Looking at the range of new motorcycles we are able to buy off a showroom floor today, it’s easy to forget how far we have come since the first motorcycles were produced. When the first “motorcycles” were rolled out of workshops in the 1870’s, they were nothing more than bicycles with small steam engines to slowly push a rider down the street. Most, if not all bicycles were faster than these new experimental machines. In the beginning, bicycle racing was the only competition on two wheels. Motorcycles just weren’t very practical because the technology was not advanced enough. Most citizens would never believe that in 100 years there would be production motorcycles with a top-speed approaching 200 MPH. There were, however, a small group of motorcycle pioneers who would start to set motorcycles a pace above other transportation.
People had begun to experiment. Petroleum-powered engines quickly proved to be the fuel of choice for the new “motorcycle.” E.J Pennington had reached 58 MPH with a homemade machine in 1896. In 1901, British Royal Enfield entered the market with a 239cc production motorcycle. A British bicycle company, Triumph, had developed its own production motorcycle. An American company, Harley-Davidson, was formed in 1903. Two American bicycle racers, the Indian brothers, began making bikes too, and in 10 years, Indians’ motorcycle sales had jumped 6400%. Motorcycles were here to stay, and they slowly began to develop their own unique characteristics over bicycles. Special transmissions were developed instead of the early single-speed belt drive, and suddenly greater distances and speeds were attainable.
During the early boom, companies experimented with new innovations in Motorcycle engineering. Motorcycle racing became a sport. Early contests took place on horse-racing ovals and bicycle velodromes, and in 1909 wooden tracks built specifically for cars and motorcycles began to appear in Los Angeles and spread from there. These early races must have been such a thrill to watch. The race bikes were towed around the steep oval tracks until they could be bump started over the rough 2 x 2 and 2 x 4 pieces of wood. Once moving, these racers had no brakes to slow them down, just the engines compression to slowly stop them after the race. Even back in the 1910’s riders would reach speeds of more than 100 miles an hour. Crashes were frequent and often fatal—riders who went down faced being impaled by splinters, or other riders. Spectators shared in the risk: at many motordromes, they looked down from the top of the track, at risk of being crashed into. Despite these crashes, the board track racing sport was popular until the 1920’s.
From the 1920’s until WWII, more and more development occurred. There were over 80 different makers of motorcycles available in Britain in the 1930’s. Companies like Norton and BSA became popular among the already successful American Harley-Davidson and Indian companies. The age of the motorcycle is still upon us as we continue to develop exciting new technology every year.