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Freedom, Speed, and Passion

A History of the Motorcycle

For most people, the word “motorcycle” automatically conjures up images and feelings of power, speed, and an undeniable conquest of the road. Whether or not they have ridden a motorcycle, people generally feel a certain envy of motorcycle riders as they rip past on the highway with the wind rushing through their hair. The motorcycle certainly has a mystique about it that has made it an important part of American culture. In existence for nearly as long as its four-wheeled counterpart, the automobile, the motorcycle has developed from a simple, steam-powered bicycle to the streamlined, powerful machine of today.

From Steam to Gasoline

By the late 1860s in both Europe and America, the steam engine had become the premier method of mobilization and mechanization for most machines. Already well entrenched as a powerful propellant in the locomotive industry, steam power was first applied to two-wheeled bicycles in 1869 (Walker 2006). Two engineers, Frenchman Pierre Michaux and American Sylvester Howard Roper, each created separate models of a steam-driven cycle in that year. Michaux’s model featured a single-cylinder engine with a cylindrical boiler to generate steam, while Roper’s machine boasted two cylinders with a charcoal-fired boiler. Although both bikes were certainly impressive for their time, steam engines proved to be impractically large for two-wheeled machines, and they were quickly abandoned as a potential power source for motorcycles.

During the early pioneering days of the motorcycle, engineers experimented with a variety of other power sources for the machine, including compressed air, mechanized clockwork, and hydrogen gas. However, it would not be until the application of the internal combustion engine powered by gasoline, by German engineer Gottlieb Daimler in 1885, that the motorcycle would become truly viable (Walker 2006). Thus, Daimler is generally credited with the creation of the first, true motorcycle. In addition to a gasoline-powered engine, his machine also boasted a primitive two-speed transmission that was the first of its time. With the implementation of the internal combustion engine and the invention of the inflatable tire in the 1890s (a feature that greatly increased the shock absorption of the motorcycle), the development of the motorized two-wheeler was well on its way (Walker 2006).

Power and Speed Advance the Motorcycle

While early experimentation on the motorcycle was generally isolated to German and French designs, American and British engineers were quick to catch up in the early decades of the twentieth century. As motorcycles became increasingly more viable, dozens of manufacturers entered the marketplace with their own unique concepts and designs. While single-cylinder engines and single-speed transmissions were the norm for most early motorcycles, innovative manufacturers quickly began experimenting with advanced technology, including overhead valves, variable gears, and clutches. In fact, many of the features commonly found in today’s motorcycles were originally conceived of in the early 1900s, but their use was curbed by the high cost of production and the unavailability of materials (Walker 2006).

Even in the early years of the motorcycle, there was a genuine interest in using the machine not only for transportation, but for racing and sport as well. This interest in motorcycle racing by both athletes and spectators necessarily resulted in demands for more powerful, versatile, and comfortable machines. By the first decade of the 1900s, these demands had become major considerations for leading designers, including the American giants Indian and Harley-Davidson (Mancini 1999). Engineers began experimenting with twin-cylinder engines (also known as V-twins) and even four-cylinder engines to increase power. While the speed and power that could be produced by four cylinders were tantalizing, the machines were not quite ready for this innovation, and the two-cylinder engine eventually became standard on most motorcycles. However, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the motorcycle had rapidly progressed from a somewhat primitive machine just a few decades earlier to a dependable, speedy, and relatively inexpensive means of transportation.

Motorcycles Take Off

In the decades following World War I, populations in Europe and America gained a new understanding of the mechanical world. While armies had begun the conflict with cavalry units and horses, motorized tanks and airplanes had become common sights by the end of the fighting. This new understanding of mechanization greatly impacted the motorcycle industry, and sales for the powerful two-wheeler boomed in the 1920s. Notable marques like Moto Guzzi, BMW, and Triumph began producing their first motorcycles during this decade and experienced resounding success, especially in Europe (Mancini 1999). In America, the motorcycle encountered a large amount of competition with the car, but sales remained relatively stable throughout the 1920s. However, the Great Depression in the 1930s would force several manufacturers out of the business, and those that survived did so only by the skin of their teeth.

While the 1930s proved to be a tough decade for motorcycle manufacturing, the industry experienced a boom in sales after World War II that would last throughout the 1950s. In Europe, consumers desired a method of cheap transportation while they recovered from the reeling effects of the war, and the motorcycle industry was happy to oblige. Scooters and mopeds with small, lightweight engines thrived in Europe throughout the 1950s, but the more affluent Americans clamored for large-capacity roadsters and dirt bikes (Walker 2006). Motorcycle sales reached their peak during the era, but European manufacturers generally dominated the market. Only Harley-Davidson was able to survive as an American motorcycle manufacturer.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, a number of advances were made in motorcycle technology, including improved suspension, dual seats and sidecars, and even push-button ignition on some models. However, the early engineering pioneers were beginning to grow old, and the motorcycle was facing increasing competition from the car, as a growing standard of living allowed many consumers to purchase an automobile for the first time. The vibrant motorcycle industry in the West would also soon face serious competition from rising Japanese manufacturers in the 1960s.

Competition Increases and the Motorcycle Improves

As motorcycles from European and American manufacturers enjoyed commercial success in the West during the 1940s and 1950s, Japanese manufacturers were busy creating their own booming domestic market. By the dawn of the 1960s, leading Japanese manufacturers--including Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha--were ready to take on the world with their sophisticated bikes. Sales for Japanese motorcycles in the West were initially quite slow, as consumers were not used to the differently designed machines. However, the superior technology and strong performance of the Japanese models outmatched anything produced by European or American manufacturers, and the motorcycles were soon embraced by consumers (Walker 2006). 

As the introduction of Japanese marques led to new innovations in the motorcycle industry, enthusiasm for motorcycle racing also served to improve the two-wheeler. Racing required more powerful engines, superior handling, and more reliable braking, and motorcycle manufacturers were eager to provide such desirable features. By 1970, Honda had unveiled its revolutionary four-cylinder, four-stroke engine that prompted an age of “superbikes” (Walker 2006). Honda’s competitors at first tried to counter the engine with higher-performance two-stroke engines, but the power was not comparable. Eventually, all of the Japanese manufacturers, as well as leading European manufacturers, would be forced to outfit their models with more powerful engines. This power would only increase in the 1980s and 1990s, as motorcycles became an ever-more important symbol of speed and freedom on the road.

Present and Future of Motorcycles

In the twenty-first century, motorcycles are no longer seen primarily as a mode of transportation, but more as a status symbol of lifestyle and luxury. Modern-day motorcycles feature innovations that would never have been dreamed of in the early days of the motorized two-wheeler, and the technology is becoming increasingly computerized. The industry is now strictly delineated into a variety of bikes for different purposes, and customers can choose between sports bikes, off-road bikes, scooters, superbikes, and even customized bikes, depending upon their preferences (Walker 2006). 

While the future of motorcycle design will likely bring several new innovations, safety is certain to become a key concern. Engineers are currently experimenting with leg protectors and air bags on their new models. It seems the sky is the limit for how far the motorcycle can go in technological improvements. However, regardless of the changes and innovations to come, the powerful two-wheeler will likely always remain the ultimate symbol of freedom, speed, and passion on the road.

-- Posted June 14, 2007


Mancini, Richard E. 1999. Motorcycles, 100 Years: The First Century of the Motorcycle. New York: Smithmark Publishers.

Walker, Mick. 2006. Motorcycle: Evolution, Design, Passion. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.