A 105-year-old native has returned to Chelsea for a major facelift and a new home, thanks to motorcycle enthusiast and historian Elliott Andrews.
While vacationing in California last year, Andrews walked through the door of an out-of-the-way motorcycle museum and came face-to-handlebars with a legendary bike that he never expected he’d see: a Flanders 4 motorcycle manufactured in Chelsea in 1911. After inspecting every inch of the machine, he returned home to Chelsea, announced his find to like-minded friends, and began efforts to contact the museum owner, a wealthy industrialist, hoping to purchase the motorcycle on behalf of its hometown.
The Flanders 4 faced a rough road from California to Chelsea. At certain turns, the way was paved with controversy, including a dispute that ultimately overturned the leadership of the Chelsea Area Historical Society. But first the California owner had to be convinced to sell; a nonprofit organization had to be formed to spearhead the purchase; and the motorcycle had to be shipped. Soon the search was on for local philanthropists who could support the project–physically as well as financially.
First on board was a generous anonymous donor who signed a $10,000 check. Andrews paid the $2,100 shipping bill and other costs. Dudley Holmes added still more to the pot, and by the time the motorcycle arrived in Chelsea, the group had raised $20,000 for the purchase and $2,000 towards the restoration; $7,000 is still needed.
“The Flanders Company built motorcycles here between 1911 and 1915,” Andrews says, walking out to the barn behind his home on Waterloo Rd. to unveil the well-traveled antique. “We bought this bike and brought it here to honor Art Farley, a Chelsea native who is renowned in motorcycle circles.” An antique motorcycle racer, Farley rode a 1928 Harley-Davidson coast-to-coast in a 2012 exhibition.
Andrews’ treads in the automobile and motorcycle worlds also run deep. The xADseventy-one-year-old Michigan native opened a Honda motorcycle dealership while he was still a student at Amherst College, where he studied under renowned historian Henry Steele Commager. He began racing motorcycles the following year, at age twenty-two.
“I had a motley career,” he says, noting that among its highlights was setting a national record in drag racing at Daytona. He served as a factory representative for American Honda, ran motorcycle and automobile dealerships in New England, restored antique cars and motorcycles, hobnobbed with famous fellow enthusiasts (including Jay Leno), launched a highly successful start-up company in California, and served as administrator for Caltech’s Division of Engineering & Applied Science and as project manager for the school’s autonomous vehicle program. When Andrews and his wife, Jill, moved to Chelsea to be near family members, he immediately began seeking friends interested in vintage cars and motorcycles. Over “barley therapy” at local pubs, he first heard of Chelsea’s storied Flanders 4.
“Walter Flanders designed and implemented the production line of Ford’s Model Ts,” Andrews explains as he offers a tour of his car restoration facilities. “He was a big, loud, obstreperous guy. By the time the Glazier Stove Works vacated the buildings surrounding the Chelsea Clocktower, Henry Ford had kicked Flanders out of the company. Flanders acquired one of the Glazier buildings and went into business manufacturing Flanders Motorcycles. At one time, he claimed he had the biggest motorcycle production factory in the world.”
Andrews shows the few Flanders advertisements and parts manuals his group has managed to acquire. Then, beaming like a new father showing off his baby, he whips the dustcover off the Flanders 4–one of only three dozen still in existence. “This is an early prototype, just one step up from a bicycle. Look at the overlong handlebars–those are terribly uncomfortable to hold onto. Later models had vast improvements,” he explains.
The four-horsepower, single-cylinder Flanders 4 originally sold for $150. In 1914 and 1915, Flanders also made a V-twin motorcycle. (“We know of only two in existence–and one sold for $99,000.”) By 1915, Flanders realized that his motorcycles weren’t selling like Harley-Davidsons, and he discontinued production. “Although his materials claimed he was building 50,000 a year, he actually manufactured only a few thousand,” Andrews says.
After discovering the Flanders 4 in California, Andrews established the tax-deductible 1911 Flanders Fund. Then he approached Cary Church, president of the Chelsea Area Historical Society, hoping to find permanent lodging for the mechanical relic in the society’s museum. To Andrews’ disappointment, Church declined the gift–a move that played a part in CAHS members’ voting him out of office in September. (Church could not be reached for comment.) The new officers and board, headed by Bill O’Reilly, enthusiastically welcomed the donation, and museum director Connie Stover has already designated a corner of the museum’s front room for the Flanders 4.
Andrews points out the bicycle-style kickstand, chain, seat, tires, toolbox, and pedals. He explains that to start the Flanders 4, cyclists had to pedal as quickly as possible. To stop, they pedaled backwards. Next, Andrews identifies the original components, vestiges of original chrome, and replacement screws installed at a later date.
Four times, as a YouTube video attests, Andrews and friends have managed to start the motorcycle in a cloud of smoke. “We’ve demonstrated that it can run, but it has no compression,” he says. “Our first challenge is to completely take it apart, straighten the body, and put it back together. But first we have to acquire parts–some of which are unique to this motorcycle.
“Now we reach the critical decision,” he announces, running his hand across the handlebars. “There’s no halfway in automobile or motorcycle restoration. Either we leave it as we found it, or we completely restore it to just-like-new condition–which will take hundreds, if not a thousand, of hours.”
Another $7,000 should cover the cost of materials–if volunteers can provide the labor. But there is no doubt which way Elliott Andrews votes: for complete restoration.
This article has been edited since it was published in the Winter 2016 Community Observer. We incorrectly stated that Dudley Holmes is Howdy Holmes’s brother. The two are cousins.