The Charles Fehn Story
Inventor of the Trail-Breaker
by Robert Galbraith
The Trail-Breaker, the two-wheel-drive motorcycle which Charles Fehn invented, is said to have changed the nature of his existence. Prior to developing the motorcycle, he had financial and political allies who would routinely participate with him in business ventures. When Charles visited his mother, his nephew recalls that the phone would start ringing for Charles. When asked who was calling, Charles responded that it was politicians---doctors---lawyers, people who wanted his ideas. People came to him with money to invest. Once development of the motorcycle began, that routine changed. Charles lost friends, allies, and power. Instead of investors coming to him, he had to search for investors to help get the Trail-Breaker produced. But Charles was obsessed with the machine and worked on it for years.
Charles Henry Fehn (pronounced fayn) was born on May 8, 1915 in San Bernardino and lived his entire life in southern California. With only a high school diploma, he was a self-educated, self-made man who would challenge his nephew (attending college at the time) to pick any subject on which to debate. By age 13, he had mastered taxidermy with birds and small animals. Family stories tell of Charles being inventive at an early age and of him designing a sugar dispenser which would measure out exactly one teaspoon. Motorcycles also came early in his life. Before the motorcycle was common, Charles impressed others by how well he could ride one. By the end of the 1930's, however, he had largely given up riding. He would take apart and reassemble motorcycles and cars and once nearly caused a house fire by cleaning parts in gasoline. Later in life he had an affinity for nice cars, the faster the better. However, when he drag raced his Cadillac against his nephew's 54 Buick Century, Charles would usually lose.
When he was about 14 years old, Charles acquired a dog in an unusual manner. While out hunting one day, he came across some people with a dog in a cage. After talking with them, he discovered that they were planning to shoot the dog because it was a "killer". Charles asked them not to shoot the dog but instead to give it to him. They agreed as long as he had his mother's permission which he was able to get with some persuasion. After Charles came home from school the next day, his mother complained that the dog growled at her and that she was scared of it. Charles took the dog and a wooden chair and locked himself in the garage with the dog. When he came out of the garage, the chair was smashed and the dog was tamed. Charles and his dog had many adventures together in the years to follow.
Throughout Charles's life he would make small fortunes and lose them. One of his goals was to be a millionaire when he died. However, Charles was not bothered by losing money since he believed that he could just go out and make another fortune. His general belief was that people who punched time clocks were wasting their time, and therefore, he tried not to work for others.
In the 1940's Charles owned the largest turkey ranch in southern
California in the area of Cajon Pass in Devore. The turkey ranch, now land covered by a new home development and small horse ranches, was worth around 250 to 500 thousand dollars at that time. From the mid 1950's until the early 1960's, he co-owned the Shandin Hills airport around San Bernardino with his investor friend Robbie Johnson. In one of the buildings on the property, an assembly line to restore leading edge surfaces on wings and tail assemblies was set up to perform contract work for Norton Air Force base. Sometime between having the turkey ranch and the airport, Charles even owned a gold mine. Its location was not generally disclosed for obvious reasons. The following passage is from Margaret Swaim/Olive and relates to the Shandin Hills airport:
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One hilarious thing that happened during that period.... Charles was preparing for a contract claims meeting with the contract administration staff at Norton AFB for NIC (not in contract) work ordered by the Air Force. If you've ever been involved in such matters, you know that government contracting agencies are great at ordering extra work and then making the contractor have to fight for compensation. Knowing what he might be up against, Charles figured he needed to come up with something to increase his clout. He asked his nephew Bob (who has a
somewhat aggressive presence) to wear his nicest suit and accompany him to the claims meeting, but to just be quiet and listen very intently. Charles would introduce him as being in "civil service"--which he actually was, but as a State Mental Health Department employee. Something came up that caused Charles to not take his nephew to the meeting, fortunately. The Norton AFB official who chaired the meeting lived across the street from the nephew!
