The History of Motorcycles


Motorcycles are descended from the “safety” bicycle, bicycles with front and rear wheels of the same size, with a pedal crank mechanism to drive the rear wheel. Those bicycles, in turn were descended from high-wheel bicycles. The high-wheelers were descended from an early type of push-bike, without pedals, propelled by the rider’s feet pushing against the ground. These appeared around 1800, used iron-banded wagon wheels, and were called “bone-crushers,” both for their jarring ride, and their tendency to toss their riders.

Gottlieb Daimler (who later teame

Daimler's wooden-framed "bone crusher"

Daimler’s wooden-framed “bone crusher”

d up with Karl Benz to form the Daimler-Benz Corporation) is credited with building the first motorcycle in 1885, one wheel in the front and one in the back, although it had a smaller spring-loaded outrigger wheel on each side. It was constructed mostly of wood, with the wheels being of the iron-banded wooden-spoked wagon-type, definitely a “bone-crusher” chassis.


The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller was the world’s first production motorcycle. Heinrich and Wilhelm Hidebrand were steam-engine engineers before Alois Wolfmüller agreed to finance them to produce their internal combustion Motorrad in Munich in 1894.


Alternate claims

The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller is credited as the world first because other possible claimants tend to be based on a bicycle chassis (e.g. de Dion-Bouton and Orient Aster,[4] and the E. R. Thomas[5]) or were never put into production. Or both, e.g. Gottlieb Daimler’s Reitwagen of 1885 was a one-off test-bed for an experimental engine in a bicycle chassis. The Felix Millet designed ‘Motocyclette,’ of 1893 used an aviation-style radial five-cylinder engine, but never went into mass-production.[6]

Gottlieb Daimler is sometimes known as the “Father of the Motorcycle” but supporters of H & M point out that his Einspur “boneshaker” motor bike was actually a “hybrid” motor-driven bicycle with a wooden bicycle frame, and wooden wheels.

The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller patent of 20 January 1894, No. 78553 describes a 1,489 cc (90.9 cu in) two-cylinder, four-stroke engine, with a bore and stroke of 90 mm × 117 mm (3.5 in × 4.6 in). It produced 1.9 kW (2.5 bhp) @ 240 rpm[1] propelling a weight of 50 kg (110 lb)[4] up to a maximum speed of 45 km/h (28 mph).[1]The fuel-air mixture from the surface carburettor was regulated by a valve operated by controls on the handlebar.[2][5] The engine, which was positioned flat in the frame, used hot tube ignition with the tube heater in front of the cylinder heads. The tube heater was ventilated by the lower downtubes while the upper downtubes held lubricating oil.[3]

Some design details were carried over from a steam-powered prototype made by the Hildebrand brothers in 1889, including the water tank shaped to form the rear mudguard and the connecting rods of the engine driving the rear wheel directly. The water tank was repurposed to supply water to the cooling jackets surrounding the cylinders.[7] The steam-powered prototype had a double-acting cylinder, applying power to the piston in both directions.[8] With no double action available in the petrol engine, and no flywheel effect apart from the movement of the rear wheel, the return impulse for the piston was provided by heavy rubber bands.[3]

The intake valves were operated by the suction caused by the intake stroke, while the exhaust valves were operated by an eccentric brass ring on the rear wheel and a device at the cylinder head that opened each cylinder’s valve alternately.[3]

Production run

Approximately two thousand examples of this motorcycle were built,[5] but with a high initial purchase price and fierce competition from improving designs (this model was entirely “run and jump” with neither clutch nor pedals) it is not thought to have been a great commercial success. The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller factory closed in 1919 after the First World War.[1][4] The motorcycle was also built under licence in Paris by Duncan and Superbie.[3]