High Desert Customs - 97 Metro Blvd. #C - Santa Fe, New Mexico 87508 - (505) 474-7800
History of Motorcycles - Part I
By Jeffry L'H. Tank
Throughout the centuries man has striven to expand his capabilities through
the use of machines. His ever inventive mind has constantly devised ways to use
tools to increase his abilities to explore the world around him, to go faster,
deeper, higher and further than before. Coupled with his need to find new
thrills, new adventures and new modes of transportation, the invention and
refinement of the motorcycle seems an inevitable outcome.
For me, the early years of the development of the motorcycle are especially
fascinating as they hold of some of mans most bizarre experimental machinery.
Before we get started on the history of the motorcycle itself, I feel a short
review of it's predecessor, namely the bicycle, is in order, an invention
without which the motor bicycle, as they were first called, may well have never
would seem that Michelangelo conceived of the bicycle as early as the 14th
century and his drawing shows a remarkable resemblance to the modern day bike.
It had wheels of similar size and even pedals and a leather "chain", albeit
without any apparent means of steering.
never built, it was a remarkably cleaver design, and early bicycle makers would
have done well to study his concepts. There have, in fact, been 4 machines built
based on his drawing, attesting to the viability of his design.
first attempt at actually producing any sort of 2 wheeled conveyance fell on the
shoulders of one Comte de Sivrac in the late 1791, though hardy a bicycle as we
understand the meaning today. It was crude affair made entirely of wood with no
pedals, brakes or even steering. This early machine was referred to as a
hobbyhorse and was considered nothing more than a curiosity, or rich mans folly,
an attitude that remained for a number of years, until the late 1800's. A person
simply sat upon it and pushed it along with their feet in a sort of gliding
in 1816-17 (depending on the source) Baron van Drais revised the concept to
include a steerable front wheel, but his machine still lacked pedals or brakes,
so was not much of an improvement.
Weighing some 50 pounds it was not much better than walking and I for one
wouldn't have wanted to try it on any sort of hill, either going up or down! The
lack of comfort and condition of the roads at the time gave rise to the term
"boneshaker" which stuck with two wheeled vehicles for some time.
in 1869 some inventive person named William van Anden in New York added pedals
directly to the front wheel, now at last we approach what can be called by
modern terms, a bicycle. It also had free-wheeling pedals that allowed the wheel
to turn while the pedals remained stationary and had a friction brake on the
rear wheel operated by twisting one of the hand grips. Oddly enough these
innovations did not appear on many other machines for quite some time.
quickly became apparent however that the only way to increase speed or distance
traveled per rotation of the pedals was to increase the size of the front wheel,
leading to what became known as the High Wheeler.
because of the high center of gravity and forward position of the rider, not
only was some skill required to mount and dismount this contraption, but should
the front wheel suddenly stop, the rider was thrown forward on his head, thus
giving rise to the term "Taking a Header".
overcome this difficulty, the small wheel was moved to the front giving rise to
the High Wheeled "Safety" bicycle.
of the difficulty in riding a high wheeler with the style of skirts worn by
women at the turn of the century they were mostly confined to three wheelers
specifically designed with them in mind.
It was not until the very late 1800's that the chain was invented and
metallurgy became refined enough to allow the manufacture of one light enough
for human powered machines. Along with brakes, pedals and air-filled tires this
became the standard and the true safety bicycle came into being. As bicycling
became more popular, women, as well as men, began to enjoy the sport more often
and many historians credit this new sport with liberating women from the attire
of the time, the full skirts, bustier and other such clothing, that limited
their ability to enjoy this new form of transportation. It is also credited with
the advent of the "bloomer", thus allowing women to ride without showing too
So now, after nearly 400 years, bicycles returned to the original
configuration that Michelangelo had originally envisioned, with a few
improvements along the way!
Now that we've looked at the precursor to the motorcycle lets turn our
attention to the first motor bicycles.
