Affordable wheels for a generation
Servi-cycle, circa 1949
Loomis Dean//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images PHOTOGRAPH
Give your boy a Servi-cycle – safer and easier to ride than a bike. 100 miles to a gallon of gas guaranteed!” This ideal Christmas present in 1935 appeared in The Times-Picayune classified ads on Dec. 3 of that year:
Simplex Servi-Cycle Sales at 701 Baronne St., was marketing the machine, but the factory that built them would ultimately be located at 540 N. Carrollton Ave. – where a Home Depot now stands.
Simplex Servi-Cycle, built from 1935 until the 1960s, was the only motorcycle manufactured in the South, and its simple design and low cost made it a popular alternative mode of transportation. Paul Treen, father of the late Governor Dave Treen and an innovative engineer and inveterate tinkerer, started the company. Treen was a dealer for Harley-Davidson Motorcycles in Baton Rouge, and he had originally approached that company with an idea for a smaller, lighter cycle, “something that Harley owners’ sons could use,” according to Treen’s son, John S. Treen.
The late Paul Treen Jr. was the third son of the founder of the company.
Treen was such a successful salesman for Harley-Davidson that he sold 2 percent of the company’s annual output in Louisiana (to the Louisiana State Police).
But, Harley-Davidson didn’t take up the idea of adding smaller machines to its line, so Paul Treen decided to build and sell the small cycles himself. He found some investors and quickly opened a factory in New Orleans. Soon his products were rolling out the door and onto the city streets and across the country (and, ultimately, to other countries). Eventually he bought out the investors and owned the company himself.
The Simplex Servi-Cycle was “an extremely simple motorcycle with a single-cylinder 2-stroke engine producing 2 horsepower [sic],” according to the Smithsonian Institution’s online notes for the exhibit, “America on the Move” at the Museum of American History. The Servi-Cycle on exhibit there is a 1935 model.
Servi-Cycle’s success owed much to Treen’s timing. “It was during the depression, and it was so inexpensive. I think it was $149 – and after World War II it went up to $248. When they added an automatic transmission it went up to $298,” John Treen says. John and his brothers all worked in the family business at one time; he was plant manager by 1955 and also served as acting sales manager.
As John explains, his father was a native of Purvis, Miss.; he had only one year of college but had such a knack for invention that he became a full member of the Society of Automotive Engineers. There was also a taste for adventure; says John, “My dad was the first man to ride a motorcycle 100 miles an hour, and for two years in the 1920s he supported himself as a professional motorcycle racer.” Combining his talent for design and his love of motorcycles, the Simplex Servi-Cycle was the culmination of a dream. “He designed the engine, the frame, the whole thing. He had 65 inventions to his credit; maybe his most famous invention was a kick stand, he sold that to Harley-Davidson, and they patented it!”
The Simplex factory was another area where Treen proved to be an innovator.
“My dad knew that in the summertime, inside a building, it was very hot. He reasoned that productivity would be higher if the men were comfortable, and worker turnover would be less. So, by air conditioning the factory, he ended up saving money.” Servi-Cycles would be built in the only air-conditioned factory in the south at that time.
In another new idea, “he had music in the factory, and the men liked it. They thought it was a very nice place to work. People would go to work there and they’d stay there.” A forward-thinking boss who believed workers deserved good working conditions ended up with a loyal work force turning out a good product for a ready market.
Paul Treen appreciated good publicity for his invention. After the Huey P. Long Bridge officially opened in 1935, a Simplex Servi-Cycle went over the span. “It was the only motor vehicle built in Louisiana at the time,” John Treen explained. In his own experience, a trip over the bridge on a Servi-cycle could yield speeds up to 50 miles an hour (the usual range was closer to 30.) “I never did that again!”
A loyal fan of the Servi-Cycle, Gary L. Wollard of Bradenton, Fla., has written a booklet about “America’s Premier Lightweight Motorcycle” and owns “about 100 of them – I guess you could call that an obsession,” he admitted.
Wollard, who also trades in parts and does renovations of the machines, is currently working on rebuilding a military model for the National World War II Museum. That one’s color will be olive drab, but Wollard related that while there were four or five standard colors, for $5 extra you could get a Servi-Cycle in any shade you wanted.
Wollard noted that Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered two Servi-Cycles for his Warm Springs, Ga., Little White House.
Servi-Cycles went to England and Canada as part of the Lend-Lease program, and they went behind enemy lines in World War II. Paul Treen always charged the government $5 less per cycle than his cost to build them and reportedly received a note from the Government Accounting Office after the war commending him and stating that the government made a profit selling them for surplus.
After the war the Strategic Air Command bought Servi-Cycles to put on their planes – sometimes the planes landed so far from the hangars the crew used them for ground transport. “We have a photograph of General Curtis LeMay riding one,” John says.
Today Simplex Servi-Cycles star on the motorcycle show circuit and there is a wide community of collectors, reflected in a number of Simplex-related Internet sites. Even the History Channel’s “American Pickers” stars Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz are ecstatic when they pull a rusted Simplex Servi-Cycle frame from an object-filled Louisiana yard.
Wollard, who began his own “picking” career concentrating on glass globes from gas pumps, finds the Simplex Servi-Cycle something special. “I saw my first Simplex when I was 8 years old – it was brand spanking new and was just laying on the ground. The weeds were growing through it. It was the prettiest thing I had seen in my life.”
That particular machine had been ruined by a young owner who neglected maintenance and didn’t mix oil with the gas in the engine (a necessity for that motor). Wollard has devoted much time since then to preventing that from happening to another machine.
According to John, the rise of motorcycle factories in Europe and Japan, where costs were lower, spelled the end for the Simplex Company. They continued making go-carts and lawn mowers, and some special cycles for the U.S. Forest Service until around 1960.
“My father worked until he was 76, and then he retired. He rode a Simplex until he was 80 years old. He died when he was 84.” John recalls. “The last time I rode myself was about 10 years ago – they had a show up in Hammond.
“Riding motorcycles? It’s exhilarating in a way. It’s a lot of fun.”