I don’t normally write that much about motorcycles, but that’s not because I don’t like them; I absolutely do, especially at their strange peripheries. This particular strange motorcycle really caught my attention, for a number of reasons: first, it appears to be designed like a motorized barcalounger that you can use to zip around in such a relaxed manner that you don’t even have to put out your cigar. Second, it’s named for a monster from Kabbalistic Judaic folklore that’s sort of like a clay robot brought to life with mystical Hebrew incantations. And third, it’s a vehicle from the very beginnings of DKW, the two-stroke kings who were absorbed into Volkswagen in the 1960s. That’s enough reason to waste time telling you about this thing, right? Of course it is.
In German, the Golem is called a Sessel-Motorrad or a Sesselrad, which seems to translate as “seat bike” or “armchair bike,” either of which seem to work to convey the overall tone and feeling of this thing, which, as you can tell from how it was advertised, was meant to evoke the concept of taking one of those big, overstuffed leather armchairs from a gentleman’s smoking room or library and jamming a motor and wheels onto it. Then you just sit in it and relax, occasionally applying a finger or two to the handlebars to, you know, suggest a possible preferred path of motion.
I mean, look at these dudes:
We have Sigmund Freud over there on the left, enjoying his cigar as he whizzes around the cobblestones, his satchel likely full of cocaine in the little luggage holder. On the right we have Goth Charlie Chaplin, similarly lounging on his Golem like he owns all of Bavaria.
So what the hell were these things? They’re sometimes considered to be one of the first motor scooters, as in not exactly a motorcycle, because they’re less of a bicycle-derived straddle-and-ride design and more of something you sit in, even if it’s just a chair on some wheels. Built between 1920 and 1921, the Golem wasn’t exactly a massive success, but it was one of the well-known German automobile and motorcycle maker DKW’s earliest fully-built motorcycles, as the company had previously built engines that could be mounted to bicycles.
DKW, was known for their two-stroke cars, and became part of the Auto Union, along with Horch, Wanderer, and Audi, with the company’s memory surviving today as the four-ring logo used by the one still-active brand of the Auto Union, Audi. I want to mention what DKW means here, because of all carmakers named for three letters, the meaning behind DKW has changed more than any other company.
They started as a maker of steam engines in 1907, and DKW was picked to stand for Dampf Kraft Wagen which basically just means “steam powered car,” then they started to make small 18cc toy two-stroke combustion engine, so the DKW then came to mean Des Knaben Wunsch, or “the boy’s wish,” and then finally Das Kleine Wunder, meaning “the little wonder” for when they started making motorcycles and then later cars.
But, at this early stage, DKW didn’t use their name on the Golem, preferring instead to market it under the Eichler & Co. name, after the designer Ernst Eichler, though the ads did reference that the Golem was built by J.S. Rasmussen’s factory, the founder of DKW. I’m not clear why this oblique way of saying who made the damn thing was chosen, but there it is.
In fact, all of the origin and manufacture of this thing is confusing. One source says that it was “Manufactured by Zschopauer Motorenwerke, JS Rasmussen AG, Zschopau, Sachsen, and later at an Eichler & Co. factory in Berlin,” which seems like there’s somehow three companies involved here?
The Golem had a DKW 118cc two-stroke engine, and the peculiar overall design seems to have been inspired by an American motor scooter-like machine called the Ner-A-Car, which DKW founder J.S. Rasmussen saw on a trip to the United States.
The Ner-A-Car, so named because it was “near a car” and also suggested the designer’s name, Carl, Neracher, was a hub-center-steered (as opposed to a more traditional motorcycle fork) and because of the more automobile-like chassis construction, seating position, and ease of driving, was marketed as something halfway between a motorcycle and a car.
The Golem was then followed by an updated armchair-motorcscooter design called the Lomos, and then cargo versions followed, but ultimately these sorts of loungey-armchair bikes proved to be a dead end, with DKW going into more conventional motorcycle production, becoming the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer by the late 1920s.
What really grabbed me about this motorscooter was the name, if I’m honest. There’s a certain irony of a pre-Nazi German motorcycle being named for one of the most famous parts of Jewish mysticism. A golem is, essentially, a soulless humanoid made out of pretty much anything, though earth and clay are most traditional, and given some degree of life by a skilled Kabbalist. Golems have come over the years to analogize all sorts of machines like robots and computers.
In fact, one of the earliest digital computers built in Israel in the 1950s was known as GOLEM, and you can see the name here in a 1963 article about a later version, known as the Golem B (I’ve highlighted the Hebrew name):
Instructions about how to make a golem are found in the Kabbalist book Sefer Yetzirah, though there are variations. Some have the golem come to almost-life by inscribing the Hebrew word for truth, emmet, on its forehead, and disabling it by erasing the first letter, leaving met, or “dead.” Some work by putting scrolls in the golem’s mouth, or, in the case of the one shaped like a funny motorcycle, filling the tank up with a two-stroke preferred mixture of 40:1 gas to oil ratio.
The most famous golem is likely the one built – well, according to legend – by Rabbi Leow of Prague, who built it to defend the Jewish ghetto from attacks and progroms. In some versions of the story, the golem, who seems to have been named Josef, goes on a rampage and has to be deactivated, and this is often used as an analogy for technology getting out of control, and may have inspired works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
It’s all a fascinating story, and would have been pretty well-known in Germany about that time – in fact, there was a 1920 German silent movie about the golem legend, which, if you’d like, you can watch in full, right here:
I know that says 1915, but there was actually a different 1915 golem movie, and this appears to be the 1920 version. With that in mind, in the context of the place and time, maybe it’s not so strange that this motorscooter was named Golem.
I mean, about 15 years after the Golem was sold, it would be quite strange and probably not allowed at all, but before then? It’s a pretty good name. I could see a modern off-road motorcycle or something kind of strange and rugged being named Golem today.
Also, as far as I know, this remains the only motor vehicle named for something that references the Kabbalah in any way. I could be wrong, but I think that’s the case.
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Jason, after your G.G. Allin reference the other week, I didn’t think it was possible that you’d manage to come up with some other, even more obscure, reference with which I was somehow already very familiar.
I should have known better. 😉
Like anyone who played D&D with dice and graph paper way back in the day, I know golems. 🙂 And countless pop-culture references since then have only reaffirmed that knowledge (The Simpsons http://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net/simpsons/images/7/73/800px-Golem.png/revision/latest?cb=20170104185721 etc…).
I’ve wondered a bit whether the Tolkien’s name for the star of LotR (IMO, he’s so much more interesting than Frodo and co.) “Gollum” http://static.independent.co.uk/s3fs-public/thumbnails/image/2014/08/07/17/gollum.jpg was somehow influenced by golem. I gather Tolkien may have been antisemitic, but even if true, I don’t suppose that’d have kept him from drawing inspiration from golem.