A Brief History of the Motorcycle

A Brief History of the Motorcycle

Motorcycles are making a comeback, especially, the classic kind - think Triumph or Norton. Riding a motorcycle is a distinct pleasure, something you never feel driving a closed vehicle. When you drive a car, you are an observer of the world in front of you, but when you ride a motorcycle, you are "in" the world - you feel and smell the air and your feet are a few inches above the ground.

You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. - Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

There are several types of motorcycles - choppers, bobbers, classics, cafe racers, tracker, scrambler, and a few more. Let's take a quick look at the history of the motorcycle. 

Motorcycles evolved from bicycles, obviously, in the 19th century, in Europe. The history of bicycles is a little blurry and there doesn't seem to be a single inventor of bicycles. There were multiple personalities in the same era who contributed to the evolution of the idea of the modern, safety bicycle. Thomas Humber (1841–1910,) a British engineer is widely credited to have created the first modern bicycle in 1868. The first creation was continually improved and in 1876, a newer variation was created by English engineer Harry John Lawson (1852–1925.) In 1885, John Kemp Starley (1854–1901) came out with the first commercially successful safety bicycle named the Rover.

While the bicycle was getting upgraded in the U.K., Pierre Michaux, a French blacksmith, began creating bicycles with "velocipede," or pedals. In 1867, his son Ernest Michaux fitted a small steam engine to one of the velocipedes. The design was brought to the United States and in 1968, Sylvester Howard Roper (1823 – 1896,) an American inventor developed a twin-cylinder steam velocipede, with a coal-fired boiler between the wheels - the creation didn't catch on commercially. In 1881, Lucius Copeland from Arizona created an improved version with a much smaller steam boiler. In 1884, Edward Butler, a British engineer, created the first commercial design for a self-propelled bicycle.

In parallel, Gottlieb Daimler (1834 – 1900) and  Wilhelm Maybach, two German engineers, introduced the first true commercial motorcycle which was petroleum-fueled and driven by internal combustion. In the following years, engineers from Europe and the United States continued to innovate upon the motor-driven cycle leading to the today's version. Important milestones that illustrate its evolution:

John Boyd Dunlop (1840 – 1921,) a Scottish inventor invented in 1989 the first air-inflated pneumatic tire.

In 1896, Excelsior Motor Company, an English bicycle manufacturing firm began production of their first motorcycle model which was available for purchase by the public. Two years later in 1898, Charles Metz, created the first production-grade motorcycle in the U.S.

Back in England, in 1901, Royal Enfield, a bicycle maker, came out with its first motorcycle, with a 239 cc engine mounted. In 1902, Triumph and Norton launched their own version of publicly available motorcycles. A few years later, BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) began motorbike production in 1910.

While the manufacturers in England were doing their thing, in America, Indian Motorcycle Company and Harley-Davidson started producing motorcycles in 1901 and 1903, respectively. 

The motorcycle came handy in the first world war. Harley-Davidson in America and Triumph in England sold a large number of motorcycles to allied forces. Postwar, commercial motorcycle sales saw a boom in the American and European market. BMW from Germany entered the market in 1923, followed by the entry of Italian Moto-Guzzi. 

After World war II, Yamaha and Honda began manufacturing motorcycles in Japan. 

Hollywood added glamor to the world of motorcycles, big ones being The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando, The Great Escape (1963) with Steve McQueen, and Easy Rider(1969) with Peter Fonda and Dennis HopperJames Dean was also an avid rider.

Today, Japanese manufacturers, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha dominate the worldwide motorcycle industry, with Harley-Davidson maintaining its raw appeal in the United States. Triumph, Norton, and Royal Enfield, the iconic British brands from the early 1900s are in vogue with their "modern classics" in America.

Get your motor running, head out on the highway.


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