Back when I first started this blog, I wanted to look back to a time when motorcycles and bicycles weren’t all that different. I assumed the times of the first motorcycles were just bicycles with engines attached. Well the truth is just a little more complex and a whole lot more interesting.
So lets take a look at the first stages in the evolution of the motorcycle and the machines people consider to be “The First Motorcycle”.
First stop – The age of steam!
Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede.
This first one is actually a bicycle with an engine attached! A Louis-Guillaume Perreaux steam engine was attached to a Pierre Michaux iron bicycle. Only one was made so the date of assembly is not exactly reliable. As for whether or not it can be considered the first motorcycle, I would say that whilst it was technically the first two wheeled machine that was powered by an engine, it bears little resemblance to motorcycles that came after.
Roper Steam velocipede
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, USA,
the Roper steam velocipede was born. Mr Sylvester H Roper developed a steam powered bike late in the 1860’s. Again another argument is who got there first, the Michaux-Perreaux or Roper. Then again, depending on where you stand with steam powered bikes being motorcycles, I guess it doesn’t really matter who was first.
In 1884 Roper redeveloped his original design, using the safety bicycle frame.
Sadly, the roper story doesn’t have a happy ending. In 1896, whilst riding his machine, Roper had a heart-attack and died.
Steam powered engines didn’t really take off and they certainly aren’t used on motorcycles today. Which is probably why there is a bit of a question mark over whether or not these should be considered motorcycles.
Germany – 1885
Sometimes referred to as the Einspur, the Daimler Reitwagen is considered by some to actually be the first motorcycle.
I am not one of those people.
Built by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, the history of the Daimler Reitwagen is long and complex, so I’ll stick to what I think on this one. The Reitwagen has less in common with any motorcycles that came after it. I will concede that it is one of the first two wheeled machines to use a petroleum internal combustion engine. But even that’s not entirely the case as it doesn’t strictly have two wheels. It uses these stabilisers, which, once again, is not something that was continued with.
Hildebrand and Wolfmuller
Germany – 1894
In my humble opinion I think the Hildebrans and Wolfmuller bike is really the first motorcycle. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think motorcycles today would exist without many of the ideas and machines that came before this one. But come on, this was literally the first one to be called a motorcycle! Well, not literally. As it was German it was called motorrad.
I think I like this one the most as you can still see the similarities between the bicycle and motorcycle. It still retains the basic shape and fundamentals of a bicycle unlike the Butler or Reitwagen but also has the internal combustion engine
Whilst there will always be a debate on whether or not this is the first motorcycle, it will always be considered the first production motorcycle. Around two thousand were manufacture and some even survive to this day. The closest to me is in The Science Museum, London, so hopefully I’ll track it down one of these days.
One thing is for sure, after these wonderful inventions, the two wheeled world was never the same again. These pioneers opened the door for companies like Triumph, Royal Enfield and Norton, who all started producing motorcycles at the end of the 19th Century.
Written by Craig Willis