In the 1860s a blacksmith (who else?) named Pierre Michaux founded his company in order to make pedal-powered bicycles, more or less the kind we know today. These pseudo-bicycles were known as velocipedes, which sounds like a wicked cross between a velociraptor and a centipede.
Clearly this was a bit before the internal combustion engine really came into its own, so these very early motorcycles were in fact steam-powered. Can you imagine a coal and steam-powered motorcycle? The first known steam-powered velocipede goes back as far as 1867, the Michaux-Perreaux velocipede.
There was actually quite a bit of refinement when it came to the steam boilers used for powering these bikes; they got smaller and more powerful. There were even some two-cylinder examples at one point. Clearly though, we aren’t riding steam bikes today, so this technology didn’t make it in the long run.
The First Bike was a Trike?
The first commercial motorcycle was really a motor-tricycle. It was known as the Butler Petrol Cycle, created by an Englishman named Edward Butler. The public exhibition of this three-wheeled, internal combustion vehicle actually pre-dates what is recognized as the first modern automobile by two years. I’m of course referring to Karl Benz’ first working car design. Just another way that bikes have beaten cars to the punch. I kid, I kid.
The Butler Petrol Cycle had a 5/8 HP engine. That’s five eighths of an HP – from a 600cc engine. Man, have we come a long way since then. Keep in mind that a 600cc 2015 CBR600RR will put down 100HP measured at the back wheel. That’s 150 times more power from the same engine capacity.
Bikes You Could Buy
These first bikes were one-offs though – prototypes and proofs of concept. It would be only from the late 1880s that you could actually buy a motorcycle for yourself. Compared to today, there were then actually a huge number of motorcycle brands, since practically every bicycle maker was trying to get in on the action.
The first production series was probably the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller – a snappy name, I know. A couple hundred of these were built. Looking at the bike, it very clearly resembles a modern motorcycle. It used a 1489cc two-cylinder engine for a grand total of 2.5 horsepower at 240 rpm; a power rating that would propel you at 28 miles per hour. Now, keep in mind this bike was produced between 1894 and 1897, so it was probably one of the fastest road vehicles money could buy.
In the beginning, when internal combustion engines were pretty weak, most motorcycles were just modified bikes, but as they got smaller and more powerful it was no longer possible to base motorcycles on bicycle frames. So we saw the emergence of proper motorcycle companies that designed and built them from the ground up.
The first mass-production outfits saw the light of day at the start of the 20th century. Royal Enfield, originally a bicycle maker, introduced a 239cc mass-produced motorcycle. In 1902 Triumph decided to switch focus from bicycles to motorcycles and, of course, that’s what they are best known for today.
In these first two decades of the 20th century we saw the emergence of some of the most iconic motorcycle brands. The now defunct, but highly admired, Indian motorcycle company was founded in 1901. Harley Davidson started production in 1903.
War, What Is It Good For?
Believe it or not, the first two World Wars are responsible for a lot of modern technology. If it were not for the money and manpower pushed into those years we would probably not have computer, mechanical, and electrical technology at the level it is today.
Although motorcycles were still a very new type of vehicle, they quickly found a place in the war effort. Mainly, they replaced horses and allowed a faster and more reliable way for messengers to travel across the battlefield. They were also the favored vehicles of the military police.
A massive number of bikes were made over the course of the two wars. Triumph alone sold over 30,000 Model H bikes to the Allies during WWI. The Model H was probably the first bike you and I would recognize as a “modern” motorcycle. With a 550cc four-stroke engine and a three-speed gearbox, the H was a hit with troops; since it was so reliable it earned the nickname “Trusty Triumph”. By the end of the H’s production in 1923 more than 57,000 had been made.
Between WWI and WWII Harley Davidson rose to prominence as the world’s foremost bike maker, so when WWII swung around their bikes made their presence felt in big way – although thousands and thousands of British bikes were present in the WWII theater too, with bikes from BSA alone accounting for 120,000.