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What was the First Motorcycle?


May 30, 2012 by Rider Newsletter Staff

The answer depends on how you define your terms.

If you’re looking to find the very first motorcycle, it appears there are several from which to choose. To some extent, the choice depends on how one defines a motorcycle. Something akin to a motorcycle could be seen at in both Europe and the United States in the late 1860s.

In the USA, a Massachusetts man, Sylvester Howard Roper, is said to have begun demonstrating a steam powered two-wheeled vehicle in 1867. The charcoal-fired two cylinder engine drove a crank on the rear wheel by means of a pushrod. Roper created an updated version of his machine in 1884 that was said to have reached speeds of up to 30 miles-per-hour. Unfortunately, Mr. Roper died of an apparent heart attack while demonstrating the machine on a track in 1896.

At just about the same time Roper was tooling around on his steam powered bike, Pierre Michaux , inventor of a steel-framed, pedal-driven bicycle, added a steam engine to one of his frames and demonstrated it in a around Paris. It is said that Michaux’s son did most of the riding and all went well until his daughter gave it a go and crashed the machine into a nearby tree.

If your definition of a motorcycle includes steam power, Roper and Michaux appear to be tied for the honor of being first. However, if you insist upon a machine powered by an internal combustion gasoline engine, you need to look to Germany in the mid 1880s.

At that time, Gottlieb Daimler (yes, THAT Daimler) and Wilhelm Maybach (yes THAT Maybach) built a motorized vehicle with a wooden frame that resembled a bicycle with training wheels. The “Reitwagan” (riding car) was powered by a single cylinder engine and may have included a spray-type carburetor, which Maybach was developing at the time. With its iron banded wooden wheels, it surely provided a rough ride. The design appears to have been based on the “bone-crusher” velocipede, a predecessor to the modern bicycle.

No matter which version you consider to be first, none of the three early designs went on to actual production and wide acceptance. The first production motorcycle was the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller, which was manufactured in Munich, Germany in 1894. Although the numbers are uncertain, it appears that no more than 1,000 were ever built and sold.

In 1895, a fellow named E.J. Pennington developed and demonstrated a two-wheeled, engine powered machine in Milwaukee. It is Pennington who is often credited with inventing the term “motor cycle” to describe his invention. Pennington made many claims (including that his motorcycle could reach speeds of up to 58 miles-per-hour), but his design didn’t catch on and was never mass produced.

In 1898, an English bicycle company called Triumph began work on their first motorcycle, which was introduced in 1902. That same year, in the USA, the Hendee Manufacturing Company introduced their first motorcycle, called the Indian. The diamond framed Indian Single was powered by an engine manufactured by Aurora Manufacturing Company to Hendee’s specifications.

In 1903, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson created their first motorized bicycle and, after realizing the machine was underpowered, developed what became the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The loop-frame Harley-Davidson took fourth place in a 1904 motorcycle race. By 1906, they had built their first factory and began producing and selling motorcycles under the name Harley-Davidson. The company’s world headquarters is still located on the site of that original factory.

By the end of World War I, Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

So, what was the first motorcycle? Like beauty, leadership, in this case, is in the eye of the beholder.

You can see a photo of the Roper Steamer on the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum Web site.

You’ll find the main Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum site here.

BookRags has a short but interesting overview of motorcycle history here. offers insights on the first motorcycle on this page.

See the Wikipedia page on motorcycle history at this link. There are tons of links within this article. You can remain caught up in motorcycle history for hours.

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