Red Wolverton was a top racer and speed record setter in the 1920s and ’30s. He was a well-rounded rider, competing in a variety of motorcycle competition, from board track to dirt track to hillclimbing. He was also one of the country’s leading motorcycle engineers and helped test and build motorcycles built by Excelsior-Henderson and later Ace. He became a motorcycle dealer, first in Philadelphia, before moving to Reading, Pennsylvania, and successfully operated that business until his retirement in 1956.
One of eight children, Wolverton was born in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, on January 10, 1902, and grew up in Columbia, Missouri. At 14, Wolverton got a job as a general helper in a motorcycle shop in Columbia. His first ride on a motorcycle came when he saw a bike in for service sitting outside the shop with no motor. Young Wolverton pushed the bike out of the alley behind the shop and hopped on and coasted down a steep hill. He had so much fun riding the motorless bike, he pushed it back up the hill several more times until the owner of the shop came back and caught him. Before long, the shop owner let Wolverton ride a 1911 Harley-Davidson single-cylinder belt-drive model.
"It seemed like heaven twisting the throttle on the old one lunger," Wolverton recalled in a 1950 interview with American Motorcyclist.
In 1918, Wolverton’s family moved to Quincy, Illinois, where he immediately picked up another job at a motorcycle shop. With his earnings from the shop, he bought his first motorcycle, a well used 1911 Indian single, for which he paid $35. Not long afterwards, he graduated to a 1915 Indian twin. As a young man, Wolverton loved taking long trips on his motorcycle. In the days before improved roads, trips around the country were often quite difficult and required good riding skills.
On one of his trips to the West, he met a fellow rider who convinced Wolverton to come to work at his dealership in Denver. While living in Colorado, Wolverton began his competition career. He first tried hillclimbing and enduro events. Wolverton’s first victory came in an enduro run that began in Colorado Springs and circled Pikes Peak. Next he set a city-to-city record by making the run from Denver to Colorado Springs over rugged wagon trails in a record time of one hour, 31 minutes.
In 1922, Excelsior chief engineer Art Lemon came to Denver in search of a good rider to do altitude testing on the Chicago-based company’s machines. Wolverton was just the rider for the job and became a test rider for Excelsior. Three months later, Wolverton moved to Chicago and tested Excelsior and Henderson motorcycles nearly every day of the year in all sorts of weather.
In 1923, Lemon took a position with Ace Motorcycles in Philadelphia and insisted on bringing his chief tester and, by now, fellow engineer Wolverton with him. It was with Ace that Wolverton set a record that he is perhaps best remembered for.
In 1923, Ace decided to build the fastest bike ever produced. No expense was spared and the result of the company's labors was a four-cylinder bike that weighed only 270 pounds but boasted nearly 42 horsepower. Horsepower figures in that range were practically unheard of in the early 1920s. The special four-cylinder Ace was 100 pounds lighter than the road-going version and reportedly to cost an astronomical $10,000 to build. Amazingly, to test the reliability of the bike "T.N.T." Terpening and Wolverton rode the special at regional and national hillclimbing events. After winning the 1923 hillclimb national in Egypt, New York, Terpening gave up riding the machine, saying he could not safely handle such a powerful motorcycle. Wolverton won several hillclimbs with the bike, including an upset victory over then reigning hillclimb king Orrie Steele.
With a summer's worth of testing completed, the bike was ready for its record speed attempt. The Ace factory had originally planned to make the record attempt on a beach course, but with winter quickly approaching, the decision was made to do the record attempt on a long stretch of concrete highway just outside of Philadelphia. Arrangements were made with local law officials to shut down the stretch of highway.
News of the attempt obviously spread widely, because photos of the run show hundreds of spectators wearing heavy winter coats watching Wolverton speeding along the highway. November 23, 1923, was a cold and overcast day with temperatures only in the 30s as Wolverton set off on the special Ace and tripped the electronic timers at an amazing speed of 129.61 mph. Wolverton had become the first rider to go over the two-mile-per-minute mark. The Ace crew then attached a sidecar to the bike and another record of 106.82 mph was set.
"During the ride, the goggles I was wearing were flattened right back against my eyeballs and the wind was terrific," Wolverton said in a magazine interview after the run. "I think I could have gone faster, but when I reached 129 mph the cycle began to shake and I knew I didn’t have complete control of it."
Magazines of the day heralded the speed run and the record-setting Ace toured the country at various shows. Ace was so confident of its accomplishment that it wagered $10,000 that no other manufacturer could break the record. The speed run made Wolverton a hero overnight.
Wolverton married in 1925 and he and a friend borrowed $300 each and opened a Harley-Davidson dealership in Philadelphia. In 1929, Wolverton moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, and opened a dealership there. He ran that Harley dealership until 1956, when he sold it to racer Leon Applegate and retired. Wolverton continued to race through the late 1930s. He was one of the few riders who made the transition from the old Class A format to the early days of Class C racing.
By his own account, one of the highlights of Wolverton’s life was when he and his wife, Helen, took a six-week, 10,000-mile motorcycle-sidecar trip in 1951. The couple first rode from Reading to Milwaukee, where Harley-Davidson engineers installed a test motor. Then it was on to Mexico via Texas, and then up through California before heading back to Milwaukee to have their original motor installed, and then back home. The Wolvertons didn’t hit one drop of rain during the entire trip.
Wolverton was a lifetime member of the AMA and served the association in a variety of capacities over the years. He also belonged to the Middle Atlantic Motorcycle Dealers’ Association from its inception and served as its president from the late 1930s through to the 1950s. That association promoted the classic 100-mile AMA national at Langhorne (Pennsylvania) Speedway. He was also an active member of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America.
In the 1960s, Wolverton ran a bicycle shop that also sold go-carts. He retired for good in the late 1960s, living out the rest of his days in the Reading area. He continued riding his beloved antique motorcycles and stayed in touch with his many friends in motorcycling. In 1998, the city of Philadelphia commemorated the 75th anniversary of Wolverton’s 1923 record speed run with a ceremony that brought together many of Wolverton’s surviving friends and fans of Ace Motorcycles.