Motorcycles conjure up an image: Marlon Brando in The Wild One; Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider; Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation; and, of course, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. These independent, macho heroes (or anti-heroes) exemplify a small slice of a motorcycle history beginning in the 1800s.
While the history of the automobile can be traced back to the 17th century, it’s a little harder to pin down exactly when and where the motorcycle began. But bicycles and synchronicity were definitely the foundations as inventors in America, Europe and Asia borrowed from and built on one another’s contributions. And it continues. NADA lists more than 300 new and used motorcycle manufacturers.
American inventor Sylvester Roper attached a two-cylinder, coal-fired, steam-powered engine to a velocipede – that vehicle with the huge front wheel – in what is assumed to be 1867. Arizonan Lucius Copeland built a smaller, steam-powered velocipede in 1881 that achieved 12 mph.
Charles H. Metz, founder of the Waltham Manufacturing Co. in Massachusetts, first used the term “motor cycle” in an advertisement for his Orient motor-powered cycle in 1899. The Orient won the first recorded American motorcycle speed contest on July 31, 1900.
Landmark American contributions to motorcycling came beginning in the 1900s. Indian Motorcycle adopted a four-stroke engine, developed by the French DeDion-Buton, in 1901. Indian had a hit with its Single and was producing more than 20,000 units by 1913.
Two years later, William Harley and partners Arthur and Walter Davidson collaborated to found Harley-Davidson out of a wooden shack in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By 1905 they were producing a commercially viable bike, developing the first dual-cylinder engine in 1909. Variations of that iconic engine are still part of the Harley lineup. Harley was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, selling in 67 countries.
Indian and Harley-Davidson remained the only two American motorcycle manufacturers until 1953 when Indian closed and British maker Royal Enfield took over the Indian name. Indian made a comeback in 2013 under the aegis of Polaris, a maker of ATVs and snowmobiles.
Pierre Michaux attached pedals to a primitive velocipede in 1861, taking the two-wheeler to popularity. According to Louis Schafer in “American Motorcyclist,” “… aching legs prompted imaginative minds to search further for a better power source.” Michaux’s son, Ernest, added a small steam engine to his father’s “boneshaker” bicycle.
Inventor Guillaume Perreaux patented a commercial alcohol-fired, single-cylinder steam engine fixed to Michaux’s bicycle in 1868 with “… a maximum speed of about 9 mph. However, it also used up its water supply quickly and was dangerous to the rider in the slightest mishap or fall.” It didn’t have brakes.
The DeDion-Bouton engine – a lightweight, four-stroke engine that produced 1.3 hp – was introduced in Paris in 1895 and became popular with moto-bicycle builders, including Indian. Peugeot Motocycles exhibited a motorcycle powered by an engine invented by DeDion-Buton in 1898. It continued to build motorcycles until WWII. After the war, while still building some motorcycles, transitioned more toward mopeds and scooters.
As with clothes, shoes and fast cars, Italians have created some standout motorcycles. “What is a motorcycle from Italy? In the first place, it is speed. Second, it is a high level of exterior elegance,” as one source put it. The best-known brands include Ducati, MVAgusta and Aprilia.
Ducati produced radio transmitters until World War II. Post-war, it fulfilled a need for cheap engines attached to bicycles with the Ducati Cucciolo, followed by the two-hp Ducati 60 in 1949 and bigger bikes in the ‘50s. Street racing fueled desire for more bikes. Ducati has continued to produce motorcycles for both streets and tracks. Ducati is famous for introducing the “naked bike,” or “standard,” with no wind-deflection and exposed chassis.
Its website enthuses: “…the passion remains, for a true, unique, adrenaline-filled experience, like a red motorcycle hurtling down the roads and racetracks throughout the world.”
Aircraft maker MVAgusta rebuilt post-WWII to manufacture motorcycles. Racing enthusiast Count Domenico Agusta applied racers’ characteristics to production bikes. The company has changed hands several times, and is now owned by multinational investors. It continues to manufacture high-end road and racing bikes.
