1921 Ner-A-Car Motorcycle Reborn With Epic Parts Remanufacture

Most of the rusty parts you need to make a motorcycle.
Most of the rusty parts you need to make a motorcycle.

Nobody ever dismantles a working motorcycle.

About ten years ago [Andy Pugh] took possession of a large box of rusty parts that formed most of what had once been a 1921 Ner-a-Car motorcycle. They languished for several years, until in 2014 he was spurred into action and returned to the bike. What followed was a two-year odyssey of rebuilding, restoration, and parts remanufacture, and since [Andy] is an engineer par excellence and an active member of the LinuxCNC community his blog posts on the subject should be a fascinating read for any hardware hacker with an interest in metalwork.

The Ner-a-Car. By Museumsfotografierer (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Ner-a-Car. By Museumsfotografierer (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Ner-a-Car represents one of those eccentric dead-ends in automotive history. Designed in 1918 by an American, [Carl Neracher], its name is a play on both its designer and its construction and it is unique in that its design is closer to the cars of the era than that of a motorcycle. It has a car-style chassis, an in-line engine, and it was the first motorcycle to be produced with hub-centre steering. The rider sits on it rather than astride it, feet-forward, and the car-style chassis gives it a very low centre of gravity. They were manufactured in slightly different versions in both the USA and the UK, and [Andy]’s machine is an early example from the British production line. Not many Ner-a-Cars have survived and parts availability is non-existent, so his work has also had the unusual effect of satisfying a significant portion of world demand for the parts-bin of an entire marque.

Spinning up a headlight shell
Spinning up a headlight shell

It’s usual for the first link in a Hackaday article to be to a page that encompasses the whole project. In this case when there is so much to see and the build is spread across twelve blog posts and nearly two years the link is to [Andy]’s first post in which he describes the project, sets to work on the chassis, and discovers the bent steering arm that probably caused the bike’s dismantling. He’s listed the posts in the column on the right-hand side of the blog, so you can follow his progress through the entire build. The work involved in remanufacturing the parts is to an extremely high standard, from machining press tools to reproduce 1920s footboard pressings through manufacturing authentic 1920s headlight switchgear and metal-spinning new aluminium headlight shells.

[Andy]’s most recent Ner-a-Car post details his trip to France on the completed bike, and tales of roadside repairs of a suddenly-not-working machine that should be familiar to any owner of a vintage internal combustion engine. But considering that the bike spent many decades as a pile of not much more than scrap metal the fact that it is now capable of a trip to France is nothing short of amazing.

This is the first rebuild of a vintage bike from a box of rusty parts we’ve featured here – indeed it could almost be a retrotechtacular piece in its detailed look at 1920s bike design. These pages have however seen many motorcycle related  hacks over the years. We particularly like this from-scratch engine build and this gas-turbine bike, but it is the emergency motorcycle build in the desert from a Citroën 2CV car that has us most impressed. Please, ride safe, and keep them coming!

24 thoughts on “1921 Ner-A-Car Motorcycle Reborn With Epic Parts Remanufacture

  1. He needed a harder alloy of copper to make those contacts more springy. but being a hidden part he would have been better off also putting actual springs behind the contacts to help them push back out. I can understand wanting to do a full restoration, but you don’t have to be perfect on the parts that nobody will ever see. and there is maybe 2 people in the world that knows how the internal configuration of the light switch is.

    1. It’s a matter of preference/philosophy, not of better or worse. Some people want a restoration to be a *restoration.* It would bother them that they deviated from the original, regardless of whether anyone else would ever see it or care. The scale model version of this kind of thinking is known as “modelling for God.”

      Besides, people may well see it if he plans to *show* them how far he went to stay accurate. Many see attention to detail as something to proud of.

    2. I get the impression Andy’s not in this for some kind of concourse d’elegance entry or to simply come up with a working bike at any cost, but as a pure maker; to make everything on the bike the right way and to understand the manufacturing techniques at the time. Notice, he doesn’t have any portrait pics of the completed bike on the blog, it’s all about the build. I had to use his French roadside rebuild shot as the header, for instance.

  2. It has been said that nobody ever dismantles a working motorcycle.
    I wish it had been true. Beautiful spring all around, and the machine had ben disassembled from working state back in Oct. ’15. The fuel tank and fenders are still in the car paint shop, and the custom Hall-triggered CDI module (to replace the 1905-style points – sorry Mr. Kettering!) is still only in virtual existence in Eagle CAD. Side effect: Bicycle improves your fitness during motorcycle unavailability.

  3. When I saw this I thought of the helpful mr pugh because he had a Ner-A-Car, and his helpfulness & knowledge in the linuxCNC forums before I even read the summary. He handheld me through sorting my gearbox component for the two speed head in my linuxcnc equiped bridgeport interact, and I remember a discussion on irc on why the ner-a-car piston had the holes in the skirt and to what purpose. Active member of linuxcnc with a deep understanding of linux cnc is very accurate.
    Nice to see him adventuring out to this side of the channel on it and to be applauded for actually using it in non collector fashion, the heretic! even if it was a bit naughty on arrival, but thats sod’s law of old motorcycles, it can be perfect in the weeks/months/years up to a special trip then play up most of the journey. I prefer to call it character unless its me cursing a persistent misfire or worse at the side of the road :-)

    1. I should disclose, I’ve known Andy for about twenty years, and as you say he’s a mine of engineering information. He designed SMIDSY, our Robot Wars robot. And yes, if he owns a bike, he *rides* it.

