Motorcycles Through The Ages
A brief look at the history of the legendary motorcycle.
In the dust of the First Industrial Revolution, which marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production; the Second Industrial Revolution triggered a new wave of globalisation, and introduced new technology as well. As a result, plenty of new innovations blossomed with the intention to make everyday life better: One of these inventions was the motorcycle.
Globally, the motorcycle is, today, one of the most popular modes of transportation. That said, they have not always been as popular, and they were not always used for civilian life. This begs the question, where did they come from and how did they evolve to what they are today?
The Forerunners of Motorcycles
Originally, bicycles started as a concept called a velocipede, or the dandy horse. They were described as a running machine - a two-wheeled transportation device, powered by our legs. It’s not clear who, or when the pedals were first added to the device, but several versions were developed and improved in the following years. The term “bicycle” was used from the 1860s, when they became popular.
An English-built velocipede from around the 1860s, also known as the ‘boneshaker’. As you can see, it did have pedals, but was extremely uncomfortable to ride. (PHOTO: Science Museum)
The idea of the bicycle was an alternative form of transportation that would help maintain a decent speed, and be easy to use - except that it wasn’t. Or, well, it might not be as difficult to use - but thanks to its stiff wrought-iron frame and wooden wheels surrounded by tyres made of iron - it was certainly painful, and not to mention extremely dangerous.
A Rover safety bicycle from 1885, a slightly better option than the earlier bicycles. (PHOTO: Science Museum)
Luckily, the safety bicycle came along in the 1880s which had direct front steering, a chain-driven rear wheel, and same-sized front and rear wheel. Finally, people could get around without without a bruised arse and shattered bones. How luxurious! Today, the safety bike is the most common type of bicycle, and it played an important role in the creation of the modern motorcycle.
The First Motorcycles
There’s no definite answer as to who invented the first motorcycle, because people can’t seem to agree whether it should only be built with two wheels, if the pedals should be taken off, or even what kind of engine it should be fitted with. What is clear, however, is that all of these different attempts have in one way or another inspired the modern day motorcycle.
In the 1860’s a Frenchman called Pierre Michaux constructed velocipedes. His son, Ernest, figured it would be a good idea to attach a small steam engine to one, and so the first steam-powered bicycle had been born.
A Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede, which was fired by alcohol and had belt drives to the rear wheel. (PHOTO: ROGERIOMACHADO / Flickr)
In 1881 an American engineer, Lucius Copeland, fitted a Columbia penny-farthing with a smaller steam boiler that drove the large rear wheel to a speed of 12 mph. Three years later he used an American Star bicycle which had front wheel steering. It was quick, so in 1887, a three-wheeled version called the Phaeton Moto-Cycle was made. His inventions may not have been particularly safe reaching a speed up to 15 mph, but at least the name was coming along nicely.
An internal combustion engine was first added to a bike by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1885, and became known as the Reitwagen. Daimler had developed quite an interest for engines, and spent a lot of time studying them along with his friend Maybach. The duo was more interested in the application of the engine, and not so much the motorized bicycle itself. Because of this, the Reitwagen was abandoned in favour of further development on four wheeled vehicles. The basic design and structure along with an internal combustion engine was something that had never been done before and played a big role in the creation of the true motorcycle, the one we know and love today.
An American inventor with the name of Sylvester Roper, developed a two-cylinder, steam-powered velocipede with a coal-fired boiler fitted between the wheels. Unfortunately, Roper died of a heart attack while riding one of his later bicycle models in 1896. Even if his demonstration wasn’t as successful, he still managed to influence the development of new transportation methods. His twin-cylinder steam bicycle was based on the safety bicycle, and is by many considered the first motorcycle - but then again, so are the rest of the bikes mentioned.
To The Factories
Although Daimler and Maybach had abandoned the idea of the motorcycle, there were others who were toiling, trying to perfect the discoveries that were made in the previous years. Companies started to sell engine kits, for propelling ordinary bicycles. What was, back then referred to as ‘motorized bicycles’ were no longer these exclusive machines only displayed on shows and fairs. They were practical devices, and people actually used them to get around.
The Daimler Reitwagen: the first gasoline internal combustion motorcycle, which was really just made for testing. (PHOTO: mercedes-benz.com)
German engineers Heinrich Hildebrand, Wilhelm Hildebrand, and Alois Wolfmüller realised that people would be willing to purchase bikes with engines already attached, so after filing a patent in 1894, the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller - the world’s first production motorcycle - hit the market, and more than 200 vehicles made it onto the road.
In 1895 the French railcar and automotive manufacturer De Dion-Bouton, introduced what is considered the first lightweight and high-speed internal combustion engine, and it could generate half a horsepower, which believe it or not - was quite impressive back then. This particular engine sparked quite a stir in the brand new automotive industry, because it was now possible to mass-produce motorcycles. As a result, the engine was used and copied by many manufacturers around the world.
