Motorcycle Mania: The Early Years

March 7, 1997 - June 22, 1997

Origins of the motorcycle

The motorcycle was created from two streams of invention: The bicycle and the combustion engine. Both have their roots in the industrial revolution. Over the years, motorcycles have been manufactured in over 30 countries by more than 2,500 companies, although only a small percentage of these remain active motorcycle manufacturers.

The bicycle

In 1817 a "walking machine" was invented by the Baron von Drais to help him navigate the royal gardens in Paris more quickly.It had two in-line wheels mounted in a wooden frame which was straddled by the rider, but no seat. The front wheel could be turned for steering, and the device was propelled by pushing the feet against the ground. Known popularly as the "hobby horse", or Draisienne (after its inventor), the vehicle achieved only a brief popularity due to its weight and scarcity of suitable smooth paths or roads.

Pedal driven bicycles appeared in the mid-1860s, with the pedals attached directly to the front axle. This design was known as the velocipede, and there were many variants incorporating wheels of different sizes, seats and various accessories. These were also made of wood (and then with metal tires), as metallurgists were not capable of producing metals light enough for bicycle use until the 1870s. The bicycles were made without springs - the ride on the cobblestone roads common at the time must have been unthinkably bruising. The so-called "safety bicycle", with its two equi-sized wheels, became the bicycle design platform that was to underlie most motorcycle development.

The engine

Steam engines (external combustion) first appeared in the eighteenth century, but were far too bulky and heavy for use in a light vehicle, but were widely used for rail and road locomotives. Practical internal combustion engines (and the first practical automobiles)appeared in the 1880s. In both cases, it was advances in metallurgy and the understanding of the physics of engines that made the melding of the engine and the bicycle even remotely feasible. Transportation improvements were a major focus of technological development in the 19th century, and inventors and engineers of all the technically advanced nations of the era eagerly explored the possibilities.

Enter the motorcycle

Inventors in Europe and in the United States actively pursued development of automobiles and powered cycles. American engineer Sylvester Howard Roper of Roxbury, MA began his experiments with steam powered cycles in the 1860s and showed his first model in 1867. Philadelphian L.D. Copeland modified a "Star" racing bicycle with steam propulsion, producing his powered cycle in 1884.The first true gasoline powered motorcycle was invented by Gottleib Daimler in 1885. Daimler designed a single cylinder engine to minimize size and weight, which was significant, as his machine was made of wood with metal rimmed wheels. Roper's engine, which used charcoal as fuel, had two cylinders. The vehicle, basically a two-wheeler, also had "training wheels" to keep it upright.

Another early motorcycle was the 1892 Millet. It incorporated a five cylinder rotary engine with the crankshaft as the hub of its rear wheel. The cylinders rotated with the wheel. (This same design concept appears in WW I aircraft engines.) The first commercially successful 2 wheeled motorcycle may have been the 1894 model by Hildebrand & Wolfmueller of Munich. Its engine was a water colled twin-cylinder design, mounted with the cylinders oriented fore-and-aft. The water tank and radiator were built into the rear fender.

1895 was a crucial year for motorcycle developers. French firm DeDion-Buton introduced the engine (used in both cycles and light trucks) that enabled mass production of motorcycles. It was employed not only by DeDion, but subsequently was copied by other manufacturers, including Harley-Davidson and Indian. Its four-stroke design was light, developed high rpm and employed a more reliable battery and coil-type electic ignition, but the lubrication system was crude and wasteful.

In Racine, Wisconsin, the Pennington Company was working on an internal combustion engine for a motorbike. The engine burned kerosene, and could rotate at speeds up to 500 rpm. The engines connecting rods were directly attached to rear axle cranks, an inflexible design and one that never entered production. America's first production motorcycle was the 1898 Orient-Aster, manufactured by the Mertz Company (Waltham, MA) using a copy of the DeDion-Buton engine. It was coupled to the rear wheel by a drive belt.

Most early motorcycles were equipped with pedals so that an unlucky rider with a failed engine could still get home. They were also handy for getting a little extra uphill push and for starting the machine.


Once motorcycles were established in the marketplace, various accessory items were developed to accomodate a larger audience for the product. The sidecar, a one-wheeled passenger compartment that was attached to the main frame of the motorcycle, was perhaps the most visible accessory. The sidecar expanded the number of passengers that could be driven and also improved the stability of the vehicle. This was especially important for military use, where poor or non-existent roads made for hazardous driving conditions. The sidecars were sometimes used as cargo carriers or for promotions, as demonstrated in the photo of the See's Candy unit. Sidecars were often used with military motorcycles by road patrols and couriers, but specialized versions have also been created for product deliveries, circus acts and even as hearses.

