What is believed to be Kansas City’s first motorcycle, built by Oscar J. Plummer, was displayed on Feb. 1 in Lawrence at the sixth annual vintage motorcycle show sponsored by the Santa Fe Trail chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club. It is owned by the Kansas City Museum but is not regularly on display because it is so fragile.
“We’ve had the bike since the early 1980s,” Denise Morrison, director of collections and curatorial services for the museum, wrote in an e-mail.
Plummer, born in 1878 and died in 1966, according to a 1950 story in The Kansas City Star, started building his motorcycle in 1898. He was an avid bicycle racer. An 1899 story in the New York Times says that he dropped out of a 48-hour bicycle race after eight hours. Those who completed the two-day event covered an unbelievable 961 miles.
Plummer said he got the idea for his motorcycle from a picture of a French tandem used to pace bicycle races. He was 20 years old and it took him 2 years to “build, rebuild and perfect it to his liking.” Bayer said the Plummer’s frame is derived from a bicycle design but with heavier components. The wheel rims were made from wood and the tires were canvas. The fuel tank is mounted above the back wheel so gravity can carry fuel to the carburetor. Spark for the engine came from a battery carried in a container in front of the rider’s seat.
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Plummer said the bike was capable of 60 miles per hour and got 35 miles to a gallon of gas. That was extremely fast for the turn of the century. In 1907, a farmer who said the group’s noise “ruined his gentle horse” sued Plummer and several members of a motorcycle club.
The Plummer motorcycle bears a resemblance to an 1899 Orient Light Roadster motorcycle produced by Waltham Manufacturing Co., but it is not a copy, according to Mark Bayer, a North Kansas City motorcycle historian who has done extensive research on Plummer. Although Plummer said he started the bike in 1898, Bayer said he believes it was completed between 1900 and 1903. He said the 400-cc engine appears to be modeled after the French De Dion Bouton engine design that was also the inspiration for early American motorcycles such as the Indian and Orient.
Regardless of the exact date of construction, it is clear that Plummer’s motorcycle is, in Bayer’s words, “an artifact of Kansas City.”