The History Of Motorcycles

The motorcycle traces its history back to the 2nd half of the 19th Century. It is the descendant of the “safety bicycle,” which had the same size front and rear wheels as well as a pedal mechanism for driving the rear wheel.

In spite of some early landmarks to the development of the motorcycle, it doesn’t have a rigid pedigree that you can trace back to a single machine or idea. Rather, it is an idea that seemingly occurred to numerous inventors and engineers around Europe at or around a similar time period.

Early Steam-Powered Cycles

Pierre Michaux, a Paris-based blacksmith founded ‘Michaux et Cie’ in the 1860s, which was the first company to build bicycles that had pedals that were referred to as “Michauline” or velocipede. The Michaux-Perreaux steam-powered velocipede, which is the first motorcycle to be powered by steam traces its origins back to 1867 when Ernest Michaux, who was Pierre’s son, fitted one of the ‘velocipedes’ with a small steam engine.

The design found its way to America when a Michaux Employee named Pierre Lallement that also claimed to be behind the development of the prototype in 1863 filed for the first bicycle patent with the United States patent office in 1966.

Roxbury, Massachusetts’s Sylvester H. Roper developed a velocipede with a twin-cylinder that had a coal-fired boiler between the wheels in 1868. The contribution that Roper had to the development of the motorcycle ended abruptly when he suffered a fatality while demonstrating one of his devices on June 1, 1896, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1868 was the year when a Louis-Guillaume Perreaux, a French engineer patented the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede, which was a similar single-cylinder steam-powered machine. It had twin belt drives, an alcohol burner, and was possibly invented independently of Roper’s creation. While the patent dates back to 1868, there’s nothing to indicate that the invention had been operable prior to 1871.

Phoenix, Arizona’s Lucius Copeland came up with a much smaller design of steam boiler that was capable of driving the American Star high-wheeler’s large rear wheel at 12mph in 1881. Copeland established the Northrop Manufacturing Company in 1887 to produce the first successful ‘Moto-Cycle’, which was actually a 3-wheeler.

Experimentation and Invention

The Butler Petrol Cycle is the very first commercial design for a self-propelled bicycle. It was a 3-wheel design that was conceived of and built by England’s Edward Butler in 1884. Butler exhibited plans for the vehicle at London’s Stanley Cycle Show in 1884, 2 years prior to Karl Benz inventing the first automobile. (Benz is widely recognized as the one who invented the modern automobile). Butler’s design was the first one to be shown at London’s International Inventions Exhibition of 1885. The Merryweather Fire Engine Company in Greenwich built the vehicle in 1888.

The Petrol Cycle was a 3-wheeled vehicle whose rear wheel was directly driven by a 5/8hp 600cc flat twin 4-stroke engine that was equipped with rotary valves and a float fed carburetor and Ackermann steering, which were at the time all state-of-the-art. Starting was through compressed air. It had a liquid-cooled engine and the radiator was over the rear driving wheel. A throttle valve lever was used to control speed. It didn’t have a braking system fitted. To stop it, you had to raise and lower the rear driving wheel using a foot-operated lever. Two small castor wheels carried the weight of the machine. The driver would sit between the front wheels. Unfortunately, it was not commercially successful since Butler was unable to secure enough financial backing.

The Petroleum Reitwagen was another early internal combustion motorcycle that was fueled by petroleum. German inventors Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler were responsible for designing and building it in in1885 in Bad Cannstatt, Germany. The vehicle was unlike the boneshaker bicycles or safety bicycles of the era since it had zero degrees of steering axis but no fork offset, which means that it didn’t use the principles of motorcycle and bicycle dynamics that had been developed 70 years prior. Instead, it had 2 outrigger wheels that it relied on to stay upright while turning. It was named the Reitwagen (“riding car”) by its inventors. It was designed to be an expedient testbed for their new engine as opposed to a true prototype vehicle.

The First Commercial Products

Dozens of machines and designs emerged in the decade from the late 1880s, especially in England and Germany as quickly started spreading to America. This early period of motorcycle history had numerous manufacturers since the makers of bicycles were adapting their designs for the new internal combustion engine.

The first series production motorcycle was introduced by Hildebrand & Wolfmüller in 1894. It was the first machine to be referred to as a “motorcycle”. Still, just a few hundred of this motorcycle were ever built. It was also in the same year that the first instance of the term “motor cycle” appeared in English in promotional material for machines developed by E.J. Pennington. However, the motorcycles by Pennington never moved past the prototype phase.

Excelsior Motor Company, which initially manufactured bicycles and was based in Coventry in Warwickshire, England, started production of their first model of the motorcycle in 1896, which was available for purchase by the public. The Orient-Aster was the first production motorcycle in the United States, which was built in 1898 by Charles Metz at his factory in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Peugeot Motorcycles launched the first motorcycle equipped with a Dion-Bouton motor at the Paris Motorshow in 1898. Peugeot Motorcycles is still the world’s oldest manufacturer of motorcycles.

