A History of the Motorcycle – From Steam to Superbike


Before we get to the very first motorcycle, it’s only right that we take a quick look at what prompted its invention. Although claims have been made that a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, sketched plans for the very first bicycle in the late 1400’s. Most people, however, consider this fact a fake. It was left to German civil servant, Baron Karl von Drais, to invent the Laufmaschine in 1817 to get the whole thing rolling.

Why is this important? Well, when a man sits on a bicycle for the first time and propels himself along, feeling the exhilaration of traveling faster than walking pace, it isn’t long before he wants to increase that feeling by traveling faster. Don’t ask me why, it’s just a man thing.

And so, it was, in 1867, Ernest Michaux of Paris, whilst peddling away on one of his father’s Velocipede cycles, came up with the bright idea of fitting a steam engine (invented by Louis-Guillaume Perreaux) to it. Full credit to Ernest and Louis for the idea, but perhaps a brass cylinder full of scalding steam, heated by an alcohol fueled burner directly under the seat, wasn’t exactly the best of ideas.

Incidentally, the right to call the Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede the very first motorcycle is hotly contested by the American Roper Steam Velocipede, also of 1867, and the German internal combustion engine Daimler Reitwagen of 1885.

These latter two proved to be of huge interest in their own right but unfortunately for very different reasons. According to the Boston Daily Globe of 1896, Sylvester H. Roper, whilst out on his faster MkII version, had just made a flying lap of Charles River Park when he suddenly crashed and died. The newspaper referred to the Velocipede as his ‘’fatal invention’’ probably giving the motorcycle its first bad press, even though he died of a heart attack and managed to turn the steam valve off before going down.

Motorcycle History: Steam

In the following years, steam engine, belt-driven two and three wheeled contraptions popped-up all over Europe and America but as some historians suggest, it was Maybach and Daimler’s Reitwagen (riding-car) of 1885, that was the first to legitimately call itself a motorcycle as it used an internal combustion engine as its means of propulsion. So, it’s invariably these two automotive giants that are attributed with being the fathers of the modern motorcycle.

Before we get too hung up on dates and names, it is only fair to give an honorable mention to Edward Butler, who exhibited the Butler Petrol Cycle a full 12 months before the Germans. Reading the specs for Butler’s engine is entertaining and enlightening in itself. His four stroke, rotary valve, float-fed carburetor engine was at the cutting edge of technology at the time but the 600cc engine kicked out a mere 5/8th of a horsepower! By comparison, the CBR600RR of today produces 118 hp.

Regardless of who was first past the post, the point is, the motorcycle had arrived and there was no going back.

Almost a decade later and with bicycle manufacturers beefing-up their frames and cycle parts to accommodate the new trend for adding petrol engines to them, the Hildebrand and Wolfmuller ‘Motorcycle’ was the first to actually look the part, rather than like a motorized shopping trolley (Butler) or a medieval torture device (Daimler/Maybach). More importantly, this was also the first time the term ‘motorcycle’ had been used.

Motorcycle History:Production

Hildebrand and Wolfmuller were also the first to put the bike into limited production but by the end of the 19th century, the era of the motorcycle was finally dawning. In England, Coventry based Excelsior, offered their first production machine to the public and by the early 1900’s Royal Enfield had gone into production, followed by Triumph, BSA, and Norton.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Indiana Motorcycle Company produced a 1.75 horsepower single-cylinder bike featuring their revolutionary diamond shaped frame and chain drive. When co-founder and head engineer Oscar Hedstrom set the world motorcycle speed record in 1903 (56mph), sales of the bike went from 500 a year to a colossal 32,000 in under a decade. This made them the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

It was also during this period (1905) that Indian built their first V- twin, with other iconic motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson launching their own V, two years later. Although focus is always drawn to these iconic American companies, fantastic advances in engine and frame technology were occurring in mainland Europe too.

Motorcycle History: Shaft Driven

A prime example being the Fabrique National Company of Belgium, who in 1905, produced the world’s first shaft driven in-line four-cylinder motorcycle with a hand-operated clutch. Motorcycles had at last outgrown their bicycle frames and were evolving at their own pace.

The devastating ripples sent around the globe from WWI also served to focus the effort of the larger motorcycle manufacturers when messages to the front line, previously delivered on horseback, were taken over by dispatch riders. Harley Davidson turned over 50% of its production to the war effort, whilst Triumph sold over 30,000 units to the allied forces. This increase in demand was the catalyst for designing faster production techniques and model improvements.

After the war and with the increased popularity of motorcycle racing, the competition between motorcycle manufacturers to produce faster and more technologically advanced bikes heated-up. By 1920, HD had taken over the lead as biggest producer, establishing markets in 67 countries around the world. Three years later, BMW took their first step into the arena with the first of their shaft-driven boxer twin engines. And by the late twenties another German company, DKW, had knocked Harley off the top slot for largest manufacturer.

By the 1930’s, in Great Britain alone, over 80 motorcycle manufacturers existed, whilst in the States only HD and Indian were left to duke it out. Germany was already established as a bike-producing juggernaut, whilst Italy’s iconic brands such as Benelli, Moto Guzzi and Ducati, were already well established.

Motorcycle History: WWII

The onset of WWII was another dark day in world history but had pretty much the same effect on motorcycle production as its predecessor, with BSA alone supplying over 125,000 bikes to the armed forces.

The same story was repeated in Germany with BMW and Zundapp. Moto Guzzi was chosen for the Italian army, Harley Davidson’s famous WLA’s served the United States and China and Russia had their own BMW variants in the Ural and Dnepr.

Although both World Wars had served to bolster the main motorcycle manufacturers, it was the decade after the war that saw the biggest and perhaps most radical effects on the history of the motorcycle. Some say that the 50’s were the golden age of motorcycling whilst others claim it was the 60’s.

Motorcycle History: Glory Days

That debate is probably one that will never be resolved.  The 1950’s were certainly the glory days of the British bike industry, but the 1960’s heralded the onset of the Japanese era. All four of Japan’s motorcycle manufacturers can trace the origins of their name back to the early part of the 20th century but didn’t begin building motorcycles till much later.

Honda kicked things off in 1946, with Suzuki joining in 1952, whilst Yamaha arrived on the two- wheeled scene in 1955 and Kawasaki joined the party in 1962.

Originally concentrating their efforts on small commuter bikes for the Asian markets, it wasn’t until the huge potential of the American market beckoned that Japanese builders upped their game.

The 1969 Honda CB750 broke new ground in terms of speed, comfort and handling. It was the first commercially available bike with an overhead camshaft and a disc brake. And the bike that fired the first shot in the revolution, sounding the death knell for the British motorcycle history.

Honda ruled the roost for three straight years, right up until Kawasaki launched the Z1 900 and the unending fight for bigger, better, faster still continues today. And let’s not forget the many technological milestones that we take completely for granted today but started out being viewed suspiciously by the buying public. Milestones like Kawasaki’s fuel injection system on the KZ1000 of 1980, BMW’s ABS system fitted to their K100 in 88. The list is endless; long travel suspension, liquid cooling, traction control and mag-alloy wheels, to name but a few.

Today, history is repeating itself with famous marques from yesteryear re-invented and re-packaged. Indian, Triumph, Norton, Ariel, all landmark names from motorcycling’s glorious past brought back to life bristling with new technology.

We should never forget however; just how courageous and ingenious those early motorcycle pioneers really were and how much we owe them. They risked their lives and reputations to push the boundaries of design and performance overcoming incredible odds not to mention the laws of physics.

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