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One grand business venture Charles attempted which was not a success was to go to China and make a movie. Inspired by the "China Smith" TV show, Charles thought he could make a movie along the same lines. The following passage is from Margaret Swaim/Olive:
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The saga of the movie was interesting, but I recall that it was a rather major frustration to Charles. He and three other investors pooled $1 million and hired just one movie star--Brian Keith--and went to I believe Hong Kong and filmed the movie, which was the pilot for a proposed TV series. For bit parts they used Chinese citizens who were willing to participate without pay. Their operation was informal enough that they didn't worry with all of the professional techniques of movie-makers. When there was a fight scene, rather than using trick photography or stunt techniques, the Chinese bit-part hire-ons actually got smashed in the face with fists!
According to Charles, the investors felt they could compete successfully with the China Smith series, starring Dan Duryea, because: a) by hiring only Brian Keith and using mostly free volunteers, they were having a lot of money on salaries; and b) they enhanced the realism by actually shooting their scenes in China, whereas China Smith's were shot in Chinatown, LA. It sounded very much like there was no new twist to their production to avoid the appearance of it being merely a China Smith copycat.
Charles did a lot of running around the country and the world trying to peddle that pilot. He remarked at one point, "It's amazing how many people don't want to buy this thing!" It was a complete bust.
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On a smaller scale, Charles had the idea of making a trip to Alaska pay for itself by taking along a truckload of watermelons and selling them once there. That idea worked.
Charles met both the women he married while living in the San Bernardino area. Jean Chance, his first wife, had a son and daughter from a previous marriage. Charles's stepson Bob actively participated with Charles in business ventures but was one of the people who became disenchanted by the Trail-Breaker project. After Jean died, Charles married Eleanor Gerstinyer. Eleanor was not well liked by Charles's family and was described by one as money hungry. Charles stayed close to San Bernardino in order to visit and help his parents. He built at least one house for his mother and bought an electric car (similar to a golf cart) which his mother and father both used to get around. After the death of his parents around 1962, Charles and Eleanor moved to Thousand Oaks, California. They owned a beautiful home there with such amenities as an aquarium in the wall and a sunken bath tub.
In order to verify his ideas for the Trail-Breaker, Charles built a working prototype. It had a different 2-cycle engine than was used on subsequent prototypes and production machines. However, it did have all of the essential features which make a Trail-Breaker unique: large low pressure tires mounted on drum wheels, an over-riding clutch, and the basic powertrain layout and frame geometry as used to this day. Figure 1 in his patent is thought to resemble this prototype. Another feature used on the prototype was a fluid drive which used two opposing impellers, similar to that used in an automotive type automatic transmission. Charles thought the fluid drive was one of the motorcycle's better features, but it proved to be troublesome on later prototypes and production bikes. Even when improved, it was prone to overheating and seal problems.
Building a prototype is one thing; building production machines another. Charles found none of his usual allies were interested in the motorcycle, and he had run low on funds during its development. He chose to try and interest established motorcycle manufacturers in the Trail-Breaker. One company he went to was Mustang Motorcycles. There Charles first met Jim Cavenaugh who was working at Mustang Motorcycles at that time. Jim, who would later work for Nethercutt Industrial, remembers Charles as a brilliant, cigar chomping man who was called "Charlie". Charles was accomplished at demonstrating the prototype which he did for family and friends, people at Mustang Motorcycles, and later the Nethercutts. He would commonly drive into a pickup without using a ramp and show that the motorcycle would climb a wall when placed against it. Charles was also known to have climbed boulders and crossed a deep river with it, and these feats were very impressive.
The following passage is from Margaret Swaim/Olive:
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I do remember him bringing it to our house in the back of his El
Camino. He explained that it had something like "full torque at zero speed" with its gear ratio and very under-inflated tractor tires. He proceeded to demonstrate one of its capabilities; he drove it slowly forward in the El Camino bed and climbed the rear of the cab!
