The 19th century is considered one of the most revolutionary periods in the history of mankind, with many of today’s common products starting as a vision, an idea, a dream. The first automobile, the first motorcycle, the first radio, some vaccines, and other inventions were created by the world’s greatest minds in this century.
Humankind is constantly looking for faster means of transportation, and this is why we can now talk about supercars and motorcycles that reach over 200 mph. Planes can take us from one continent to another in just a few hours, while high-speed boats can travel at speeds of over 90 mph.
However, vehicles that travel on the ground remain more accessible for many people, and this is why they are also the ones that developed the most during the past two centuries. If you’re looking to find out more about the history of motorcycles, here are some interesting facts.
The beginning of motorcycles
As with many other inventions, motorcycles evolved in gradual stages, so we cannot name a single inventor who can take the credits. There were various prototypes and versions of motorcycles introduced throughout Europe by many inventors around the same time, in the 19th century.
In the 1860s, a blacksmith from Paris started his own company named “Michaux et Cie”, which would soon become the first one to build bicycles with pedals called velocipedes. The idea of putting a small steam engine on the back of a bike came to the blacksmith’s son, Ernest Michaux, in 1867.
Around the same time, one of the employees from Michaux, Pierre Lallement, traveled to the United States to file for a bicycle patent in 1866 for a prototype he claimed he invented back in 1863. A couple of years later, in 1868, an American named Sylvester Roper developed a twin-cylinder velocipede powered by a coal-fired boiler located between the wheels.
Back in Europe, in the same year 1868, another French engineer, Louis-Guillaume Perreaux patented a similar vehicle design that used an alcohol burner and twin belt drives.
It wasn’t until 1881 when another American, Lucius Copeland, formed the company Northrop Manufactury, which would later successfully manufacture the moto-cycle, a three-wheeled vehicle.
The first gas-engined motorcycle
Over the next decade, many different designs for self-propelled bicycles appeared. However, the first gasoline-powered internal combustion engine was created by a team of two German scientists, Gottlieb Daimler, and Wilhelm Maybach. The two developed the Petroleum Reitwagen back in 1885, which marked the beginning of the modern history of motorcycles, in the form we see them today.
If the name Maybach might ring a bell to you, you probably don’t know too much about Daimler. He was one of the greatest innovators of the 19th century and experimented with gasoline motors for years, working on boats, and even becoming a pioneer in the manufacturing industry of commercial cars. He started his own company, Daimler Benz, which further evolved in a corporation we’re sure you have heard of – Mercedes-Benz.
Motorcycles have gone a long way from the first prototypes designed in the 1880s to the vehicles we’re currently riding. Starting with the late 1880s, dozens of companies were built around the world that started producing self-propelled bicycles. The trend sprung in Germany and Britain but soon spread to the United States and Asia.
In 1894, a German company named Hildebrand & Wolfmuller became the first one to start the production line factory to manufacture motorcycles. In the United States, the first motorcycle production line was started by the Charles Metz factory in Massachusetts.
The most popular brands of motorcycles and their beginnings
The most famous American motorcycle producer is Harley-Davidson. It was a common practice in the 19th century for various inventors who worked on the development of motorcycle engines to move on to other inventions, especially in the field of cars.
However, some inventors like the Davidson brothers and William Harley continued to exclusively develop engines and motorcycle prototypes.
The Harley-Davidson Motor Company was started at the beginning of the 20th century, in 1903. The initial plan of the Davidson brothers and William Harley was to manufacture an engine for transport vehicles but their invention proved more powerful than they anticipated, making it a good starter for racing vehicles.
In July 1905, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle was the first one to win a 15-mile race in Chicago with a total time of 19 minutes and 2 seconds. Around the same time, the first full-time employee of the company was hired in Milwaukee, starting the legacy of what is now known as the most reputed motorcycle company in the world.
A year later, in 1906, the first Harley-Davidson dealership opened for business in Chicago and started selling one of the first three production H-D motorcycles ever made. Soon after, the company was incorporated and created its famous “Bar & Shield” logo that would be used from then on. It was trademarked at the U.S. Patent Office in 1912.
By 1920, Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Their bikes were available at over 2,000 official dealers from 67 different countries. Almost a decade later, in 1929, the company released the first two cam engine for the JD series motorcycles, allowing the vehicles to reach a top speed of up to 100 mph.
Over the next few years, the American manufacturer continued to expand its business beyond the motorcycle manufacturing by bringing to the market full apparel products and accessories. From boots, leather jackets, and helmets to bags, backpacks, keychains, and wallets, the Harley brand is synonymous with quality.
The Yamaha group was founded in the 19th century but it wasn’t until almost a century later, in 1955, that it entered the motorcycle market. The first motorized product of the Japanese company was the YA-1 Motorcycle, a street bike manufactured and sold in Japan.
Three years later, the first Yamaha motorcycles entered the American market, being imported by Coopers Motors, an independent distributor.
1963 marks an important year for the company as it collaborated with another Japanese renowned brand, Toyota, to develop and produce a limited-edition sports car, the Toyota 2000GT. A modified convertible of the 2000GT even made it to the silver screen, as one of the cars driven by James Bond in the 1967 movie, “You Only Live Twice”.
A year later, in 1968, Yamaha released its first snowmobile. In 1977, the Yamaha Motor Corporation U.S.A. was founded to represent the specific needs of the American market and become a separate identity from the music and electronics component of the Yamaha group.
In the following decades, the company continued developing powerful new engines and expanding its motor division by introducing new snowmobiles, motorcycles, ATVs, off-road recreational vehicles, and others.
The Italian company Ducati was founded in 1926 by Antonio Cavalieri Ducati and his three sons. Initially, it sold condensers, vacuum tubes, and radio components. However, it wasn’t until 1950 that the family-owned company entered the motorcycle business, creating the first model using a popular Italian engine called “Cucciolo”.
The first motorcycle was a 48 cc bike that weighed 98 pounds and reached a top speed of 40 mph.
Soon after, the company was split into two different entities, the Ducati Meccanica SpA, and Ducati Elettronica, trying to separate the electronic components from the engine and motorcycle production.
In the 1960s, the Italian company earned global recognition and established itself amongst the biggest motorcycle producers in the world by manufacturing the fastest 250 cc road bike available at the moment.
Throughout its almost one hundred years of history, the Ducati company went from a family-owned business to becoming a Government-controlled one and then sold to various other commercial entities. Starting of 2012, Automobili Lamborghini SpA acquired 100% of the voting rights of Ducati, making the German car producer, Audi, becoming the legal owner of the Ducati brand.