Complete History of Motorcycles

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couple on a mototrcycle

Tattoos, leather jackets, studded boots, rock-and-roll, Harley-Davidson – all stereotypes that have taken over the idea of motorcycles, particularly in the US. But, where did the history of motorcycles really begin? With a long, complicated, and interesting history, motorcycles have left their mark in more than just one place in the world from the early, steam-powered bikes to the bikes we know today.

Early Steam-Powered Cycle

The earliest known steam-powered bicycles were developed in the 1860s by a blacksmith from Paris named Pierre Michaux. He founded the company “Michaux et Cie” (“Michaux and company”) which was the first company to construct bicycles with pedals at the time – known as velocipedes. The Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede can be traced back to 1967 when Pierre’s son Ernest put a small steam engine to one of the velocipedes.

The next design that followed was by Pierre Lallement in America. He was a Michaux employee that claimed to have developed the prototype of the steam velocipede in 1863. In 1866, he filed for the first bicycle patent with the US in 1866.

In 1868, an American from Massachusetts, Sylvester H. Roper, developed a velocipede with a coal-fired boiler between the wheels –he died while demonstrating the invention in 1896. That same year, a French engineer patented a similar steam engine with an alcohol burner and twin belt drives.

In 1881, a man from Arizona named Lucius Copeland designed a smaller steam boiler that drove the American Star high-wheeler at 12 mph. Copeland went on in 1887 to form the Northrop Manufacturing Co. to produce the first successful “Moto-Cycle” (3 wheeled).

First Commercial Products

While all these tests and inventions attempted the motorcycle, it wasn’t until 1885 that the first motorcycle with a diesel engine would be regarded as the first motorcycle, built by German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

In 1894, Hildebrand and Wolfmüller were the first manufacturers to mass produce a series of motorcycles which were the first to be referred to as “motorcycles”. By 1895, the first ever motorcycle came to the US with a French circus and American E.J. Pennington created his version of the motorcycle that went up to 58 mph.

With motorcycle races starting, the demand for faster and more powerful engines and designs rose. Between 1901-1903, big plants started mass productions, most notably:

  • English Royal Enfield
  • Triumph Motorcycles
  • Harley-Davidson
  • Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company

First World War

The first World War called for a surplus of motorcycles. It made it easier and faster to deliver messages to the troops in front line instead of riding a horse there. During the war, Harley-Davidson devoted 50% of its factory output toward the military contract.

Triumph Motorcycles sent about 30,000 Model H motorcycles to the allied troops. It is now recognized as the first modern motorcycle because it was the first to come without pedals.


After the war, in 1928, the German company DKW surpassed Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle as the largest motorcycle maker in the world. By the 1930s, there were over 30 motorcycle models in England.

After World War II, American veterans started to create motorcycle clubs most recognized in the 1954 movie “The Wild One”. But, while the US was former “motorcycle gangs”, Europe was focused on figuring out how they could make a motorcycle more practical and a form of economic transport. In 1948, they found a niche American bikes did not, and the Vespa was created.

By 1959, Honda had become the largest manufacturer for motorcycles in the world. Through the 1960s, the British dominance faded with the growth of several Japanese companies. That dominance would continue to expand in the market until the 1990s.

Today, while the Japanese still hold a good size of the motorcycle market, there are still other companies that are recognized and known for their influence on the industry like:

  • BMW
  • Ducati
  • Victory
  • Harley-Davidson

Fun Facts about the History of Motorcycles

  1. Yamaha began its life in 1887 manufacturing pianos. Including pianos, they also now manufacturer boats, car engines, swimming pools, industrial robots, wheelchairs, RVs, electronics, and many other things – including motorcycles.
  2. Triumph began in 1888 at an old ribbon-making factory where they produced bicycles.
  3. Honda started manufacturing motorized bicycles and didn’t start making automobiles until the post-war period.
  4. BMW was the first manufacturer to patent and use telescopic forks, although they don’t use the system on its big motorcycles.
  5. The co-founder of Indian was a watchmaker before he turned to bicycle repairs, which led to building some of the first motorcycles.
  6. The Victory Kingpin set the world record for “World’s Fastest Victory” in 2009 with a speed of 165.9 mph.
  7. Three motorcycle manufacturers have been named: Devil, Satan, and Lucifer.