Curiously enough the first attempts to motorize a two wheeled vehicle were
made before the high wheeler had been replaced by the modern safety bicycle,
thus explaining why the first motor bicycles had a much larger front wheel, with
one exception. In 1818 an attempt was made to fit a steam engine to a Drasiane
hobbyhorse (see above) which had two similar sized wheels. This however, did not
succeed in capturing a market, as can well be imagined when looking at the
picture below of the Vocipedraisiavaporianna, and I therefore only mention it in
It wasn't until 1869 that the first serious attempts were made to produce
motor driven bicycles. These very first were powered by steam, and driven by
leather belts or as in the case of the Roper Steam Velocipede of 1869, by a
system of levers attached to a crank on the driven wheel. At the same time these
early two wheelers were being developed, three and four wheeled pedal powered
vehicles were being modified to accept engines to create self-propelled
vehicles. Although these 3 and 4 wheelers are not motorcycles in the true sense,
they were directly involved in development of the motorcycle so I will include
them here. All of these early attempts were based on vehicles currently
available, with the exception of Ropers' steam driven design, to which motors of
one kind or another were being attached. It wasn't until several years later
that Gottlieb Daimler designed the Daimler and the first true motorcycle was
produced, in that the entire machine, including frame, engine, and wheels, was
built specifically for motorized use and was powered by an internal combustion
engine. Although still made entirely of wood, and having small outrigger wheels,
most motorcycle historian seem to be in agreement that this indeed was the first
true motor bicycle.
Besides the need for a reliable power plant, frame geometry, (Stanley, 1886),
pneumatic tires (Dunlop, 1888 and Michelin, 1895), roller chains, (Renold, 1880)
were needed to be able to produce a fully functional motorcycle that could
provide (relatively) reliable two wheeled transportation, be mass produced and
sold to the public with some hope of success. The problem of the power plant was
solved as early as 1876 by Nikolaus Otto, who based his design of an internal
combustion engine by Alphonse Beau de Rochas from 1862. As these various aspects
were being resolved almost simultaneously, the motorcycle was taking shape in
numerous ingenious minds of the time both in the US and aboard. Keeping in mind
that since the first attempts were made prior the advent of such inventions as
mentioned above and given the condition of the roads of the time, these early
machine were extremely uncomfortable to ride, thus perpetrating the name "bone
shakers" as was often used to refer to early bicycles. Not only were some made
of wood, but the wheels were solid wood or metal much like wagon wheels, and
none had any sort of suspension system.
In order to better reconstruct the various attempts at building the first
motor powered bicycles a timeline of the early machines seems appropriate here.
A TimeLine of motor cycles through 1900
|This curious contraction was supposedly built in 1818 and
is shown in this French print under testing in the Luxembourg Gardens in
Paris on April 5 of that year, thou actually invented in Germany. This print
is from the collection of the Science Museum in London. It was a Drasine
hobby horse being powered by a steam turbine engine in both front and rear
wheels. It would appear to be somewhat top heavy, and never made it into
production, which is probably just as well!
|1816 Cynophère, France
|While this could hardly be considered a
motorcycle I couldn't resist including this wonderful contraption. It does,
after all, possess the feature of having a fully self-contained power
source, reminds one of the old "squirrels in a cage" concept.
|1868-69 The Michaux-Perreaux Steam
|This, to me, is a truly elegant machine. Build
on the Michaux "boneshaker" bicycle, the frame was modified and seat raised
to allow room for the Perraux steam engine and pulleys and drive belts were
added to power the rear wheel. Note that the front pedals were retained. He
also built a tricycle version based again on one of his own designs
|1869 W. W. Austin, USA
|This seems to be a reverse of the one above
utilizing the high wheeled "safety" bicycle as the large driven wheel is in
the rear. I was unable to find much information on this machine other than
on a French web site, which is curious as this supposedly was an American
design. It had a two cylinder steam engine, and used a system of pulleys
mounted just in front of the handle bars, to transfer power to the rear
|1869 The Roper Steam Velocipede. United States
|Here again is a steam powered motor bicycle, this one
however is notable due to the fact that like the early Daimler it had
controls mounted on the handle bars in the form of twist grips like today's
|1877 Daimler-Maybach, France
|This is reputed to be the first version of Mr.
G. Daimler motor bicycle. This again is from a French site and the best
translation I could come up with for the caption is quoted below.
a limited autonomy, but accomplishes anyway traverses it Paris to German
Saint (15 Km) to the speed of 15km/h. The tricycles to vapor of Meek in
1877, of Parkyns and Paterman in 1881 itself (in violation) with the law.
