Women in Transportation History: Clara Wagner, Motorcyclist

Minnesota native Clara Marian Wagner (1891-1961) was one of the first women – if not the first woman – to take part in motorcycle competitions. Her strong enthusiasm for motorcycles at a young age was hardly surprising. After all, her father was the owner of the Wagner Motorcycle Company in St. Paul. George Wagner had established that motorcycle manufacturing enterprise in 1901 as the offshoot of a bicycle company. During the spring of 1907, 15-year-old Clara Wagner joined the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) and was issued that organization’s membership card number 1083.

A major milestone for Wagner occurred in the fall of 1910, when she was among the participants in the first annual motorcycle endurance run of FAM’s western division. This competition covered approximately 360 miles (579.4 kilometers) between Chicago and Indianapolis via Fort Wayne. Those participating in the event had to head out of Chicago on their motorcycles on the morning of October 8 and then, after staying overnight in Fort Wayne, continue the run the next day until reaching the finish line in Indianapolis. Wagner, who was 18 years old at the time, journeyed from St. Paul to compete in this endurance run; her father accompanied her as both a chaperone and fellow participant.

“Miss Wagner, who is the first woman to enter a FAM motorcycle endurance run, is riding her own motorcycle,” reported the Indianapolis Star. “She has sent baggage to Indianapolis to meet her in case the bad roads prove to be too big a handicap.”

With her father following her closely on his own motorcycle, Wagner more than held her own throughout the entire trek on roads that were smooth and highly navigable in some sections and rough, rutted, and dusty at other points. Wagner, her father, and the other contestants also had to deal with heavy rain during part of the journey. This run began with at least 65 motorcyclists riding out of Chicago and, according to various press accounts, ended with 59 making it all way to Indianapolis.

Wagner’s only documented mishap en route occurred when she fell off her motorcycle while trying to cross railroad tracks in Fort Wayne. She incurred only minor injuries from that fall, however. Wagner completed the run in front of the Dennison Hotel in Indianapolis on the afternoon of October 9. She reached that endpoint “covered with dust,” according to the Indiana-based Star Press, and with a perfect score for her overall performance on the road since the start of the run the previous day.

“The young woman rider had no difficulty keeping up with the other machines in the ride from Chicago,” noted the Indianapolis News. The Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal asserted, “Her performance was truly remarkable and showed a display of nerve and skill which would have done credit to many a male rider.”

Despite such accolades and a perfect score, Wagner did not receive a medal or any other type of official recognition from FAM for her achievements in that endurance run. The Indianapolis Star reported that this lack of an award was “because the rules bar women from motorcycle contests.” The Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal set forth its own explanation on why Wagner was not given anything for her perfect score. This journal ventured that, while she was allowed to take part in the run and even sign her name for verification purposes at various checkpoints along the way, she had never officially registered for the event.

Whatever the actual reason for being denied a medal might have been, Wagner soon received a consolation prize. About 50 of the men who had also participated in the run collectively if informally presented her with a gold pendant for her efforts.

Wagner subsequently participated in other motorcycle competitions and performed similarly well. She also became a popular spokesperson for her father’s line of motorcycles. “Women Can Ride Wagner Machines as Easily as Men,” proclaimed one of the company’s advertisements displaying an image of her. (Wagner also appeared in a series of promotional postcards, including the one featured above.)

The 1910s has been characterized by many as the Golden Age of American Motorcycling, and Wagner’s own pioneering accomplishments helped set the stage for several other women who likewise established themselves as high-achieving motorcyclists during that decade. Those other women include Della Crewe, the mother-daughter team of Avis and Ellie Hotchkiss, and the sisters Augusta and Adeline Van Buren.

For more information on Clara Wagner, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Wagner

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