Aprilia, formed after WWII to manufacture bicycles, moved into scooters and motorcycles. It’s built renowned racing and motocross bikes. It continues to excel with its racers after acquisition by Piaggio, which is better known for its Piaggio and Vespa scooters.
Gottlieb Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) and Wilhelm Maybach attached their first gas-powered combustion engine to a traditional bicycle, called the Daimler Reitwagen, in 1885. The Reitwagen’s engine ½-hp engine got up to 7 mph. It is credited as the first modern motorcycle.
Hildebrand & Wolfmuller, the first to factory-build motorized two-wheelers, coined the name “motor-cycle” (in German: motorrad) beginning in 1894.
NSU – another bicycle maker – debuted its first motorcycle in 1901. It achieved racing fame, breaking many world records, including a 211-mph World Land Speed Record at Bonneville in 1956. During the ‘30s NSU was the largest motorcycle manufacturer; by the mid-‘50s it produced 350,000 units. NSU turned more to automobile engine development and ceased motorcycle production in 1963.
BMW was banned from aircraft engine manufacturing post World War I. Its first motorcycle – the R32 – was introduced in 1923. A consistent innovator, BMW’s original flat-twin boxer engine configuration is still used along with other designs and it introduced the first anti-lock brakes. BMW sold more than 175,000 units in 2021.
British motorcycle history is all about mixing, matching and consolidation. In the 1930s there were more than 80 different makers of British motorcycles, and over the years there have been 280 identified British brands, but Shooting Star: The Rise and Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry, reported British production peaked in 1928 at 147,000 machines.
The Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd. (BSA), incorporated in 1861, sold guns and bicycles. BSA transitioned to motorcycles with the BSA 3 1/2 hp. BSA eventually became the largest motorcycle producer in the world by vacuuming up many of its well-known competitors.
Ariel produced its first motorcycle in 1902. Acquired by Components Ltd. that year, it continued producing a three-speed, two-stroke bike, the Arielette, which it made up until the beginning of World War I. After the war it continued building motorcycles, becoming part of BSA until dying in 1965.
Triumph, founded in 1884 to sell bicycles produced a motorcycle in 1902 – a one-cylinder machine with a Belgian engine; 500 were sold that year. Triumph was selling 3,000 units annually by 1909. By 1930 it sold 30,000 units in eight models. Triumph was sold to Ariel in 1935 and to BSA in 1951.
Norton Manufacturing, founded in 1898 to make bicycle parts, soon was assembling motorcycles with other makers’ parts. Norton became known for racing motorcycles. The company failed in 1913 but was resurrected. It absorbed BSA-Triumph in the mid-‘70s, failed again and now is in the hands of India’s TVS Motor Co.
Royal Enfield Motorcycles began building bicycles in 1882, making parts for others before transitioning to motorcycles in 1901 as The New Enfield Cycle Company Ltd. It was sold twice before being absorbed by BSA in 1907. The Royal Enfield Bullet, still manufactured by Enfield of India, is considered the longest-lived motorcycle in history.
The U.S. Army reportedly used Harleys to hunt Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolution. And motorcycles played a critical role in both world wars; better for delivering dispatches to the front lines than horses in World War I and with the ability to mount a machine gun. Harley-Davidson sent 20,000 units to Europe for Army use in World War I. Indian contributed most of its production during the Great War.
British forces relied on some 30,000 Triumph Model Hs while Norton contributed more than 100,000 WD161Hs. Peugeot offered more than a thousand bikes to support French troops.
World War II also was fought with motorcycles. The modified Harley-Davidson WL maneuvered well and was sturdy – 70,000 were produced for the war effort, including thousands that ended up in Russia’s hands. Britain ordered more than 126,000 BSA M20s; thousands of lightweight Royal Enfield Flying Fleas were parachuted behind enemy lines.
As good as these bikes were, the BMW R71 may have been better. Used extensively in Europe it excelled in North Africa where because it resisted desert grit.
World War II heralded post-war motorcycle popularity. Returning veterans saw how these wartime workhorses could translate into excitement and fun on America’s roads, especially as bigger and faster bikes were produced and the highway system was developed.