Parkyns, was condemned for dangerous driven in 1865. In fact, the laws
stipulated that the vehicles to (with) motors did not (could not) have to
surpass the speed of 6 km/h on road and 3 km/h in city. In addition, the
machine had to be driven by at least two persons, more a third one that had
to walk in front of this one to a group of around fifty meters while
brandishing a red flag to warn of his arrival !!!!!!!!!!!! "
It further states that at the time, if one went faster than a horse at
trot one was libel to be arrested! This was known as the English "Road" or
"Locomotive" Act which was repelled toward the end of the century. These
sort of laws were common in the US for a time as well. My favorite is one
that stated that should a motor driven vehicle encounter a horse drawn
carriage and spook the horse, the operator of said vehicle had to
disassemble it to the point that the horse was no longer shy of it, allow
the horse to proceed some yards past, and only then could he reassembly the
vehicle. Seems they didn't like us any more back then than now!
|1880 The Long Steam Tricycle. United States
|Built by George A Long and patented in 1882 this is can
been seen in the Smithsonian Museum in DC. It was dismantled after some
years of use and then in 1946 Mr. J. H. Bacon collected the parts together
once again and put it back into working order. He later gave it, as well as
Ropers' Steam cycle, to the museum.
|1881 The Parkyns-Bateman Steam Tricycle. England
|This featured a two cylinder double-acting steam engine
attached to a Cheylesmore pedal tricycle. Since it was fired by petroleum,
it could be considered as having the first "gasoline" fueled engine, though
it was not an internal combustion engine. The laws of England being what
they were at the time (see above note on the Daimler-Maybach) prevented this
from becoming a financial success.
|1885 The Daimler, Europe
|This is considered by many as the first true
motorcycle or motor bicycle, as it was the first to employ an internal
combustion engine and was designed from the ground up to be motor powered.
Designed by Gottlieb Daimler it was powered by an Otto-cycle engine
producing about ½ horse power. Note this design again employed wooden wheels
and Daimler dropped the twist grip controls from his 1877 design in favor of
leavers on the frame.
|1892 The five cylinder Millet, France
|The interesting feature of this machine was the
five cylinder rotary engine mounted in the rear wheel. The cylinders turned
along with the wheel while the crank was stationary. This was not the last
time that such a motor was used in a motorcycle, although the next one to
use this design had the motor mounted in the front wheel.
|1894 Hilderbrand and Wolfmuller, France
|Worlds first production motorcycle. It came with a 1428 cc
water cooled four-stroke motor producing 2.5 bhp. and a top speed of 25 mph.
The motor was parallel twin with one forward piston and one rearward with
the connecting rods running to a crank mounted on the rear wheel. Instead of
using a flywheel to store energy between firings, it used large elastic
cords, one each outbound of the pistons. It was first made in France under
license for one year under the name Petrolette and remained in production
|1898 Orient-Aster, USA
|The first American made production motorcycle
was this entry built by the Metz Company, in Waltham, Mass. It used an Aster
engine that was a French copy of the DeDion-Burton, reportedly the
forerunner of all motorcycle engines. It predates Indian by 3 years and
Harley-Davidson by four, both of which first used engines based on DeDion-Burton
design. Note also the location of the engine which was mounted in the lower
part of the frame where it has remained to this day (with a few exceptions)
and is chain driven, another feature which remain in use to this day
While there are many other machines that I could include here and no doubt
many that were never recorded in the annals of history, I think we have arrived
at a good stopping point for this first article in the series. In the next I
plan on going into greater detail as regards the progress of early engine
design, specifically the internal combustion engine. It was several years before
the spray-carburetor and electric ignition was developed, the early attempts at
providing fuel atomization and ignition are in themselves worthy of note, not to
mention the intricacies of manual spark advance, hand operated transmissions (a
few even had two gear cases and could be operated by either passenger or
driver!), total loss lubrication systems, exposed valves and water-cooled and
air cooled designs.
So until next time, keep the rubber side down and be thankful for all the
advances in motorcycles we enjoy today!
Part II -