Early Entrants

Daimler 1880s

Roper (steam) 1880s

Copeland (steam) 1884

Pennington (Coventry, UK) 1895

Pope Manufacturing Co. (Hartford, CT) 1900

Indian Motocycle Mfg. Co. (Springfield, MA) 1901

Harley-Davidson Motor Co. 1903

Excelsior 1905

Merkel (Miami Cycle & Mfg. Co., Middletown, OH) 1905

Henderson Motorcycle Co. (Detroit, MI) 1912

Thor 1912

Ace Motorcycle Co. (Philadelphia, PA) 1919

1900 to 1914 - The motorcycle boom

The steam driven cycle never caught required too much fuel and too much expertise to properly operate it. But the gasoline driven motorcycle was successful, and new companies were rapidly formed to produce them. In the US, Indian Motor Company (1901) and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company (1903) were among the first motorcycle startups, but by 1911, more than 100 brands were available, including models sold through mail-order firms such as Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Other well-known brands included Ace, Excelsior, Merkel, Pope, Reading and Thor. In 1903, the year Harley-Davidson produced its first motorcycle, there were 2,351 miles of "first-class" roads in the US, of which 204 miles were paved. And the first automobile trip across the country, from New York to San Francisco, was made.

Early motor cycles of this period were overhead valve models with open exhaust ports or short exhaust pipes. Often running on alcohol-based fuel, they were fast and they were noisy, creating a presence and a spectacle of speed that captivated America. It was motorcycling's greatest hour, and sales rapidly expanded. The rapid growth in sales funded research programs that rapidly improved motorcycle technology and created designs of exceptional excellence.

Indian, which was founded in 1900 as the Hendee Manufacturing Co. and renamed in 1901, was the world's largest motorcycle producer prior to WW I. The firmwas the racing champion during the early days of the period, but competitions were also won by Excelsior, Merkel and Thor. In the years before WW I, Indian was producing over 20,000 machines annually, and incorporated such advanced features as an all-electric starting system and a recognizeably modern electrical system as early as 1913.

Motorcycle racing was hugely popular, with dozens of steeply banked racing tracks popping up around the country. Races were staged on the half-mile and mile-long dirt tracks of state and county fairs, and the crowds flocked to see the new motorcycles. Team rivalries were fierce, with the finest riders paid huge salaries to bring home the trophies.

Harley-Davidson chose to ignore the racing game at first, but soon recognized that the huge crowds and resultant publicity that the races generated required their participation. Beginning in 1914, when the first H-D racing team made its appearance, the company emphasized its racing program, and within a few years H-D riders on fast 8-valve 1000 cc engined cycles were nearly unbeatable.

1915 to 1930: Competition from the auto

From the beginning, there was competition between motorcycle and automobile, but the small size, lower price and image associated with the motorcycle created an outstanding market niche for its producers. Even after the distraction of WW I (and the war produced a 20,000 unit market for motorcycles), customer interest remained high. Harley-Davidson became the production leader after WW I, selling over 30,000 units annually. But it all changed when Henry Ford introduced the Model T automobile.

The Model T was inexpensive and, for its day, rugged and reliable. Its lower price left motorcycle makers little room to compete on price. Motorcycle sales tumbled, and so did profits. Without the profits to support research and racing, the presence of the motorcycle in American life rapidly diminished. Only Indian and Harley-Davidson survived the transition to the 1930s.

1931-1945: Depression and war

The decade of the thirties was difficult for almost everyone as the effects of a world-wide economic depression became entrenched. Production dropped 90% and motorcycle makers relied heavily upon military and government customers during this interval. Designs tended to emphasize large, heavy and rugged designs. Both H-D and Indian manufactured twin-cylinder side-valve engines of 750 to 1300 cc displacement. 3 speed gears were standard, as were rather awkward hand or foot operated clutches. The unsophisticated lubrication systems dumped oil directly to the road, although this practice was discontinued in 1932 by Indian and finally in 1937 by Harley-Davidson.

WW II was both a blessing and a curse for the motorcycle industry. Over 90,000 units were sold to the US Army during the period of conflict, but the war also exposed Americans to a new class of motorcycles.

