, 1:26 2-5, by Champion at Charles River Park, Cambridge, Mass., July 31, 1901; Five miles, 7:16 2-5, also made by Champian (sic). On Holley's second trial he rode five miles as follows: First, 1:23 1-5; second, 2:47; third, 4:11 3-5; fourth, 5:38; fifth, 7:10 1-5. All of these runs were world's records. Holley was scheduled to return to Buffalo on the next day and the following day to compete in the motorcycle races at the stadium. A special race on single-motor motorcycles had already been arranged between George Holley of Bradford and George Butler of Buffalo."

According to the April 1902 edition of The Dealer and Repairman, the Holley Auto-Bike was “one of the pioneers in built-in motor construction and almost before the other makers had started to incorporate the motor in the frame, it had produced a machine with a construction which was unique in that the motor case was actually brazed into the frame and served as the bottom bracket thereof.” Access to the lower end of the motor was via a removable crankcase side plate. Later, the Holley Auto-Bike was manufactured under the name Phillips and Hamilton, a company also headquartered in Bradford, Pa. Phillips and Hamilton continued to manufacture the Holley design all the way through 1911.

The Holley Auto-Bike was basically a motorized bicycle. It has a tank strapped to the upper bar of a “man’s” bicycle. There is also a fuel tank strapped to the rear bar than angles down the rear wheel hub. A vacuum tank sits between the rear fuel tank and the motor. The vertical single-cylinder motor is housed in a U-shaped tubular member at the bottom of the frame bar that supports the saddle at its upper end. The round crankshaft housing is below the motor. Drive is taken by belt from the left side of the brass crank hub to a flange or lip on the rear wheel rim that protrudes out to the left. The French Longuemare carburetor is mounted near the front left “corner” of the motor near the finned cylinder head. The Auto-Bike’s bicycle-style handlebars have black rubber grips and the saddle or seat, which has a small leaf spring below it and a single coil spring at the rear, is black imitation leather. The Auto-Bike is painted an orange-red color. There are pedals and a bicycle chain on the right-hand side. On old motor bikes, the pedals were used to help the small engine push the bike up steep hills or in case of an empty gas tank.

The Holley Auto-Bike sold for $200 and weighed 104 lbs. The single-cylinder water-cooled engine was of the F-head type, with the inlet valves over the exhaust valves. The cylinder displacement was approximately 21 cubic inches (or 350 cc). The French Longuemare carburetor was fed by gravity from a 4-1/2 qt. gas tank. The Auto-Bike used a belt drive system and could go about 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline.

In 1902, the brothers put together their first 4-wheel runabout. The small but handsome car was bright red with shiny metal trim. It was called the Motorette and its manufacture marked the start of Holley Motor Co. The Holley Motorette Holley sold for $650. It had a 5-hp vertically-mounted water-cooled single-cylinder engine up front and weighed about 850 lbs. It featured a two-seat Runabout style body with a shovel nose front that had six slanting louvers on its sides and four louvers in front. All of the louvers had shiny brass trim. Brass-colored stripes that taper at the front flanked the upper edges of the hood. The Motorette’s bright red finish was set off by other brass trim pieces, such as a cabinet-style handle for lifting the hood, brass side lamps on the cowl, a brass inspection plate on top of the hood, a brass ornament on the outside of the dashboard, a brass steering column and brass hubcaps. The hub caps decorate red, wood-spoked artillery style wheels. A set of four 26 x 2.12 black sidewall tires was fitted. The Motorette’s single bench seat was upholstered in tufted leather. The shiny fenders, running gear and hand brake handles were black. There was a wood steering wheel. The fuel system plumbing and a wooden coil box were mounted on the driver’s side of the red dashboard. The floor had a diamond plate deck with a rubber multi-hole mat covering it. The steering wheel and pedals were on the right. Two pedals were brass and the brake pedal was black. There was a single brass carbide or gas-fueled taillight on the right side. The exhaust pipe and muffler under the car were aluminum finished. Historical accounts say that Holley made “over 600 cars.” Their single-cylinder, water-cooled, cast iron engines put out modest power. Holley was one of the few automakers who chose not to guess at horsepower, nor exaggerate it. Tests revealed that the Motorette engine developed 5.27 hp.