Japan’s motorcycle industry blossomed after WWII when cheap transportation was necessary for rebuilding. They since have become motorcycling innovation and competition juggernauts.
Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha motorcycles grew out of existing companies. Honda Motor Co. incorporated in 1948, producing a 98cc bike in 1949, the Dream, or Model D, followed in two years with the four-stroke Dream E. Honda kept building bigger, faster bikes, and became a racing powerhouse. The renowned Gold Wing was introduced in 1974. Honda is now the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
Suzuki got into motorcycles in 1951 by clipping a motor to a bicycle. Over the years it has gained fame for its off-road, sport and racing bikes.
Kawasaki Motorcycles were part of a huge industrial conglomerate that acquired Meguro motorcycles in 1963 and the next year produced its first Kawasaki. It established a U.S. presence in 1966 with small two-cylinder Omegas. Kawasaki quickly gained a reputation for endurance racing and off-roading.
In 1955, Yamaha’s first bike, the Red Dragonfly won two races. Yamaha imported two streetbikes into the U.S. and also began competing on the world racing circuit at the 1958 Catalina Grand Prix, the first time a Japanese motorcycle raced in America. The 1975 YZ Monocross set the tone for future motocross competition.
U.S. motorcycle use is growing: 12,231,000, a two-million + increase over 2014 according to the latest data (2018). The Motorcycle Industry Council reports shifting demographics:
- Households owning motorcycles: from 6.94% in 2014 to 8.02% in 2018.
- Gender: Male owners – 81%, with growing female use; 22% female GenX owners and 26% female Millennial owners.
- Age: Getting older. Median age of motorcycle owners in 2012 was 45; in 2018 it was 50. Retirees equal almost a quarter (24%).
- Education: College graduates increased between 2012 (17%) and 2018 (24%).
U.S. motorcycling is dwarfed by other countries. According to bicyclehistory.net, “Daily over 200 million motorcycles are in use all around the world … Leading countries with greatest motorcycle use are India (37 million motorcycles/mopeds) and China (34 million motorcycles/mopeds).”
In dense, urban areas of developing countries, motorcycles and their smaller brethren – scooters – are less expensive and more maneuverable on narrow and crowded streets than cars. In the United States, large cruisers are gaining popularity, along with three-wheel motorcycles (trikes for adults!). Some of these larger vehicles are more expensive than automobiles and as the data indicates, older people with more disposable income and a yen for the independence associated with motorcycling, will be hitting the road on two (or three) wheels.
There is a motorcycle for almost every use:
- Street bikes – for riding on paved roads, and usually have 125 cc or larger engines, and light tread on their tires.
- Standards/naked bikes/roadsters – general purpose bikes designed for upright riding without windscreens.
- Cruisers – defined by Harley-Davidson with forward foot placement, higher handlebars and lower ground clearance. Especially good for low to moderate speeds. Power cruisers have more power and a higher ground clearance.
- Sport bikes – built for more speed, acceleration and handling on paved roads. They position riders’ legs closer to the body and riders lean over more to reach the controls.
- Touring – built for driving longer distances in an upright, relaxed posture. Generally have large-displacement engines, bigger fuel tanks, windscreens, and more luggage capacity.
- Dual-sport – built to be street legal but can also go off-road. A subset is the Supermoto, designed to bridge road and track racing and motocross, but is still street legal.
- Utility – adapted to perform specific jobs. These include deliveries, police work and other specialized uses.
- Off-road – for riding on unpaved surfaces with lighter weight, better ground clearance, flexibility and knobby tires.
- Motocross – for racing on closed off-road tracks with obstacles like hills and jumps.
- Enduro – built for events that can last days and may include both road and off-road. A subset is the Rally, with larger fuel tank to accommodate very long distances like the Paris-Dakar rally.
- Trials – built for a specialized kind of competition. Riders stand, rather than sit, so these bikes are built for good balancing and precision shifting.
- Track racers – self-explanatory. They are built for speed with no brakes, no rear suspension and only two gears.
- Trail/Dirt – for general off-roading.