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Charles's nephew Robert Olive remembers that he and especially his wife Margaret helped design the cover of the first catalog for the prototype motorcycle which had the slogan "Where the horse ends, Trail-???? begins". Robert was somewhat uncertain about the exact name of the
motorcycle (thus the ????), but thought "Trail-Breaker" sounded about right. The following passage is from Margaret Swaim/Olive:
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The reference my ex (Bob Olive) made to designing the cover of a catalog is something I don't remember. But I do remember that Charles had me design the logo for his motorcycle. He named it the "Trailmaker." The name "Trail-Breaker" didn't appear until after Merle Norman or others were involved. I remember some years later I saw a small ad in a sports or outdoor magazine (one of those tiny ads crammed 100 to the page at the rear of the magazine) for the Trail-Breaker, and was thrilled to find
they were still using my logo--revised from Trailmaker to Trailbreaker.
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Mustang Motorcycles passed on the opportunity to produce the Trail-Breaker. Somehow Charles met up with the Nethercutt family, demonstrated the machine, and convinced them to produce it. J. B. Nethercutt was looking to set up a separate business from Merle Norman Cosmetics for his sons Robert and Jack Jr. to run. Robert became president and Jack Jr. vice president of the new Nethercutt Industrial Corporation. Charles was hired by the new company although possibly more as a consultant than as a regular employee. When several additional prototypes had been built, Jim Cavenaugh was hired by Nethercutt Industrial to get the Trail-Breaker into production. By then, Charles was no longer working on the machine on a daily basis, but he could still be seen around the facility from time to time. Bill Baker, an engineer with an aircraft background, worked on improvements to Charles's original prototype, but Bill was less effective at making decisions needed to quickly get the Trail-Breaker into production. At Jim's suggestion, Howard Forest, previously chief engineer at Mustang Motorcycles, was hired by Nethercutt Industrial to replace Bill and to lead the production effort. Howard and Jim continued to make improvements to the production machine including elimination of the fluid drive on some of the last Trail-Breakers sold by Nethercutt Industrial (i.e. those machines that were sold in kit form). Charles was given high marks for the basic concept of the motorcycle although many improvements and changes were needed before it could be produced.
The following passage is from Rokon's founder Orla Larsen:
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Nethercutt mfg. corp. among several other things manufactured clay pigeons, and Charlie Fehn was on the staff as an inventor/doer type of person. Charlie was experimenting with a new method of making clay pigeons which would be cheaper, less breakable during shipping, but break just as easily when hit by bird shot. One day while he was mixing a new batch, it blew up and blasted him thru a 2 x 4 inner partition wall. The story has it that Charlie recovered (no lasting injuries), and went on to perfect the formula. I have heard many interesting stories
about Charlie, many way out, but the one about the blast is the only one that I have l00%, well 99% assurity of.
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Charles was once asked by his nephew what made the Trail-Breaker different from a standard motorcycle geared down and fitted with large tires. Charles responded that the key was "the clutch" and that he "had the patent on the clutch." The over-riding clutch is a key element of Charles's patent (US patent 3,268,025). The patent entitled "Motorcycle Having Two Driven Wheels" was filed on August 20, 1963 and issued as a patent on August 23, 1966. Charles Fehn is listed as the only inventor indicating that legally he alone contributed significantly in conceiving the invention. However, the patent was assigned to Nethercutt Industrial Corporation meaning that the company owned all legal rights to the patent. The figures in the patent clearly show an early prototype machine, and although many small differences can be seen, it is amazing how similar that first Trail-Breaker is to the modern version. The claims (statements made at the conclusion of the patent, with great legal precision, which specifically state what the invention is) cover a 2-wheel drive motorcycle with the same basic powertrain layout including an over-riding clutch and the same frame geometry used to this day. However, the claims also specify that a fluid drive be used. While the invention described by this patent has long since become part of the public domain (a U.S. patent expires after 17 years, or less if additional fees are not paid along the way), it is not clear that the Trail-Breakers without fluid drive produced by Rokon would have been affected by this patent.