The 1894 Hildebrand und Wolfmüller had a two-cylinder, four-stroke engine. (PHOTO: Joachim Köhler / Wikimedia Commons)
It was in the early 1900s when the industry really started booming. Many existing bicycle and motor companies, such as the British companies Excelsior and Royal Enfield, began to produce their own self-propelled bicycles - and there were also new companies founded specifically to build these. The first major mass-production firms emerged, and the production really started to take shape. Plenty of new inventions and designs tagged along, like pneumatic tyres for a more comfortable ride, each one being incorporated into a familiar design, that of the modern motorcycle.
Racing with the motorcycle’s predecessor was already very popular, and it had been an organised sport since 1868. As you’d expect, it didn’t take long before people wanted to race with motorcycles as well.
Racing brought groups of people to the motorcycle community for the first time, so naturally someone had to administer the sport. As a result, big organizations were built: FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) was founded in 1904, and the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) followed in 1924.
There were even some companies founded, with focus on developing proper racing motorcycles. Indian was one of these firms, founded by bicycle race champion George M. Hendee. Other manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson, Triumph, and English Royal Enfield also worked hard to meet the increasing demands of faster and more powerful bikes. It’s safe to say that the excitement for racing boosted the further development of the motorcycle.
On Shaky Grounds
By the 1910's, it was clear that the motorcycle was here to stay; and as a result, it became a big part of people's everyday life. The production increased and tens of thousands of bikes were now rolling out of the factories. They were no longer just a form of transportation and entertainment. Because they were efficient and cheap to run, people found them to be extremely useful. There were even motorbikes custom made for certain tasks, such as delivery.
When World War I broke loose the roads were dominated by horse and carriage, but motorcycles eventually played a part as well. American and European armies used them to deliver messages, and sometimes they were even used in combat. These bikes were often fitted with sidecar mounted machine guns in order to transport them quickly.
The Great Depression left manufacturers struggling, and even took some of them completely out. Although Jeeps arrived and took an important role in World War II, the motorcycle - because it was small and practical - was still put to good use. This was good for the industry, as the increasing demand from the military meant that there was now plenty of business for the factories.
Motorcycle clubs are a well-known phenomenon around the motoring world, and have existed since the turn of the twentieth century. Clubs like Hell’s Angels are relatively familiar to some people, even those with no interest in motorbikes.
Yonkers Motorcycle Club, New York 1938. Not quite what you’d expect, is it? (PHOTO: American Motorcyclist Association)
The Motor Cycling Club which was founded in London in 1901, and Yonkers MC founded in 1903 in New York, are some of the oldest and still active motorcycle clubs. However, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the culture we know today had an actual impact and spread across the world.
In the post-war era, veterans found it difficult to adapt back to civilian life, and for many of them, motorcycling was the perfect opportunity to recreate the rush of war on home soil, as well as finding comfort in each other. This is how the modern biker culture was born, new motorcycle clubs started rolling and more people were on bikes than ever before.
The Forbidden Ones MC was founded in 1992 in Brooklyn. Here, they were photographed in 2011. (PHOTO: Shadi K. Best)
They were soon known as the outlaw motorcycle clubs. Even though criminals also joined in on the biker lifestyle, giving the rest of the bikers a bad reputation, the word ‘outlaw’ did not mean that the clubs necessarily took part in criminal activities. It simply meant that they were not licensed by the American Motorcyclist Association, but were instead a group built on their own rules and identity, reflecting the new biker culture. Because most of the outlaw motorcycle clubs were filled with veterans, and had norms with roots in military culture, they stayed on the right side of the law.
In The Media
Over the years, the biking culture has been a popular topic in media, and it wasn’t just journalists who were fascinated by the biker culture.
A traditional motorcycle rally in Hollister, California, in 1947 caused quite a stir. The small town’s population nearly doubled during the rally, and was said to be a complete chaos. Empty beer bottles reportedly flooded the streets, and bikers rode around drunk. Despite the absolute mess, it is said that the damage was minimal, but it still earned a negative portrayal by the media, which fueled the bikers’ bad reputation amongst the public. This event came to be known as the Hollister Riot, and has become an important chapter of the motorcycle history.
The Hollister Riot inspired a short story called "The Cyclists' Raid", which later inspired the popular outlaw biker movie “The Wild One”. Due to the film’s overwhelming success, plenty of exploitation films were produced in the following years. The trend really took off and it soon became its own genre called outlaw biker films which turned out to be particularly popular in the mid 60s, when Hell's Angels motorcycle club became prominent in the media.
Although many of the films were focused on the baddies, they still reflected that exciting biker lifestyle fueled by danger, youth and freedom. It was simply cool and thrilling, these kind of movies helped inspire a new generation of bikers, and they still probably do.
