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History of the motorcycle

Posted by Martin Ford on Saturday, January 13, 2024 Under: Motorcycle History
History of the motorcycle

Perhaps surprisingly, motorbikes were invented at almost exactly the same time as cars. The Daimler Reitwagen, built by Gottlieb Daimler, first appeared in 1885, the same year as Karl Benz built his Patent Motorwagen – the first petrol-powered motor car.

Now, the Reitwagen might look pretty crude to our eyes, but it was the first effective two-wheeled vehicle powered by a petrol engine.

That engine was a four-stroke 264cc single, making a heady 0.5bhp, and the ‘bike’ itself used a pair of stabiliser wheels to help it go round corners.

Inventors and engineers quickly worked out that they needed better chassis tech though, and borrowing innovation from the world of bicycles, they began to develop frames with better steering geometry and more powerful engines.

Arguably the first ‘proper’ motorbike, rather than Daimler’s rather impractical prototype machine was the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller ‘motorrad’ of 1894.

It went into full series production, with more than 800 produced in Germany over three years.

It used a weirdly primitive engine design – like a steam train, the twin cylinder motor’s con-rods were joined directly to the driving (rear) wheel, so the ‘crankshaft’ was simply the back wheel – there was no clutch or gearbox at all.

It weighed a skinny 55kg and the 1,488cc water-cooled engine produced a wild 2.5bhp – meaning it could almost touch 30mph.

The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller (H&W) was a bit of a dead end thanks to that archaic engine layout, but it had broken new ground for the motorcycle – and before we knew it, we were all riding Fireblades and ZX-10Rs.

Okay, it took a wee bit longer than that – but it’s fair to say that without the Daimler Reitwagen and the H&W, bikes might well not have appeared until much later.

Who invented the motorbike?

Germany was the home of many early automotive developments, including the motorcycle.

The Daimler Reitwagen, produced by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1885, is generally accepted as the first petrol-powered motorbike, though there were various experimental steam-powered machines around at the time.

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