Two previous applications for patent were filed by Charles on April 13, 1959 and August 31, 1962, and they were both entitled "Motorcycle for Slow Cross-Country Travel Over Obstructions and in Mountainous Regions, and Over Snow and Soft Ground". Both of these patent applications were abandoned usually meaning that the patent office would not grant a patent or that the application was withdrawn. The assignee (legal owner) for these applications and the reason they were abandoned are not currently known.
Charles's patent references several other U.S. and foreign patents. The U.S. patents are as follows:
- 1,107,990: Issued 18 Aug. 1914 and entitled "Motor-Cycle" describes a motorcycle with 2 driven wheels and front/rear drive shafts.
- 1,139,622: Issued 18 May 1915 and entitled "Motor-Cycle" describes amotorcycle with 2 driven wheels, front/rear drive shafts, and front spring suspension.
- 1,351,084: Issued 31 Aug. 1920 and entitled "Differential Drive Mechanism" describes a center differential for use in 4-wheel drive motor vehicles.
- 2,435,021: Issued 27 Jan 1948 and entitled "Front and Rear Wheel Driven Motor Vehicle" describes a 3-wheel vehicle with all wheels driven, front/rear drive shafts, and front spring suspension.
- 2,445,058: Issued 13 Jul. 1948 and entitled "Motor Vehicle Control Mechanism for Sequentially Controlling Wheel Braking and Motor Speed" describes a scooter brake/throttle control system, also utilizing a fluid drive mechanism.
- 2,959,237: Issued 8 Nov. 1960 and entitled "Four Wheel Drive for Automotive Vehicles" describes a full time 4-wheel drive mechanism utilizing one-way overrun devices.
- 3,045,772: Issued 24 Jul. 1962 and entitled "Drive for Motor Bikes" describes a motorcycle with 2 driven wheels and front/rear chain drive.
At the same time that Charles was working on the Trail-Breaker, he was also inventing and developing other products. One item was a welder's T-square which may have helped fund the Trail-Breaker development, and it was used at Nethercutt Industrial. Another item was the Pistolite Cylinder. While the Pistolite Cylinder did not turn out to be a money maker for Charles, it had great potential.
The Pistolite Cylinder replaced the normal cylinder in a single action revolver (the portion of the gun which contains the bullets). It contained a light bulb, focusing mechanism, battery and switch. When the gun's trigger was pulled, the switch would be activated, and the focused beam of light would project down the barrel of the gun, shine upon the target, and be visible at some distance, day or night. At the time (early 1960's), Westerns were all the rage on TV; gun enthusiasts were in a "fast draw" craze; and there were no modern laser sights. The device provided a safe way to practice as opposed to live ammunition. With the help of his nephew Robert Olive, the device was demonstrated for a large number of people. Charles set up his own manufacturing company called TOD-O Manufacturing Co. in Thousand Oakes, CA (Tod was Charles's nickname commonly used by his family and friends). However, he did not market this device effectively and did not follow through on requests (e.g. from Jeff Cooper, writer for Guns and Ammo) to make the device work for semi automatics and double action pistols. The device also lacked the sound of live ammo desired by some buyers.
Near the end of his life, Charles was depressed over having lost his last fortune, possibly related to a blacktop business, as well as other failed ventures. When it was suggested to him that he would be able to make another fortune, Charles indicated "not this time" and that he was getting too old. He died at his home on March 27, 1972. His death certificate states that he died of a heart attack, but there was talk from a local sheriff that Charles had died under peculiar circumstances. His widow Eleanor did not notify Charles's family of his death until over 2 months after his death, and therefore, his family was unable to attend his funeral. One thing is certain: Charles was a colorful character, and those who knew him aren't likely to forget him or the legacy he left behind.
Order forms (E-mail, Fax, or printable) for copies of U.S. patents are available at http://www.uspto.gov.
Much of the information about Charles Fehn was provided by his nephew Robert Olive, Margaret Swaim/Olive, Jim Cavenaugh, Robert Nethercutt, Orla Larsen, an official documents. Additional assistance was provided by Raymond Manker and John Fehn (other relatives of Charles) and J.B.