1912 Iver Johnson

The Man and His Company


Iver Johnson was a U.S. firearms, bicycle, and motorcycle manufacturer from 1871 to 1993.  The company shared the same name as its founder, Norwegian-born Iver Johnson (1841-1895).


Iver Johnson immigrated to Worcester, Massachusetts from Norway in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War.  Johnson was a gunsmith by trade, but also worked as an inventor in his spare time, which came in handy later on as he sought new and creative uses for his partially idle manufacturing equipment, and eventually led him and his heirs to diversify the corporation's businesses.


The company's name changed to Iver Johnson's Arms & Cycle Works in 1891, when the company relocated to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in order to have better and larger manufacturing facilities.


Iver Johnson died of tuberculosis in 1895, and his sons took over the business.  Frederick Iver, (born 1871), John Lovell (born 1876), and Walter Olof (born 1878), each had vastly different levels of involvement in the company ranging from executive leadership to barely any involvement at all.  They shepherded the company through a phase of expansion, as bicycle operations grew, then converted to motorcycle manufacturing and sales.  They also saw the growth of the firearms business and eventually restructured the company to focus on firearms and related business as they disposed of non-firearms concerns, such as the motorcycle business, in the face of growing firearms demand, World War I's armaments industry expansion, and other factors.  As a result motorcycle operations closed in 1916 (1916 saw only the sales of remaining 1915 produced inventory), bringing to an end 33 years of total cycle operations .


Bicycle production ceased in 1940 with the buildup of arms production prior to World War II.


The Motorcycles

Iver Johnson motorcycles were built from 1907 through 1915 by the famed firearms manufacturer, Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Works of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.


The machines were innovative.  A leading link leaf spring fork of unique design was fitted. A leaf spring swinging arm rear suspension was optional.  The frame had a curved tube just above the motor, as well as a horizontal top tube.  The frame construction was termed a trussed frame and was of the same style as the frame of the popular Iver Johnson bicycle.  The frame was referred to as an “open” frame.  In the open (or keystone) frame, the crankcase formed part of the structural assembly, by having the front down tube and the lower rear fork tubes terminate in crankcase attachments.  The principal advantage, according to Iver Johnson, was lower motor placement and a resulting lower center of gravity.


A 31 ci (510 cc) belt drive single, a 31 ci (510 cc) chain drive single, and a 62 ci (1020 cc chain drive V-twin were offered in 1914.  The V-twin motor had a two-throw crankshaft to produce even firing intervals--a V-twin that sounded like a vertical twin.


All models had unusual valve actuation.  On the chain drive single and V-twin, from the right crankcase a pinion gear drove a large ring gear--about six inches in diameter.  The gear teeth of the ring gear were on the inner surface, so that the ring gear revolved around the pinion gear.  The pinion gear had half the number of teeth as did the ring gear, so that the right gear rotated at the necessary half-engine-speed for valve actuation.  The ring gear had integral cam lobes to lift the valves.  Because of the large size of the ring gear, the cam surface moved extremely fast.  To compensate for this wear-inducing tendency, the valve lifters were carried on rollers.


In the belt drive single, from the right crankcase a worm gear mated with another worm gear to turn a camshaft that was in line with the motorcycle wheelbase.  The male camshaft had a removable coupling that joined it to the female magneto drive shaft.


All models had magneto ignition, with the magneto forward of the crankcase. The chain drive single and and the V-twin had a chain-driven magneto, and chain drive taking off from the right side.


On the chain drive single and the V-twin, the clutch was a planetary gear unit on the left side of the crankcase.  In the center was a “sun” gear.  When viewed from the side, on opposite sides of the sun gear were two “planet” gears in mesh with the sun gear.  An outer ring gear, with teeth on its inner circumference, meshed with the two planet gears.  The sun gear was fixed to the left crankshaft.  The two planet gears and the ring gear were fixed to the clutch hub.


At idle, the sun gear, spinning counter-clockwise when viewed from the left, spun the planet gears clockwise.  Since the ring gear had its teeth on the inner circumference, the ring gear also spun clockwise, or backwards.


To apply power, a contracting band was tightened over the ring gear, by hand-level movement, so that the ring gear immediately stopped spinning backwards.  As soon as the ring gear stopped spinning backwards, it started spinning slowly forwards (counter-clockwise) and started transmitting torque and motion to the drive chain.  The hand lever was gradually moved, causing the contracting band to gradually tighten around the ring gear, until the clutch was fully engaged, at which point the clutch hub ran at engine speed.  In the single-geared 1914 models, the planetary gear reduction gave a drive ratio of 3 ¾ to 1.


On the belt drive single, the clutch consisted of an outer pulley and an inner cone.  The pulley ran on ball bearings.  Inside the pulley was a cone to which fiber discs were shellacked.  Frictional engagement of the pulley to the cones occurred through the operation of four steel fingers held in tension by a spiral spring.  The tension could be graduated to give a positive drive or to allow slippage on hills or for other slow running.


For 1915, the final production year, a two-speed planetary transmission was offered.  In the two-speed transmission, there were two braking sets, one internal and the other external.  Each braking set had it own pair of bevel gears.  There were three concentric clutch hubs:  one for neutral, one for low gear, and one for high gear.  Hand lever movement could brake the low-gear hub to select low gear, could brake the high-gear hub to select high gear, or the hand lever could be left in the middle position with neither gear-hub selected and the motorcycle therefore left in neutral gear.


Interesting facts

Only a few Iver Johnson motorcycles survive.


The rear leaf suspension was a $3-5 option in 1912.  The Iver Johnson in our museum is the only 1912 Iver Johnson known to exist with the rear leaf spring.


The Iver Johnson twin weighed 265 lb and could attain a top speed of 65 mph.  Despite displacing 1020 cc, it wasn't particularly powerful compared with other V-twins. That certainly didn't help Iver Johnson's status among power-hungry riders.  The single had a top speed of 45 mph.


The price of a two-speed version was $250, or $225 for a single-speeder, both with chain drive.


Related facts

Presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz shot and wounded U.S. President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901, with an Iver Johnson .32 caliber Safety Automatic revolver.  (McKinley succumbed to the wounds nearly 8 days later, on the 14th of September).


In 1933, Giuseppe Zangara shot and killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak at a political event in Miami, in an apparent attempt to assassinate president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Zangara was using a .32 revolver by the United States Revolver Company, a subsidiary of Iver Johnson.


Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed presidential candidate United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, California on June 5, 1968, with an eight-shot Iver Johnson .22 caliber Cadet 55-A revolver.