Whether you’re a motorcycle buff or not, you’ve seen many generations of motorcycles – from the popular bright green Kawasaki Ninja, which first came out in 1984, over the Triumph motorcycle Marlon Brandon rode in the movie “The Wild One” in 1953, to the widely known Harley-Davidson. But where did motorcycles come from?
There are a couple of interesting points about the motorcycle: While it iobviously evolved from the bicycle, the development of the motorcycle can’t be traced back to a single engineer but rather to multiple engineers across Europe at around the same time: The late eighteenhundreds. There were steam-powered bicycles in France, self-propelled bicycles in England and petroleum fueled motorcycles in Germany. The designes and machines developed especially in Germany and England soon found their way to America.
In 1894 the first series production motorcycle was produced: the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller from Germany, which was also the first to be called a motorcycle (“Motorrad” in German). This motorcycle had an internal combustion engine and many producers of bicycles moved quickly to adapt their bicycles so they could also be fitted with internal combustion engines. By the turn of the century, more and more motorcycles were being produced and sold. Triumph also started off as a bicycle manufacturer and produced its first motorcycle in 1902. It only took Triumph a year to become the number one manufacturer of motorcycles. Harley-Davidson started production only a year after Triumph.
What helped the new hype about motor-driven bicycles was the popularity of the brandnew sport of motorcycle racing. This gave incentive to keep producing faster and more reliable motorcycles which, of course, were then also produced for the public. Fun fact: It didn’t take very long for the American police to organize its first motorcycle patrol. The first patrol came into existence in 1911 in Berkley, California. And in 1914, only 20 years after the first series production motorcycle was produced, motorcycles had evolved from being bicycles with engines to being machines with their own technology.
The First and Second World War saw increases in motorcycle production as they were used widely for the military: for example, dispatch riders on motorcycles replaces messengers on horses in WW I and in WW II there were new developments such as a lightweight motorcycle that could be dropped from an aircraft by parachute. After the war, many American veterans found a replacement for their military lifestyle in motorcycles and loosely organized motorcycle clubs. This was the birth of the “bikers”, bringing us back to Marlon Brando’s performance in the movie “The Wild One”.
Honda (Japan) eventually became the largest manufacturer in the late 1960s as the motorcycle found its way more and more into private lives and even became part of a lifestyle. It came to symbolize a carefree life embraced by the youth. Honda was able to produce modern designs at a higher quality and a lower cost than the European and American manufacturers. Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha (all Japanese) had also started producing bikes in the 1950s and together they came to dominate the motorcycle industry as they still do today.