Almost as soon as the modern bicycle appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century, some inspired individual decided to strap an internal-combustion motor to the contraption. By the turn of the century, a variety of motorized bicycles was available to the general public.
Gottlieb Daimler, the German inventor who produced the first functional four-stroke engine, may well have created the first gasoline-powered motorcycle. After his early experiments using an engine to power a four-wheeled horseless carriage produced less than satisfactory results (probably due to the whopping 5 horsepower the motor cranked out), Daimler built his Einspur, or single-tracked test vehicle, in 1885. Although crude, this vehicle incorporated many features still found on motorcycles today, such as a cradle frame and twist-grip controls on the handlebars.
But even that wasn’t the first motorcycle. The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History displays a two-wheeled powered vehicle built in about 1868 by Sylvester H. Roper, a Massachusetts resident. The main difference between Roper’s and Daimler’s machines was Roper’s use of a steam engine.
In 1902, one year before the formation of The Motor Company, a German engineer named Maurice (Mauritz) Johann Schulte designed a motorcycle, the first to be produced by Triumph Cycle Co. Ltd. of England. This machine was still very much a motorized bicycle with a Belgian-produced engine fitted to its frame.
The early years of the twentieth century saw hundreds of similar companies form. The low power output of the engines available made them better suited to power small, two-wheeled vehicles than larger, carriage-type machines, and motorcycles thrived as forms of personal transportation. Plus, cars were still too expensive for most people to own; motorcycles were cheaper and more plentiful.
Like all technology of that time, motorcycle development proceeded at a frantic pace. Soon, the early motorized bicycles were supplanted by machines designed from the start to be operated by some form of engine. By the end of World War I, most of the technical innovations we see today had been tried with varying degrees of success. Since other technologies, such as metallurgy—the study of metals—had not kept pace with such innovations, by the 1920s, motorcycle designers had settled on relatively simple designs. The brilliant ideas of those early designers proved to be ahead of their time, and many would have to wait until the 1970s or 1980s to finally find acceptance.
Although the sport of motorcycling thrived initially, the same technological advances that drove its success led to the first of the sport’s many crises. As internal-combustion engines became more powerful and efficient, they became more practical as power sources for horseless carriages. And with the advent of affordable automobiles like Henry Ford’s Model T in 1913, average people could afford to buy cars. Clearly, it was easier to haul the entire family to church in an automobile; you could only haul three or four family members on a motorcycle, and then only if it was equipped with a sidecar.
By the end of World War I, many of the companies manufacturing motorcycles had either gone out of business or switched to the manufacture of some other product. Motorcycles might have become extinct but for some clever marketing moves on the part of the remaining manufacturers. Motorcycling survived by positioning itself as a sport, a leisure activity, rather than trying to compete with automobiles as practical transportation. The move made sense. People had been racing motorcycles all along; promoting riding in general as a sport was a logical extension of that activity.
This market positioning helped motorcycling survive its second great crisis: the Great Depression. This worldwide economic disaster finished off many of the remaining motorcycle-manufacturing firms that had survived the advent of the inexpensive, reliable automobile, and again, those companies that survived did so by promoting motorcycling as a sport.