What is a motorcycle?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary it is “an automotive vehicle with two in-line wheels”. The legal definition in most countries is “is a powered two-wheel motor vehicle”, although many make a distinction between a moped, which is less than 50cc and a motorcycle which is greater than 50cc.
I find that knowing what something is helps greatly when you are trying to find out about it, and knowing the history of something can help build a greater understanding. So here is a little history lesson, all about the “first” motorcycle.
Firstly, which “first”? There is the possibility of some dispute about who created the first bike, it is possibly an American, a Frenchman or maybe a German, it just depends on your definition of a bike however there is one certainty, there was a first motorcycle, maybe even two, or possibly three of them!
It was 1867 that the first motorcycle was born, if by motorcycle you mean a bicycle with a steam engine attached to it. The honor of this goes to a Frenchman Ernest Michaux who fitted a steam engine to one of his father’s company’s “Velocipides”. Or maybe not… it is possible that an American beat him to it, because sometime between 1867 and 1869 Sylvester H. Roper produced a twin cylinder steam powered Velocipide. No one is quite sure who was first but one thing is definite, if these were the first motorcycles then the oldest motorcycle conversation must be, “Bet you a pint the Michaux is faster than the Roper “. Roper unfortunately died riding one of his later machines round a bicycle racetrack at about 40mph, I guess it was somewhat inevitable really.
Of course these are steam powered machines and therefore arguably not motorcycles as we know them. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of a motorcycle is “A two-wheeled vehicle that is powered by a motor and has no pedals.” A motor is powered by electricity or an internal combustion engine and so a steam engine would not qualify. Most people say that the first motorcycle to meet this definition is the Daimler Reitwagen of 1885 developed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. This 264cc, 0.5hp, Iron shod machine, could reach a speed of 6.8mph but it was purely a test bed for their new engine, they had no interest in developing it. Of course nothing in motorcycling is simple, and neither is this “first motorcycle” a definite either because technically it had four wheels! There were the traditional two of every BI-cycle and then they added two stabilizers. I know bikers who appear to need stabilizers but they are not normally original equipment on a bike….or even an option come to think of it.
So the Reitwagen was the first bike, unless of course it wasn’t. Maybe the first bike is the first production bike or the first that was actually called a motorcycle. If that is the case then it is the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller which in 1894 became the first production motorcycle. It was also called, by the company, a Motorrad , which is of course German for motorcycle. The twin cylinder 1,489cc engine produced 2.5bhp of pure four stroke power and bad boys, good girls and the manufacturers of the Black leather jacket rejoiced!