The early period of motorcycle history had many bicycle makers modifying their designs to accommodate the new internal-combustion engine. The engine continually became more powerful and the designs eventually outgrew the bicycle origins and there was an increase in the number of motorcycle producers. Many 19th century inventors that worked on early motorcycles eventually moved on to different projects. For instance, Roper and Daimler both went on to build automobiles.

Motorcycle Mass-Production Manufacturing Emerges at Start of 20th Century

Royal Enfield, an English bicycle and quadricycle maker introduced its first motorcycle in 1901. It had a 239-cc engine that was wounded in the front and used a belt to drive the rear wheel. Triumph, the English bicycle maker decided to extend its focus to include motorcycles in 1898 and by 1902 had produced its first motorcycle, which was a bicycle fitted with an engine built in Belgium. 1 year later, Triumph as the largest manufacturer of motorcycles with a production of more than 500 units annually. Other British firms included Norton and Birmingham Small Arms Company that started making motorcycles in 1902 and 1910, respectively.

The Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company that had been established by 2 former bicycle-racers, designed the “diamond framed” Indian Single in 1901. The Aurora Firm in Illinois built the engine according to Indian’s specifications. The Single was made available in deep blue. By 1902, Indian’s production was up to over 500 bikes and rose to its highest ever production of 32,000 in 1913. Indian had ab average annual production of 20,000 bikes. The Rossiya is the oldest surviving motorcycle manufactured in Russia that dates from 1902. Harley-Davidson, the American company started to produce motorcycles in 1903.

Experimentation and innovation during this period were driven by motorcycle racing, which was by then a popular new sport, with its powerful incentive to produce fast, reliable, and tough machines. The enhancements were quickly introduced in machines designed for the public.

The Berkeley California Police Department Chief August Vollmer is widely recognized for being the one to organize the first official police motorcycle-patrol in the U.S. in 1911. By the time 1914 rolled in, motorcycles weren’t just bicycles with engines; they had their own technologies. However, many retained some bicycle elements such as the suspension and seats.

World War I

Motorcycle production was significantly ramped up during World War I for the war effort for supplying effective communications with front line troops. Dispatch riders on motorcycles carrying messages, acting as military police, and performing reconnaissance quickly replaced messengers on horses.

By the end of the war, Harley-Davidson was devoting more than half of its factory output toward military contracts. Triumph Motorcycles, on the other hand, sold over 30,000 of its Triumph Type H-model to the allied forces during the war. The Model H had a rear wheel that was driven by a belt. It came fitted with a 499-cc air-cooled 4-stroke single-cylinder engine. It was also the first Triumph not to have pedals.

The Model H is viewed by many as being the first “modern motorcycle”. It was introduced in 1915 and had a 550cc side-valve 4-stroke engine as well as a 3-speed gearbox and belt transmission. It was such a massive hit that users nicknamed it “Trusty Triumph.”


Harley Davidson became the largest manufacturer by 1920 with its motorcycles being sold by dealers in 67 countries.

Chater-Lea stood out in the 1920s among many British motorcycle manufacturers with its twin-cylinder models that were followed by its large singles. Initially, using a converted Woodmann-designed OHV Blackburne engine, it became the first 350 cc to go faster than 100mph. It recorded 100.81mph over the flying kilometer in April 1924.

Chater-Lea would later set a world record for the flying kilometer for 350 cc and 500 cc motorcycles at 102.9mph. Chater-Lea then went on to produce variants of these world-beating sports models and became popular among racers at the Isle of Man TT. The firm is today best remembered for its long-term contract to manufacture and supply AA Patrol motorcycles as well as sidecars.

Germany’s DKW took over as the largest manufacturer by the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1923, BMW motorcycles came on to the scene with a shaft drive and opposed-twin or “boxer” engine that was enclosed in a single aluminum housing along with the transmission.

Harley-Davidson and Indian were by 1931 the only 2 American manufacturers that were producing commercial motorcycles. The rivalry between the two companies in the US remained until when the Indian Motorcycle factory closed in 1953 and the Indian name was taken over by Royal Enfield.

In the 1930s, there were more than 80 different makes of motorcycle available in Britain, from the familiar marques such as Triumph, Norton, and AJS to the obscure that had names such as NUT, Whitwood, Chell, SOS, and New Gerrard, which was about twice as many makes of motorcycles competing in the world during the early 21st century.

Joe Petrali set a new land speed record of 136.1834 mph in 1937 on a modified Harley-Davidson 1,000 cc (61 cubic inch) overhead valve-driven motorcycle. Petrali also broke the speed record for 737cc (45 cubic inch) engine motorcycles.

Production demands in Europe, which were driven by the buildup to World War II included motorcycles for military applications, and BSA supplied the British armed forces with 126,000 BSA M20 motorcycles, starting in 1937 and continuing until 1950. Royal Enfield also made motorcycles for the military, which included a 125-cc lightweight motorcycle that could be dropped from an aircraft.

Post- World War II

American veterans found a replacement for the excitement, camaraderie, danger, and speed of life at war in motorcycles after World War II. Motorcycle rider in the United States grouped into loosely organized clubs to create a new social institution i.e. “bikers” or motorcyclists, which would later be skewed by the “outlaw” persona portrayed by Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One.

