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Motorcycles are today such an important aspect of our lives. For many, Motorcycles are nothing but another means of commute while for some, they are a way of life. We motorcyclists love riding, we love boasting of all the technology inside our motorcycles and how fast and feature-packed they are. But we often overlook the humble beginnings of the motorcycle.
The term motorcycle emerges from a motor being strapped into a bicycle frame. The first petrol-powered motorcycle appeared way back in 1884. However, there were a few steam-powered machines in existence way before that.
Image Source: Douglas Self
The first pedal-powered bicycles appeared in the 1860s and it was only a matter of time before someone went in search of more power. In 1867, the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede debuted in Paris when one of the bicycles made by Michaux-Perreaux was fitted with a small steam engine.
Image Source: Rogerio Machado
This marked the first powered bicycle, making it the first ancestor of the motorcycles we know today. Development of steam-powered bicycles continued throughout the 1860s and 1870s in Europe and in America. In 1868, the first twin-cylinder steam-powered bicycle was made in Massachusetts, America.
While these are all important milestones in the history of the motorcycle, none of these are petrol-powered, and therefore can't actually be called motorcycles. In 1886, Karl Benz invented what is widely considered the first petrol-powered automobile. Thanks to this innovation, he is known as the inventor of the modern automobile.
However, a lesser known fact is that a petrol-powered motorcycle was designed two years before the Benz. Edward Butler, a British inventor presented his designs for the Butler Petrol Cycle at the Stanley Cycle Show held at London in 1884. In 1888, the Butler Petrol Cycle was produced by the Merryweather Fire Engine company.
Image Source: Grace's Guide
Modern motorcycles can trace their roots back to the Butler Petrol Cycle as it came with several technologies and inventions that were unheard of earlier. The three-wheeled cycle was powered by a four-stroke, 600cc boxer engine, complete with magneto ignition and rotary valves. It even had a float-fed carburetor.
The Butler Petrol Cycle came with technologies that would remain important for motorcycles for several decades to come. Magneto ignition is still being used in some older motorcycles and a few other petrol engines while float-fed carburetors are still used in some small engines. Such was the importance of the Butler Petrol Cycle.
However, the Butler Petrol Cycle had three wheels and that doesn't really make it a motorcycle as we know it. Several companies, some of which were bicycle manufacturers soon caught onto the idea of making motorcycles.
In 1894, German brand Hildebrand & Wolfmuller launched the ‘Motorrad' which literally translates to motorcycles. It is the first series production motorcycle in the world and a few hundred examples were built. The Excelsior Motor Company, based in England produced the country's first motorcycle in 1896 while in America, the first production motorcycle was the Orient-Aster launched in 1898.
Image Source: espirituracer
Until this point in time, all ‘motorcycles' were quite literally bicycles with a small petrol engine. However, as engines became more powerful and the pursuit of speed became more dominant, it was obvious that newer technologies had to be developed, and it is this need that led to the development of motorcycles as we know them.
Image Source: Motorcycle.com
Peugeot revealed its first motorcycle at the 1898 Paris Motor Show. While all of the other aforementioned motorcycle manufacturers eventually shut down, Peugeot still produces motorcycles today, making it the oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
With the arrival of the 20th Century also came a few companies that started mass-producing comparatively modern motorcycles. In 1901, Royal Enfield introduced its first motorcycle. It was powered by an air-cooled, 239cc, single-cylinder engine.
1901 saw the debut of a stronger and more capable diamond frame, designed by the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company. This frame underpinned the brand's iconic "Indian Single' motorcycle which became the best-selling motorcycle in the world instantly.
Image Source: Danemroberts/WikiCommons
In 1902, British brands Triumph and Norton launched their first motorcycles and a year later, Triumph became the biggest motorcycle brand in the world. Russian motorcycle brand Rossiya also started making motorcycles in 1902 while Harley-Davidson started production in 1903.
Competition was cut-throat and motorcycle manufacturers were doing their best to outdo the rest. They were building tougher, faster and more reliable machines with every passing year. World War I and World War II further helped develop better motorcycles. Manufacturers like Triumph, Harley-Davidson, Royal Enfield, Indian Motorcycle, etc, developed their own war machines and the armed forces bought them in the tens of thousands.
Image Source: Cullen328/WikiCommons
Several years after the second world war, Japanese motorcycles entered the world market and started dominating several countries. Motorcycles from Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha are even today dominating motorcycle sales worldwide. Motorcycle maufacurers from Europe and a couple of American manufacturers also continue to hold their own.
Thoughts On The Oldest Motorcycle Brands In The World & Motorcycle History
Today, we enjoy riding motorcycles that are extremely powerful, loaded with technology, are very efficient and reliable. Sometimes though, looking back at the times gone by helps us understand the machines we love, in a much deeper manner.
Motorcycles too, like all great things, have had humble beginnings. There is a bright, electric future awaiting the motorcycle industry. A couple of decades later, petrol-powered motorcycles too might be history and we might end up reading about the current-gen Yamaha R1 through a DriveSpark article titled ‘Best Superbikes Of The Past.'