Germany made considerable use of motorcycles, many produced by BMW, during WWII, mostly forpatrols and courier duty. Some rifle regiments were motorcycle-mounted for fast movement. Germany also produced an unusual motorcycle hybrid, the Kettenkrad (left), which combined features of a halftrack and a motorcycle. Intended for offroad use or use where roads were bad or destroyed, it could be equipped with a small trailer and was sometimes used as a tractor or small truck. Some were produced after WWII as farm equipment.

During the years of WW II, American soldiers discovered that motorcycles made in Europe were lighter and more sophisticated in design than US machines. The light, peppy bikes made in the UK would rapidly displace US-made motorcycles in the postwar years. Nevertheless, many an American biker was proud and happy to posess a war-surplus Harley-Davidson machine.

1946 to 1960: Competetion from the world

By the early 1950s, British made motorcycles were outselling US made models. Indian, starved for resources and unable to compete, went out of business in the late 1950s. Harley-Davidson fought back with its K model in 1952. Equipped with a flathead 750cc lightweight engine, this high performance bike flew around the track at Daytona at 150 mph. Although the engine design was considered obsolete, its four-speed gear box and telescopic front fork were popular enough to keep the K series in production until 1969.

Other post WW II competition came from Asia. Japan entered the motorcycle market in the late 1950s. While first effors were unimpressive, by 1960 Honda was making popular 50cc and 125cc models that were able to compete well in world markets. The Honda machines were more reliable and generally lower priced than machines of US and European make, and they rapidly gained market share, incidentally reviving the motorcycle race circuit in the process. Today, motorcycles from Japanese and other Asian makers dominate the motorcycle market.

A related post-war phenomenon is the motor scooter. Originating in Italy and rapidly accepted in Europe as a cheap mode of transportation in recovering war-torn economies, the scooter has also found a welcome in the developing economies of Asia. Long term residents of European and Asian countries are well aware of postwar transportation transitions from bicycles to motor scooters to automobiles as economies recovered and transportation infrastructures developed. However, the scooter is not well suited to high speed roads, and tends to be displaced by automobiles where high speed networks of roads have been constructed.

A more motorcycle-like device is the moped, a combination of bicycle and very small gasoline engine. Developed in the 1950s in Germany, it has spread throughout the world. It generally does not have to be licensed or insured as a road vehicle, except in Great Britain.

In its most recent incarnation, a mini-motor scooter has become popular among teenagers, who navigate their "chicken-power" engined vehicles through residential streets accompanied by a teeth-grinding howl from their high rpm engines. Ah, recognition: Pass the ear plugs!

Late developments

Although badly damaged by the surge of imported cycles, Harley-Davidson held on to become the beneficiary of a revival of motorcycling in an increasingly affluent United States. Rather than primary transportation, for many the motorcycle has become a form of recreational vehicle. For some groups, the Harley "Hog" is loved for its rugged image, distinctive sound, and its association with biker culture. All of this has revived the fortunes of Harley-Davidson, making both its products and its stock well appreciated. The Indian brand returned to the marketplace in 1999 as a settlement of long outstanding legal issues and a hot market provided a favorable environment. Indian motorcycles are now made in Gilroy, California.

BSA acquired UK motorcycle maker Norton in 1991 and developed several new models, some of which were even sold in Japan.

Exhibit Companion

Indian Motorcycle - 1907


Indian Motorcycle - 1909

Indian Motorcycle - 1910


Excelsior Motorcycle - 1911

Harley-Davidson Motorcycle - 1911 & Indian - 1910


Harley-Davidson Motorcycle - 1912

Indian Motorcycle - 1912


Indian Motorcycle - 1913

Harley-Davidson Motorcycle - 1914


"See's Candy" Harley-Davidson Motorcycle - 1933


Web sites

Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group Museum Lots of good motorcycle history, especially on pre-1900 machines.

Harley-Davidson web site.

Excelsior-Henderson web site & newsletter

Indian Motorcycle web site.

Indian Motorcycle Museum

Motorcycle Museum On-line

Norton Motorcycle History


Antique American Motorcycles Buyers Guide Jerry Hatfield
Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, Osceola, WI 1996

The Complete Harley-Davidson Tod Rafferty
Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, Osceola, WI 1997

German Military Motorcycles in the Reichswehr and Wermacht: 1934 - 1945: Horst Hinrichson
Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 2000

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Motorcycles Erwin Tragatsch, Editor
Chartwell Books, Secaucus, NJ 1989.


MOAH wishes to give special thanks to Marshall Mathews and to See's Candies for the loan of the motorcycles used in this exhibit, and to the MOAH Exhibits Committee for the staging of the exhibit.

Photography by Dick Clark.

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This page last updated December 6, 2002
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