  4. As this site is mainly focused on electronic hacks, I thought I would mention my “restoration” of a couple of interesting but flawed British cars that involved electronic hacks. The cars are a Truimph Stag and a Jensen Interceptor and my philosophy is to keep to the look, feel and spirit of the cars but upgrade the internals to improve reliability and performance. Of course, I upodated them to electronic ignition. In the past I have built my own units but nowadays, it is easy just to buy them. I also looked at upgrading to fuel injection using the Megasquirt DIY EFI system but haven’t done so yet. It would be interesting to build an EFI system using a Raspberry Pi but I have too many projects on my plate for that. The Triumph was notorious for cooling system issues so I built a temperature measuring system and alarm that uses multiple DS18B20 sensors, one for each head, two for the radiator (top and bottom) and one for the oil temperature. This was a simple Arduino based project with a serial LCD display. The Jensen had a very poor heating and AC system so I have started to build my own controls. The original air blower used huge resistors for speed control and the motor was wearing out so I replaced it with a pancake motor and PWM speed control (also Arduino). The main issue was to be able to do that with the existing wiring and so used a “high side” MOSFET switch. There are readily available with automotive temperature ratings. Two thing you have to watch for in car electronics are electrical noise and temperature so you must filter the power supply and I usually try to fit any electronics in the passenger compartment and not under the hood. I am now working on the next stage of the heating and AC system with servos for the water valve and air flaps replacing vacuum controls. I am hoping to be able to implement a full DIY climate control system repurposing the existing control knobs etc. but that will take a while. On another vehicle I wanted to add a load leveller using rear air bags and a small compressor but I didn’t want to have to cut holes for the wiring or add an instrument panel so I used Bluetooth (Arduino plus serial BT module) with an App built using the MIT App Inventor. This is a great way to invisibly add such functionality. Old cars are a great opportunity for electronic hacks which can usually be hidden completely so not affecting the look and feel of the vehicles.

  5. “Nobody ever dismantles a working motorcycle.”
    They do if they’re young and stupid. At least, I did.

    I loved this. I just spent the last few hours carefully reading through the entire blog and looking at all of the pictures. Amazing restoration!
    I couldn’t help but be reminded of how I, as a 17 years old kid, traded a fish tank for a ’76 Yamaha RD-400 that was not much more than a frame, a box of parts, and a service manual. I eventually got it running despite never having worked on a motorcycle before, though not without making some major mistakes along the way (such as putting the pistons in backwards!). I rode that bike for 10 years, sometimes as my only mode of transportation.

  6. 15 years in the powersports industry taught me that old adage is completely untrue. Here in the States it is quite common practice to disassemble a working motorcycle in order to make it go faster, louder, achieve a certain look, and of course to completely destroy its reliability and roadworthiness. Such is the desire of those with more money than smarts, and there’s plenty of mechanics to take there money and oblige them.
    I myself have disassembled a number of vintage Hondas in order to restore them to factory state, or in some cases customize the riding position or improve handling characteristics. As far as performance increases go, I tend to stick to very mild improvements. A slight overbore and carburation mod combined with a minor gear ratio step is usually enough to give me smile. Fortunately Hondas tend to be overbuilt and forgiving enough to accept these without complaint.
    The motorcycling community itself seems to be filled with an underlying “hacker” ethos, probably attributable to its general “going against the grain” mentality. Most long rides I’ve gone on have met with mechanical failures that have required roadside hacks to quickly get back in the saddle.
    Over the years I’ve collected many memories of both ingenious and miserably failed motorcycle hacks, as well as a network of very smart, talented and experienced individuals in the art of motorcycle hacking.
    Hmm. somebody should write a book…

    1. Back in the 1960’s, my brother had a Honda Trail 90.
      The timing chain broke when he was 100 miles from home and the Honda dealer.
      Four hours, in freezing weather, he stitched it back together with a section of fence wire enough to ride it back home.

  7. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Andy’s wonderful restoration, on the few occasions that he would mention some aspect of the work as an example on the LinuxCNC forum, where Andy does yeoman’s work and is extremely helpful to others. The world is a MUCH better place because Andy is in it. The information he freely provides helps more people than he can know. I’m very appreciative of his assistance, and it’s great to see the Ner-A-Car completed and running.

  8. Hi there, this is a long shot, bur I am after information/directions/interest in a 1925 Ner-a-Car, dismantled but I believe all parts to be there and have been stored in oil rags. My father owned this & used to put it together every now & then & always said it was my inheritance. Unfortunately he passed away 4.5 years ago and after some estate issues the Ner-A-Car will belong to me. My difficulty is, the Ner-A-Car is in UK (Kent at the moment, but will be probably moved to Norfolk potentially) and I am in Australia. So my research now is, do I pay for it to be restored in UK or elsewhere, how much would that cost as opposed to selling it as is to someone else to restore. I am also checking whether it would be better to bring it out as is to Australia and have it restored or sell here. Any comments, tips, info & directions would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance.

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