The Early History of Motorcycles

Motorcycles are one of the most popular forms of transport available around the world today. There are millions of motorcycle users worldwide who ride for business or for pleasure. It is a great mode of transport for areas where cars are not suitable. It is also the perfect choice for people who cannot afford to buy and run a car. The motorcycle fan base has developed thanks to years of innovation in the field. The first 70 years of history for motorcycles were incredibly important in shaping the bikes that we ride today.

The first motorcycles were introduced in the 1860s in Paris by a blacksmith called Pierre Michaux. He experimented with adding propulsion systems to velocipede bikes. Along with his son Ernest he developed a velocipede which could be fitted with a mini sized steam powered engine. His designs were taken to America by a company employee who emigrated in the middle of the nineteenth century.

American inventor Sylvester H Roper took these designs and developed them further to add more power to the machines. He created a twin-cylinder engine which ran off a small coal fuel fired boiler that was carried on the velocipede. This design offered slightly more power than the early French designs, although the machine was still characterised by the asymmetrically-sized bike wheels which were common on pedal bikes during the era. Although he continued to contribute to motorbike design for the next 20 years, Roper eventually died whilst demonstrating one of his inventions.

By 1881, American Lucius Copeland had created a much more smaller steam boiler that was able to be attached to foot cycles of the period. These boilers were able to power the big wheel of the American Star bicycle at around 12 mph. However, it was difficult to actually ride the bike at this speed due to balancing issues.

The first commercially available “motor-cycle” was showcased by Edward Butler at the International Inventions Exhibition in London. Although this bike was technically a three-wheeler, most people consider it to be a forerunner for the modern motorbike. These vehicles were built and made by Merryweather Fire Engine Company which was based in Greenwich. The vehicle was started using compressed air and the “motor-cycle” radiator was liquid cooled. Speed could be increased on the self-propelled vehicle by using a throttle valve. There were no brakes, but the bike could be brought to a stop using an elaborate technique. Unfortunately the vehicle was not a big success because Edward Butler didn’t manage to gain sufficient financial backing.

Another nineteenth century model was trialled in the form of Petroleum Reitwagen (“riding car”) which was developed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Mayback of Germany. In order to remain stable, the Reitwagen had two outrigger stabiliser wheels. These wheels reduced the overall speed at which the vehicle could travel. Rather than being a viable vehicle, some motorbike historians think that this machine was mainly designed to test the capabilities of Daimler and Maybach’s latest combustion engine.

Most models that were created during the early part of the twentieth century were equipped with pedals as well. These pedals provided assistance with starting the vehicles and offered a failsafe in case there was a problem with the engine. Some people struggled to find fuel for their vehicles, so pedals were a very practical feature.

In the pre-war period, some familiar manufacturers began to manufacture bikes, including Harley- Davidson and Triumph. These vehicles looked increasingly like the bikes that we know today. The design of the wheels was changed to match developments in pedal bike design. The front wheel and the back wheel were adapted to be almost the same size. Efforts were made to house the engine more securely on the bike frame and to give the bikes powered headlights. Coloured bike frames were also tested, so that consumers could be given a greater degree of choice about what their bike would look like.

By the beginning of the Firs World War, there were hundreds of different motorcycle designs in circulation around the world. Motorcycle production was increased significantly towards the start of the conflict because motorbikes were seen as one of the most viable ways to maintain supply and communications with the troops fighting on the front line. Whereas armies had previously relied on mounted messengers, horses were soon replaced by motorcycle dispatch riders. Harley-Davidson dedicated 50% of wartime production to fulfilling military contracts, whereas Triumph sold over 30,000 Model H motorbikes to the Allied forces. It became so popular for its reliability that it was nicknamed “Trusty Triumph”.

During the interwar period there were over 80 different motorbike manufacturers operating in the United Kingdom. Some of these manufacturers are still in existence, whereas others are now obsolete. These early developers help to influence the motorbikes that we ride today.