From the iconic biker movie “The Wild One”, starring Marlon Brando. (PHOTO: Sony Pictures Museum)
The New Machine
The European manufacturers, including the ones where the motorcycle industry had traditionally been established, were soon being overshadowed by Japanese companies. Improvements made by the Japanese lead to a completely new generation of bikes, and the world was intrigued.
It was also recognised that the motorcycle audience was changing. You no longer needed to be a badass wearing leather jackets and boots, and Honda was first out promoting this.
The clever ‘Nicest People’ campaign was born, and it managed to separate Honda’s motorcycles from the negative biker culture. The advertisements showed housewives, parents with children, and young couples riding motorbikes - stating that biking was now for everyone. So it didn’t only promote their brand or motorcycles, but also a new, modern lifestyle. Motorcycles were once more seen as practical, and made for the everyday person.
Honda introduced the CB750 in 1969 - which was an instant hit, and had a huge impact on the already changing market. It was a bike for everyone: it ran smoothly, had a comfortable dual seat, was easy for the everyday person to use, and would take you where you wanted to go. The change of perception increased bike sales, and Japanese bikes controlled the roads. And even though Europe tried to, they simply couldn’t keep up.
Japanese competitors could keep up, though. Kawasaki with its 900cc Z1, which was launched in 1973, was probably one of the most noteworthy. Suzuki’s GS750 followed in 1977, and the following year, Yamaha showed off the X750.
The Honda CB750 is known as the world’s first superbike. It had a four stroke, transverse four cylinder engine. It was also fitted with an electric started, and a front disc brake. (PHOTO: ujenimotors.com)
Honda was the leading manufacturer in the world, but eventually, European brands began to make a comeback. Manufacturers such as Triumph, Ducati, Moto Guzzi, and KTM also followed the trend, creating their own versions of the large capacity motorcycle. BMW brought out its first real sporting machine, the R90S, and the iconic R100RS sports tourer came shortly after. Harley-Davidson remained a strong name thanks to their loyal followers in America, and soon got some competition by new American brands.
The BMW R100RS was designed to make high-speed touring comfortable, and had a top speed of 125 mph. (PHOTO: BMW)
This really was the start of the golden age for motorcycles: Many new features were introduced, such as electronic fuel injection systems came along in the 1980s. Anti-lock Braking Systems were added to some bikes in the 1990s, and we later saw Dual Compound Tyres and Traction Control. New protective gear, such as the full-face helmet and specially designed armor. All of these inventions, and more, were developed to make the motorcycles even better. Not to mention that people really wanted them, and they had become a status symbol.
Where We’re At
Weather you’re a worker, eager racer, fighting soldier, a dedicated biker, or just in need to get around - the motorcycle is ready to serve. It’s given many people the opportunity to grow, explore, be passionate, and build friendships. We’ve seen the motorcycles go from simple, wobbly bicycles with engines attached, to lean, mean machines. There’s no doubt that, in the last 100 years or so, they’ve come a long way.
Ok… We might not be there just yet, but this flying motorbike concept by BMW looks pretty cool. (PHOTO: BMW)
The first motorbikes were poorly built, extremely impractical, difficult to use and not to mention dangerous - some even at what we today would consider low speed. Although they were brilliant for its time and class, it’s quite obvious that they can’t be compared to the modern day motorcycle.
Just few decades ago, they were far less focused. Your standard bike was expected to do pretty much everything: Be cool looking for cruising, be comfortable for touring, fast enough for racing - and be suitable enough to get you to work. Today most of the motorcycles have become quite specific, and although the basic design of the motorcycle remains the same, many bikes can be put into one of many classes. Meaning that whatever riding category you prefer, there will definitely be something out there to fulfill your needs.
This new generation of bikes are better built, have bigger engines and are more fuel efficient. Modern tyres, brakes and suspension are just in a whole other league. Modern features such as Traction Control, Stability Control and Anti-lock Braking are making the motorcycles safer. There are even some bikes that offer different ride modes and adaptive headlights.
In addition to making modifications to the motorcycles themselves, there rider’s gear have also come a long way. There are helmets with built-in GPS systems and cameras to show rear views and eliminate blind spots, some even offering Bluetooth connection. Airbag vests and jackets with sensors detecting when someone’s crashed, and new boots designed to protect the foot and absorb the shock of impact. There’s no doubt that more safety-enhancing innovations will come along in the future.
The arrival of the electric motorcycle was a big milestone, and is a topic of ongoing controversy. It mainly started out as a project by specialised manufacturers such as the American maker Zero, but now even some of the traditional manufacturers have taken interest in electric motorcycles and brands like Harley-Davidson and Yamaha are developing versions of their own.
Even Harley-Davidson have rolled into the electric world, and their first production electric motorcycle will debut in 2019. (PHOTO: Sean O'Kane / The Verge)
As time has gone by, the motorcycles have become faster, smarter and safer. Just like the rest of the world, the motorcycle industry is changing fast. Many new innovations have been introduced these past few years, so there’s really just one question we can ask ourselves...