In 1902, the Holley brothers switched from car making to carburetor making, as suggested by Henry Ford. In 1903, Ford asked George Holley to make a carburetor for his Model T, the first mass-produced automobile, which sold like crazy. Holley Motor Co. was then sold to local investors, who took over in 1904 and operated for a time as Bradford Motor Works. Sources say that they sold a few leftover Holley branded cars and built additional Bradford branded cars. They also liquidated unused parts by selling them as a kit to home-build Bradford cars. The kits cost $277.50 versus $650 for a complete car.

After moving to Detroit, Mich., the Holley brothers invented their own carburetor and George proceeded to market it successfully. This marked the rise of the Holley Carburetor Co. of Detroit. In 1917, the Holley brothers were bought out by Ford.

Holley later re-entered the carburetor business. The company expanded through peacetime and wartime. Its carburetors were used on DC-3 airplanes, Packard-powered PT boats and B-25 bombers. After World War II, Holley concentrated on making better-performing carburetors and selling repair parts.

When hot rodding took off, war surplus carburetors like the famous Holley 94s were found in many dry lakes racing cars and streamliners. The 1950s saw the introduction of the Holley Model 4150 four-barrel on the 1957 Ford Thunderbird. It was the beginning of the modular four-barrel of today and the first true performance carburetor. The ‘60s saw the Model 4150 become original equipment on cars such as Z28 Camaros, Chevelle LS6s, Boss Mustangs and Shelby Cobras. This era also saw the introduction of three-two-barrel Holley carbs on Tri-Power Corvettes and Six-Pack-equipped Mopars.

From the 1970s through current times, Holley has continued to innovate and grow. In addition to carburetors, the company developed aftermarket electronic fuel injection (EFI) kits, such as the ProJection system that was designed to replace the carburetor on older cars. Holley also entered into the automotive plumbing field with Earl's Plumbing, the exhaust markets with Hooker Headers and Flowmaster, and even the supercharger market with Weiand. Holley has also been instrumental in creating popular enthusiast get-togethers, including LS Fest, the Intergalactic Ford Festival and MoParty. It's a far cry from that shop in Bradford, Pennsylvania.

One Holley Auto-Bike and at least three (possibly four) Holley Motorettes survive. The Auto-Bike (serial number 054) and the Motorette with serial number 706 belonged to the late-Margery Holley Uihlein who was the daughter of George Holley. A second car resides at Holley headquarters in Bowling Green, Ken. There are very slight differences between these cars in color of the upholstery, engine compartment layouts and controls. The car in Bowling Green has Michigan Historic license plate 1537 and is a 1904 model. The model year has a significant influence on the value of these two cars. Both are in well-preserved condition and both are rare, but the dating also affects their values. Only 1904 and earlier automobiles qualify for entry in the famous London-to-Brighton run for pioneer automobiles that is held annually in England. London-to-Brighton cars are worth more than later cars, even if they are identical, other than the year of manufacture. As for the possibility of third and fourth Holley Motorettes existing, an auto museum founder and the editor of a car-collecting publication have both encountered Holley cars. Mark Thomas, who founded the Pontiac Transportation Museum in Pontiac, Mich., and is working on the revival of the FWD-Seagrave Museum in Clintonville, Wis., took photos of a Holley Motorette that was sold at an auction in Portland, Mich. in July or August of 2018.

A few years ago, Angelo Van Bogart, editor of OLD CARS, spoke to a couple who owned a Holley while he was attending the Antique Automobile Club of America Fall National Meet in Hershey, Pa. These could be different cars or both could be the car that wound up at Holley headquarters. Rumors also persist of a Holley in a car museum. Experts including collector-car auctioneer Dana Mecum and Richie Clyne—the former manager of The Imperial Palace Auto Collection of Las Vegas—feel that the Uihlein family’s Auto-Bike and Motorette could each be worth six figures because of their Holley family connections. The value of other Holley cars would likely be in the $20,000-$25,000 range. There is no evidence that another Holley Auto-Bike exists, but if one did, based on sales of comparable early motorcycle, it could be worth $45,000 to $85,000.

1903 Holley Motorette

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