In Europe, post-war motorcycle manufacturers were more concerned with designing economical, practical transportation than the social aspects, or “biker” image. The Vespa was introduced in 1946 by Italian designer Piaggio and experienced widespread and immediate popularity. Imports from Italy, UK, and Germany thus found a niche in the US markets not filled by American bikes.

Triumph Motorcycles was purchased by the BSA Group in 1951 to become the world’s largest motorcycle producer. The German NSU was the largest manufacturer from 1955 until when it was overtaken by Honda that became the largest manufacturer in 1959.

British motorcycle manufacturers Norton, BSA, and Triumph retained a dominant position in some markets until the rise of Japanese manufacturers that were led in Honda in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1960s, the role of the motorcycle shifted from that of a tool to that of a lifestyle. It then became part of status, and image, a prop in Hollywood B-movies, and a cultural icon for individualism.

The motorcycle also morphed into a recreational machine for both leisure and sport, a vehicle for the carefree youth and not essential transportation for a mature family man or family woman. The Japanese managed to produce designs faster, more cheaply, and of better quality than the competition. The motorcycles they made wee both more reliable and stylish, which was the reason why British manufacturers fell behind the mass-market manufacturers.

Honda was officially founded in Japan in 1948 introduced its SOHC inline 4 engine CB750 in 1969 that was inexpensive and an instant success. It was responsible for introducing the across the frame 4 engine configuration as a design that had a huge potential for both power and performance. Shortly after the SOHC was introduced, Kawasaki demonstrated the potential of the 4-stroke 4-cylinder engine when the KZ900 was introduced.

Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki each started to produce motorcycles in the 1950s. The sun was meanwhile setting on British dominion over the big-displacement motorcycle market.

Dominance of Japanese Manufacturers

The excellence of Japanese motorcycles had similar effects in all Western markets; a good number of Italian manufacturers either collapsed completely or barely managed to survive. BMW’s worldwide sales thus sagged in the 1960s as a result but came back strongly when the completely redesigned “slash-5” series for the model year 1970 was introduced.

The small 2-stroke motorcycles enjoyed massive popularity worldwide from the 1960s through the 199o. Part of the reason why this was the case was the pioneering work of Daniel Zimmermann from East Germany and MZ’s Walter Kaaden that developed the 2-stroke expansion chamber in the 1950s. Suzuki took up these ideas when Ernst Degner, who was the MZ rider and engineer, defected in 1961 to the West in 1961 after he retired from the 125cc Swedish Grand Prix. Degner was a great engineer and immediately joined Suzuki and his knowledge became the company’s technology springboard.

Harley-Davidson at the same time was suffering from the same problems as European companies, but the American tariff laws, unique product range, and nationalism-driven customer loyalty is what actually ensured its survival. However, one supposed flaw was retaining the Harley-Davidson 45-degree engine vee-angle that causes too much vibration and the loping Harley-Davidson sound.

BMW motorcycle introduced a factory full fairing in 1977’s R100RS, which was the first factory fairing to be produced at mass-scale. BMW stimulated the “adventure touring” category of motorcycling with the R80G/S, which was a dual-sport model. BMW was the first manufacturer of motorcycles to announce anti-lock brakes (ABS) on the sporting K100RS-SE as well as K1 models in 1988.

The Present

Japanese manufacturers Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Honda currently dominate the massive motorcycle industry. However, Harley-Davidson is still quite popular, especially in the USA. Motorcycle brands, which include Ducati, Triumph, and BMW have experienced a resurgence in popularity and Victory has emerged as a second successful manufacturer of big-twin American cruisers.

E.V.A. Products BV Holland, a Dutch company announced the first diesel-powered motorcycle that’s commercially available in November 2006 – The Track T-800CDI, which went into production. It uses an 800cc 3-cylinder diesel engine by Daimler Chrysler. Other manufacturers, however, which include Royal Enfield have been producing diesel=powered motorbikes since as far back as 1965.

The Developing World

In the developing world, there’s a large demand for small, cheap motorcycles and many of the companies that currently meet that demand also competes in mature markets, such as Hongdou by China that makes a version of the venerable CG125 by Honda.

Motorcycle taxis are also quite common in the developing world. Motorcycles, mopeds, and scooters all provide a cheap, fast, but risky way around snarled traffic as well as scarce mass transit due to their ability to easily squeeze through jams.

Honda introduced the first flex fuel motorcycle in the world to the Brazilian market in March 2009, the CG Titan Mix. In just its first 8 months after being launched in the market, it had captured a market share of 10.6 percent and ranked second in the sales of new motorcycles in the Brazilian market in 2009.

Honda then launched a second flexible-fuel motorcycle in September 2009 and by December 2010, both of the flexible-fuel motorcycles by Honda had reached cumulative production of 515, 726 units, which represented an 18.1 percent market share of the new motorcycle sales in Brazil that year. By January 2011, production reached the 1 million units milestone and there were 4 flex-fuel motorcycle models in the market.

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