When I hear the phrase ‘rarest motorcycle in the world’ it sounds like a gimmick. Something a new boutique brand cooked up to get top dollar for a limited run motorcycle. Yet that’s not the case, because that title belongs to a motorcycle that just turned 100 years old, yet it is still filled with mystery.
The story has seen many variations over the years, with some important detail changing from time to time. Overall though there is a general consensus of how the current events have unfolded, and the story is absolutely legendary. After extensive research, I believe this to be how the events unfolded for this magnificent machine.
While the machine in question was designed and built in 1916 this story has to start a point in time much later than that. 50 years later to be exact. As legends go they typically get bigger with each re-telling, and this story is no different. Now if you were to ask someone it’s likely they will say the discovery was at a hotel behind a wall of bricks. This is not the case. See in 1967 a Chicago firefighter had just purchased a house located on Paulina Street, in the neighboring town of Cicero. Upon purchasing his new home he looking to have some leaky pipes replaced, hiring a plumber in the process. Once establishing the fireman’s piping issue it was decided that the easiest repair would be done by going through the exterior wall just beneath the stairs, and that is where the big discovery occurred.
Residing behind the wooden exterior, between the interior walls, sat a motorcycle. And not just any motorcycle, one called a Traub that garnished plates from 1916. Whose was it? And why was it hidden in the walls of this little house? This is where the plot quickly thickens. To find out who the Traub belonged to the firefighter tracked down the elderly old woman that owned the building previously. What he found out was shocking, the motorcycle belonged to her son, at least in a way. Her son had stolen the motorcycle back in 1916, presumably from the original owner. This prompted the young man’s father to hastily sign him up for the Army, where he went to fight in WWI. Tragically he didn’t return home, presumably perishing in battle.
Now the unknown is how the Traub became entombed in the wall after these events. It could have been the young man’s doing as he wanted to preserve his unjustly acquired motorcycle for when he returned from war. Or it could have been his father’s doing, after hearing of his son’s untimely death in a war he sent him too, he may have felt he couldn’t get rid of the motorcycle but also couldn’t stand looking at it. Either way, it ended preserved in the walls of the Illinois house for almost 50 years. And what happened to the original owner? That’s even more of a mystery.
The oddity that is this motorcycle is the fact that its the only one in existence. That’s not because of a warehouse fire that destroyed the last remaining, its the only one that has ever been created. Even weirder is the fact that this particular machine was incredibly state of the art for 1916. Not only did it sport things like a 3-speed transmission and a brake system never used on an American motorcycle before, but it did so in a time where ingenuity like that would have skyrocketed it into front page territory. Yet It wasn’t until 1967 that it first made headlines. As for who built it, we again are left with more questions than answers.
Because no one had ever heard of a motorcycle brand called Traub before, and it wasn’t reported as being stolen, it was a mystery where it came from. Was it a made up word? Was it someone’s name? With some insightful digging the builder may be known, but its hard to say. Collectively the motorcycling community has rallied to try to find this mystery bikes origin, coming up with only a name and some vague information. Gottlieb Richard Traub is thought to be the creator of this incredible motorcycle, is said to have lived from 1883 until 1952. Census reports have him listed as a tool maker, as well as an ‘experimental machinist’ later in life. His later census reports have him as a telescope builder as well.
With work experiences like that it’s not at all unlikely that Mr. Traub could be the man that designed and built this motorcycle from the ground up. At this time around 1916, there were something like 200 American motorcycle brands trying to make it big, like Indian and Harley-Davidson, making this a real possibility. But the engineering is what sets it apart, having features that Harley and Indian weren’t even sporting yet. Further info to suggest G. Richard Traub’s involvement could be this paper clipping from 1907.
While this predates the motorcycle in question by 10 years it has significance none the less. The first paragraph just under the photo says:
“Mr. L H. Cornish.
Dear Sir – Enclosed find one dollar for which send me The Motorcycle Illustrated beginning with June issue. Also find enclosed picture and specifications of a motorcycle made by myself throughout engine and all. I worked on this cycle about one year, putting in the time only between 7 pm and 11 pm. I also worked Sundays. This motorcycle has no wonderful qualities, but will run as good as any four-horsepower motorcycle I know of. Specifications – Weight, 275 pounds; wheelbase, 55 inches; tank capacity, 3 1/2 gallons gasoline, 1 gallon oil, sufficient for 125 miles; power, 4 horsepower; bore and stroke 3 1/4 by 4 inches; auxiliary gasoline tank, 1/2 gallon; speed, more than the roads will stand; perfect grip control; throttle and spark motor is geared 3 3/4 to 1; it has a cycle chain with washers and does good service; has never troubled me yet, and I rode all of 1,500 miles. The belt is not my own idea. Tanks have gauge glasses, so you can see at an instant how much gasoline you have. Hoping to see this in print, I am.
749 North Paulina St, Chicago, IL”
Obviously, the biggest take away from this is the name, signed ‘Richard Traut.’ The ‘b’ could very well have been mixed up with a ‘t’ if they read his handwriting just right. A common typo back then. The second is Traut(b)’s address. Paulina St, the very street that housed the mystery motorcycle when it was found. This was found out years after the discovery of the motorcycle, which furthers the confusion. Is that a coincidence or could the story of it being stolen be completely fabricated? In case you aren’t already spinning over where who and why this motorcycle was built, we have one more piece to add to the puzzle, except it won’t make the picture any clearer.
That my friend is what I call a mystery photo. It exists, but no one is really sure why. Many have scoured any and all information to try and find a record of a ‘Traub Motorcycle Shop’ with little to no avail. Experts have studied the grainy picture and predate it to before 1910, and some have suggested that the third motorcycle tucked in the back could be Traub and his first motorcycle that was in that 1907 article from Motorcycle Illustrated. But no one has anything close to concrete evidence, resulting in nothing but speculation.
We do know where the Traub ended up after being discovered, however. It was sold to a Torello Tacchi a local motorcycle dealer who then sold it to none other than Steve McQueen’s stuntman Bud Ekins. Bud kept it for a long time, tinkering with it here and there. It changed hands twice more, finally ending up in the Wheels Through Time Museum via Dale Walksler. Now it’s preserved perfectly and still ridden on occasion. Dale knows more about this spectacular machine than most, but still savors its mysterious roots.
So was it Richard Traub’s prized creation, stolen before it could be marketed? Or was it a prototype that never made it into production? Maybe neither, maybe there is a key component that we haven’t heard of. Maybe we never will, but for now, the mystery of the only Traub motorcycle in existence will continue on. That, is the story of the rarest motorcycle in the world.