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Brief History of Motorcycles

Updated on April 18, 2012

Never call a biker a motorcyclist. If you don’t know the difference, try it. One will be more than happy to explain it to you. In the simplest terms, ride a small one, you’re a motorcyclist. Ride a big one, you’re a biker. In either case, ever since somebody slapped an engine on a bicycle and called it a motorcycle, the world hasn’t been the same. It’s become woven into the fabric of society.

There are two schools of thought about who created the first motorcycle. The answer depends on your point of view. American, Sylvester Howard Roper invented a two-cylinder, steam-engine motorcycle in 1867. Some didn’t consider a steam engine powered by coal a real motorcycle. These individuals point to German, Gottlieb Daimler as the true inventor of the first gas-engine motorcycle in 1885. However, don’t applaud too loudly. He couldn’t have done it without Nikolaus Otto’s creation of the first four-stroke Internal-combustion engine in 1876. He called it the Otto Cycle Engine.

There’s more than enough credit to go around though. Before anybody could make a motorcycle they first needed a suitable frame on which to mount the engine. That was provided by John Kemp Starley in 1885 with his Rover Safety design. It was a bicycle with front and rear wheels of the same size and a pedal crank mechanism to drive the rear wheel.

Daimler's 1885 Model

Daimler’s design also included a spring-loaded outrigger wheel on each side for added stability. But it was still far from perfect. Its chassis was made of wood. The wheels, also made of wood, had wooden spokes and iron rims. Bicycles made with this design were aptly called "boneshakers." In the late 1880s, dozens of designs and machines emerged, most notably in France, Germany and England by many various manufacturers. It wasn’t long before Americans also got involved.

The next notable innovations in motorcycle design were introduced by Alex Millet in 1892. He added pneumatic tires and a five-cylinder rotary engine incorporated into the rear wheel while the crankshaft formed the rear axle. Still in its infancy the motorcycle industry tried new concepts to improve their products. One was the Hildebrand & Wolfmueller water cooled, parallel-twin engine two-wheeler, patented in Munich in 1894. Only about 200 were made.

It was the DeDion-Buton engine, a small, but efficient four-stroke engine, that revolutionized the industry by making mass production possible in 1895. It delivered half a horsepower of drive. DeDion-Buton originally used the engine for their motor tricycles, but it worked so well competitors quickly began creating their own similar versions. The two most famous American manufacturers to incorporate it were the Indian Motorcycle Company and Harley Davidson.

Carl Oscar Hedstrom and George M. Hendee founded the Hendee Manufacturing Company in 1900. In 1901, they produced a 1.75-horsepower motorcycle capable of 25 miles per hour and changed their name to Indian. It was the world's best-selling motorcycle until World War I.

The Harley Davidson Motor Company, founded by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson in 1902, began producing the sturdiest and most durable machines and by 1920, was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

Motorcycles were a dependable and gas efficient alternative, however, automobiles were still king. It was the advent of World War I in 1914 that propelled the motorcycle into the limelight and made its presence known. American and European armies found them the ideal solution for gathering reconnaissance and courier service. In 1917, about one-third of all Harley-Davidson’s were sold to the U.S. military. By 1918, it was nearly 50 percent. It is estimated the Army used some 20,000 motorcycles during the war, most of them Harley Davidson's.

By 1931, Indian and Harley Davidson were the only two American manufacturers in the United States. It remained that way until 1953, when the Indian Motorcycle factory in Springfield MA closed and Royal Enfield took over its operations.

However, other countries were also competing. There were over 80 makes in Britain during the 30s, many known worldwide such as Norton, Triumph and AJS. There were other more obscure names like Gerrard, SOS, Nut, Chell and Whitwood and many others competing on the world market during the early 1900s.

Motorcycle production surged again with the outbreak of World War II and the military need for them increased. But, following the war, sales didn’t plummet as expected. By this time Americans had discovered the motorcycle’s recreational and leisure properties and a new form of social institutions were born…organized clubs. About the same time Europeans were finding them an economical means of transportation.

Then the Japanese companies Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha got into the act during the 50s by being able to produce modern designs more quickly, cheaply and better than their competitors. European sales, as well as Harley-Davidson’s, suffered. Many went bust, but others weathered the storm.

Today, the Japanese dominate the industry. However, Harley Davidson still has a fiercely loyal following in the US. Many clubs regularly participate in charitable events.


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    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      A great hub from a motorbike enthusiast;take care and enjoy your day.


    • tlcs profile image

      Trudy Cooper 

      6 years ago from Hampshire, UK

      Enjoyed your hub!


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