Motorcycles or their historic predecessors have been around for more than 150 years. In the very beginning, the machines that would later become “motorcycles” were little more than bicycles with pedals and were called velocipedes. However, today’s motorcycles now often feature technology that the early motorcycle inventors could not even conceive of.
We’ve developed a brief timeline of some of the significant events that have shaped the development and enjoyment of motorcycles. So let’s look at some important topics over the decades.
Sometime in the 1860s, Pierre Michaux founds Michaux et Cie (Michaux and Company), which produces bicycles with pedals called velocipedes.
1867 – Pierre Michaux’s son Ernest Michaux fits a small steam engine to one of his father’s velocipedes.
1868 – French engineer Louis-Guillaume Perreaux patents a similar steam-powered single-cylinder machine using an alcohol burner with twin belt drives.
1868 – American Sylvester Roper develops a twin-cylinder steam velocipede using a coal-fired boiler.
1881 – Lucius Copeland designs a much smaller steam boiler. And it is capable of propelling the rear wheel of high-wheelers to a dizzying for the time speed of 12 mph.
1884 – The first commercial design for a self-propelled bicycle is built by Edward Butler. It is a three-wheel design.
1884 – The Merryweather Fire Engine Compay builds the Butler Petrol Cycle. It used a liquid-cooled, flat twin, four-stroke engine, rotary valves, and a float-fed carburetor and was started by compressed air. Speed was controlled with a throttle valve lever. However, no formal braking system was installed. The cycle is not a commercial success.
1885 – Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Mayback design and build the “Petroleum Reitwagen” (riding car). It is a petroleum-powered internal combustion machine. While it has two main wheels, it is also equipped with two outrigger wheels to keep the machine upright during turns. Interestingly, the Petroleum Reitwagen was designed not as a motorcycle but as a testbed for their new engine.
1887 – Lucius Copeland forms the Northrop Manufacturing Company to produce the first successful “Moto-cycle,” which is a three-wheel design.
1894 – Hildebrand & Wolfmüller produce the first series production motorcycle. It is the first to be called a “motorcycle” (Motorrad) by its manufacturer. Only a few hundred machines are ever built. Note: The first instance of using the term “motorcycle” did appear in promotional materials for machines developed by E. J. Pennington. However, these motorcycles never progressed past the prototype stage.
1896 – Coventry England’s Excelsior Motor Company begins producing its first motorcycle model available for purchase by the general public.
1898 – The first production American motorcycle, called the Orient Astor, is built by Charles Metz and is produced in Waltham, Massachusetts.
1901 – Royal Enfield introduces its first motorcycle. It carries a 239cc engine mounted in the front which drives the bike’s rear wheel with a belt.
1901 – Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company designs the “diamond framed” Indian Single equipped with an engine built by Aurora Automatic Machine Company in Illinois.
1902 – Triumph produces its first motorcycle using a Belgian-built engine. The company becomes the largest motorcycle manufacturer, making over 500 units, only a year later. Norton also begins motorcycle production.
1903 – Harley-Davidson starts producing motorcycles.
1911 – Police Chief August Vollmer of the Berkley, California Police Department organizes the first official police motorcycle patrol in the US.
1914 – World War I breaks out, and motorcycle production ramps up. Armed forces use motorcycles as a means to communicate with front-line troops replacing messengers on horses. Harley-Davidson devotes 50 percent of its output to fulfill military contracts by the end of the war. In addition, Triumph Motorcycles sells more than 30,000 of its Model H motorcycles to allied forces.
The 1920s & 1930s
1920s and 1930s – Harley-Davidson becomes the largest motorcycle manufacturer, with its motorcycles being sold by dealers in 67 countries. Moto Guzzi and BMW join the list of companies building motorcycles. In Britain, more than 80 companies produce motorcycles, including major companies like Norton, Triumph, and AJS.
1931 – Indian and Harley-Davidson become the only two American manufacturers producing commercial motorcycles.
1940s – After World War II, returning soldiers embrace motorcycling. European motorcycles take on practical applications and find a niche in the US market.
1946 – Piaggio introduces Vespa.
1951 – The BSA group purchases Triumph Motorcycles and claims it has become the largest producer of motorcycles globally.
1955 – German brand NSU rises to become the largest motorcycle manufacturer producing some 350,000 motorcycles.
1957 – Harley-Davidson produces the first Sportster.
1959 – Honda becomes the largest manufacturer.
The 1960s – a change in usage
1960s – Motorcycles begin a change in how they are used. Their role changes from a tool of day-to-day life to a more recreational conveyance for sport and leisure. Honda’s motorcycles prove to be more modern designs that could be produced quickly, cheaply, and arguably of better quality.
1969 – Honda introduces the single overhead cam inline-four engine in its CB750. Kawasaki follows suit shortly thereafter with the introduction of the KZ900.
1974 – The Honda Gold Wing is released as a powerful, comfortable, continent crossing motorcycle. Soon, it becomes the preeminent touring machine.
1977 – BMW introduces the first factory, “full fairing,” produced in quantity with its R100RS model.
1980 – BMW’s R80G/S “adventure touring” bike is released, starting a trend towards road-worthy yet off-road capable motorcycles.
1984 – Suzuki releases its first GSX-R model as the GSX-R 400 only in Japan. The GSX-R lineup becomes a leader in lightweight race replica motorcycles.
1985 – The Yamaha V-Max arrives with a V-4 engine and lots of power for the time. As a cruiser, it still could beat many “sportbikes” in drag races.
1987 – Honda releases its first “CBR” motorcycle with its Hurricane model.
1988 – BMW becomes the first motorcycle manufacturer to use anti-lock brakes on its K100RS-SE and K1 models.
1990 – Harley-Davidson produces the FLST Fat Boy helping the brand regain some of its lost sales.
1992 – Honda introduces the Fireblade (CBR900RR). It is a sportbike emphasizing lightweight over outright power. The formula meets with great success.
1993 – Ducati officially unveils the Monster 900.
1994 – Ducati rolls out the Ducati 916 sportbike. It quickly becomes adored for its great looks and winning championships in World Superbike. Harley-Davidson goes road racing with its VR 1000, becoming the first motorcycle produced strictly for racing.
1999 – Suzuki rolls out the Hayabusa and becomes known as a street motorcycle capable of 200 mph.
Many more deserve recognition
Indeed, there are many, many more notable developments that do not appear in this very brief list. So if there are some that you think are equally or more important than what is listed, feel free to put the year and event in the comments below.