In 2020, the world celebrated the 135th anniversary of the birth of the first motorcycle. Its “fathers” were the renowned German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach who went on to found world-famous car brands.
The bicycle was the precursor to the first motorcycle. The first model lacked pedals and a chain and was called a “walking machine“. Almost half a century later, Sylvester Roper and Pierre and Ernest Michaux independently had the idea of attaching a small steam engine to an existing bicycle. Steam boilers were quite hazardous then: they smoked, steamed, were low-powered, heavy, and could cause burns. The first motorcycle prototypes were created initially for research purposes rather than as a ready-to-sell mechanism. They were intended to replace steam cars (the only power units at that time), being less bulky yet less powerful.
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In 1883, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach created and patented an internal combustion engine with a power output of 0.5 horsepower, weighing 60 kg at 700 rpm. They attached the engine to a wooden bicycle frame reinforced with iron plates, installed the engine and exhaust pipe under the seat, and welded two small wheels to the rear wheel for reliability. Thus the German inventors obtained the first motorcycle in history equipped with an internal combustion engine.
Riding the very first “iron horse” was quite uncomfortable: maintaining balance was difficult, the seat quickly overheated, and fire often flared up between the legs. Getting burned while using such means of transport was common. Additionally, controlling the motorcycle was a challenging task: it was necessary to hold onto the unreliable handlebar with one hand and change the position of the lever with the other to brake or engage the gear. Despite these difficulties, Adolf Daimler was a pioneer who rode the “fire chair” (Feuerstuhl) – as it is still called in Germany – for several kilometers.
Serial production – first failures
By the end of the 19th century, two-wheeled “horses” being released onto the market were still experimental developments, but there was already a fair amount of publicity surrounding them, so Hildebrand & Wolfmuller became the first to take the plunge and put motorcycle production on a mass scale. If we compare those models with modern ones, the company essentially launched mopeds onto the market – 50 kg in weight, a 2.5 horsepower engine, and a maximum speed of 45 km/h. However, due to their exorbitant cost, Hildebrand & Wolfmuller’s products were not in demand. The price of the models was 10 times higher than the average salary. The inflated cost, low demand, and inconvenient motorcycles forced the company to close production a few years later.
The first serial motorcycles
In 1897, the first motors with an ignition spark system were created, which led to a technical breakthrough – motorcycle production lines were launched en masse. In England, the company Triumph appeared in 1898, the Peugeot brand was created in France in 1899, and in 1903, “iron horses” began rolling off the conveyor belt at the Harley-Davidson Motor Company in the United States. At the same time, the first motorcycle competitions were being held.
The beginning of the 20th century was marked by a real boom in motorcycles. Compared to the first models, they became more comfortable. In addition, motorcycles were more convenient, mobile, and cheaper than cars. They were actively purchased not only by ordinary users but also by delivery drivers, postal workers, and police officers.
Here are a few unusual facts from the history of motorcycles:
- The gearbox was created back in 1927.
- For more than 20 years, manufacturers have adhered to an unofficial speed limit of 300 km/h. This was done in order to stop the “speed war” where brands tried to outdo each other in developing the fastest motorcycle. Such a race between manufacturers posed a direct threat to drivers.
- The most affordable bike is the Yamasaki Redneck 50CC, produced in China. Its average cost is just over $500.
- The most expensive “iron horse” is the Neiman Marcus LE Fighter, with a price tag of $11 million.
- The fastest bike is the Dodge Tomahawk. It can accelerate from 467 to 675 km/h. A limited batch of 10 units was produced, each with a price of $555,000.
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