The history of the motorbike Invention of the motorbike
The very first motorbike powered by internal combustion of petrol was created in 1885 by the two German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Bad Cannstatt. It was named the Daimler Reitwagen. It was not until 1888 that the first commercial-sized motorbike was produced. Invented in 1884 by Edward Butler in England, this three-wheeled vehicle was the first to be sold en masse to the population. Capable of carrying its rider at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, this vehicle was relatively comfortable and safe for its time.
It had a 40cc, flat-twin, four-stroke engine with rotary valves and an Ackermann steering wheel. Compressed air allowed the bike to start and pick up speed before the petrol engine started. The engine was liquid cooled and a radiator was fitted to the engine. The speed was controlled by a lever valve connected to a handle. There were no brakes on this early bike. To slow down the machine, the wheels had to be raised and lowered by means of a pedal under the rider’s foot.
The idea was excellent for its time, but Butler could not find enough financial support to complete the project and it failed.
Soon, this type of new motorised bicycle began to attract interest in Germany, England and the USA. Several car manufacturing companies concentrated on the production of the new machines we know as motorbikes today.
Hildebrand & Wolfmuller were the first production series of motorbikes and the first to bear the name motorbike. Only a few hundred pieces were created, but they were successful. The freedom of the open frame and the feeling and adrenaline of riding a motorbike attracted more and more buyers. This impact is all the more striking at a time when cars are increasingly becoming more than a means of transport. Visuals, sensations and driving pleasure are more important than when they were created.
Mass production of motorbikes
Excelsior Motor Company, a bicycle manufacturing company, began mass producing motorbikes in 1898 with one of the first motorbikes to be sold to the general public. The Orient-Aster was the first production model to be sold in the United States of America through Charles Metz’s production plant in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Like many other useful inventions, the production of motorbikes increased enormously during the First World War. The usefulness of the motorbike was recognised and its use in supplying troops with food and communication increased. Horse messengers were quickly replaced by motorbike drivers.
By 1915, 50% of Harley-Davidson’s production was destined for the army and the British company Triumph Motorcycles sold more than 30,000 vehicles to members of the Alliance throughout the war. The Triumph H followed, it was the first motorbike to use no pedal to manage acceleration and a 550cc 4-stroke, 3-speed engine. A real success, this bike is considered by many enthusiasts to be the very first real production bike in history.
However, it was Harley-Davidson that came out on top after the war, becoming the world’s largest producer with dealerships available in 67 different countries by 1919. Its only competitor in the US was Indian at the time and until 1953, when Indian had to close its doors while Royal Enfield took over.
In addition to offering an original and personalised visual appearance, Harley Davidson motorbikes were equipped with some of the most efficient and thrilling engines. In 1937, the road speed record was broken by Joe Petrali who reached 136.183 mph (219.165 kph) on a modified 1,000cc Harley Davidson.
As the Second World War loomed, the demand for motorbike production increased in anticipation of the wartime need. Several companies took advantage of this to sell large quantities of vehicles, such as BSA, which sold 126,000 motorbikes to the British armed forces from 1937 to 1950.
The personal motorbike
After World War II, American veterans sought to replace the thrill of their years in the group. Motorbikes gave them back the camaraderie, excitement, danger and speed that had made them feel so alive during the war. Small groups of bikers began to form in a rather disorganized way all over the United States.
In Europe, there was a demand for practical, small and efficient vehicles to get around quickly and easily. Piaggio in Italy designed the first Vespa in 1946. This small motorbike became the first scooter and was immediately popular throughout the West. It was an instant success.
More and more manufacturers entered the booming two-wheeler market. In the 1950s, more than 30 different motorbike manufacturers were created, with Japanese manufacturers taking the lead.
Their models were more powerful, stronger, safer and more beautiful. The competition struggled to survive and many Italian and British manufacturers went bankrupt. BMW’s sales dropped drastically but the brand held on and managed to recover in 1970 with its new model.
Harley Davidson also suffered from the domination of Japanese manufacturers. Thanks to American patriotism and the particular style of its motorbikes, the brand managed to survive until today, when Americans continue to keep it among the leading motorbike producers.
Indeed, Japanese producers continue to dominate the market thanks to their unrivalled know-how and quality. Their reputation hinders the development of new brands trying to break into the market.
Motorbike competitions continue to be won by Japanese bikes, widening the gap between producers in the Land of the Rising Sun and Western producers. But the demand for different vehicles and the arrival of electric motorbikes are allowing new competitors to enter. While Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha continue to dominate, the newcomers obviously have their say. It seems that consumer sentiment is increasingly turning towards ecology as well as safety.
Also, several Italian producers have managed to create a place for themselves in the high-end market. Aprilia and Ducati are now well known for their high-end motorbikes with high purchase and maintenance costs and special performance and feel, all with a high level of finish.