The Birth of Motorcycling
In Paris, in 1869, Ernest Michaux - a maker of ‘bone-shakers’ (bicycles with iron-tyred wooden wheels, driven by pedals attached to the front wheel) - fitted a single-cylinder Perraux steam (!) engine beneath the saddle, with a leather belt driving the rear wheel. Although a ‘one-off’, this was arguably the first motor-driven motorcycle.
In Germany in 1884/5, two men, who would later go on to form a world-famous partnership – Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz – were working independently on petrol-engined bicycles and tricycles, both producing basic working vehicles. Benz’s bicycle, although still featuring iron-tyred wooden wheels and wooden frame, had handle-bar steering and a twist-grip operated brake.
1n England, in 1884, Edward Butler patented his design for a motor-tricycle, showing the drawings at the Stanley Cycle Show that year. In 1887 he built his ‘Petro-cycle’, powered by a twin-cylinder, water-cooled, 2-stroke Clerk engine. This machine was successfully demonstrated several times on the road, but despite its novelty and ingenuity - and hampered by the Road Acts of 1861 and 1865 which insisted that any motorised vehicle be preceded by a walking man carrying a red flag! - it was ignored by the public and was finally broken up in 1895 for the scrap value of its 160 pounds of brass and copper!
The Wolfmuller motorcycle, heavy and complicated, appeared in 1894, with a water-cooled, 4-stroke twin engine fitted into a specially designed tubular steel frame. It proved popular enough to justify fairly large production in Germany and France, with some English sales as well following a successful practical demonstration in Coventry.
This was followed, in 1895, by the English Holden 4-cylinder and the French De Dion-Bouton motor tricycle. These were all based on standard bicycle/tricycle frames with a high centre of gravity, fitted with basic engines and drive systems, no gears, temperamental surface evaporation carburettors, and were uncomfortable and difficult to steer.
In the USA, in 1900, the Thomas saw the light of day. This was a ‘real’ motorcycle by today’s standards. Its engine was fitted above the bottom bracket of the frame and drove the rear wheel directly by means of a twisted rawhide belt. The next year saw the production of the first chain-driven motorcycle – The Indian – with its small, 1.75 hp single-cylinder engine mounted along the frame’s seat-pillar. 143 of these were made in 1902.
In England, in 1896, following the repeal of the Road Acts, an ‘Emancipation Run’ from London to Brighton took place and included just 4 ‘motorcycle’ entries - 3 Bollee motor tricycles, specially imported from France for the event, and a 1.25 hp Humber-built Beeston (a copy of a De Dion-Bouton tricycle).
From these basic beginnings a whole new industry was growing up. The early years of the 1900s saw amazing growth in motorcycle development and manufacture in England, with hundreds of companies springing up to produce their own versions of this exciting new form of transport. Many did not survive for more than a year or two, but for others it was to become a profitable and interesting future.