Evolution of motorcycles: From bicycles mounted with steam engines to electric and flying bikes

Motorcycles are not a mere mode of transportation, they are exhilarating machines that started life as an elite and badass tool of letting people express themselves. While we talk a lot about new bikes, let's today take a moment to trace the Mark-I.

By: | Updated: March 10, 2018 4:46 PM
It wasn't until the 1900s motorcycles became a trend, but the fire was burning since 1860s. It wasn't until the 1900s motorcycles became a trend, but the fire was burning since 1860s.

The motorcycle was invented, like many other innovations, to make everyday life better. And indeed it did. But over the years, the modest mode of personal transportation transformed into something a lot more important and just as much exciting, maybe more. What began as two-wheels and pedals evolved into the ultimate adrenaline machines. So, where did it all begin? Today, we just sit, turn on the ignition and set off, and we even have techs like traction control and cornering ABS, but how did we get here? We'll take a trip down memory lane to know the roots of motorcycles better.

The very beginning of two-wheeled transportation

The very first kind of two-wheelers were the bicycles, which started life as velocipede. A velocipede has its pedals at the front wheel which the directly propels it forward unlike the chain that we see on bicycles today. Although it isn't known who or when were pedals first added to the bicycle. It looks all classic and pretty in the photo but the fact is it was rather painful to ride with its metal frame and wooden wheels with tyres made of iron.

An English-built velocipede from around the 1860s (Image: Science Museum) An English-built velocipede from around the 1860s (Image: Science Museum)

It was 20 years later in the 1880s when a proper bicycle was built with a proper handlebar, chain-driven and will the same size wheels. The safety bicycle was the stepping stone to motorcycle invention.

The Mark-I

In the days of velocipedes in the 1860s, a Frenchman called Pierre Michaux built these bicycles with wrong sized wheels but his son Ernest had an epiphany and thought it would be nice to mount one with a steam engine. The first steam-powered motorcycle was born.

A Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede (Image: Rogeriomachado/Flickr) A Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede (Image: Rogeriomachado/Flickr)

Fast forward to 1881, an American engineer Lucius Copeland fitted another with a smaller steam engine that powered the rear wheel propelling it to speeds of up 20 km/h. Copeland kept experimenting with different bicycles attaining speeds of up to 24 km/h.

The first ICE

An internal combustion engine was added to a bike for the very first time by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1885, which came to known as the Reitwagen. The two were very interested in knowing the applications of an engine. Motorising a bicycle was not the prime objective, hence Reitwagen was abandoned in favour of researching more on four-wheelers. But it did draw up a basic concept for the motorcycle.

Daimler Reitwagen, the world's first motorcycle with an internal combustion engine. Daimler Reitwagen, the world's first motorcycle with an internal combustion engine.

Though Reitwagen was abandoned, there were several others who were looking to perfecting the concept of motorcycles. Some companies began to sell engine kits to propel standard bicycles. This brought in an era of 'motorised bicycles' which were no longer just a display at shows and fairs.

World's first production motorcycle

With the onset of 'motorised bicycles', German engineers Heinrich Hildebrand, Wilhelm Hildebrand, and Alois Wolfmüller realised that people would be willing to buy bikes with engines already attached to them. After filling a patent in 1894, world's first production motorcycle was rolled out of a factory - Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, and over 200 units were sold.

1894 Hildebrand und Wolfmüller, teh world's first production motorcycle. It came with a two-cylinder, four-stroke engine. (Image: Joachim Köhler/Wikimedia Commons) 1894 Hildebrand und Wolfmüller, teh world's first production motorcycle. It came with a two-cylinder, four-stroke engine. (Image: Joachim Köhler/Wikimedia Commons)

Only a year later, French railcar and automotive manufacturer De Dion-Bouton introduced, what is said to be, the world's first light-weight and high-speed internal combustion engine. It generated half a horsepower!. Today we know motorcycles with 200 hp, but back then 0.5 hp was an impressive figure. This engine was copied and used by many around the world.

The onset of motorcycling as we know it

In the 1900s, the motorcycle caught on in the market and brands like Excelsior and Royal Enfield entered the field. Also, new companies were founded just to build motorcycles. Over time, the concept was polished to deliver better performance and comfort, for example, the addition of pneumatic tyres made for a better ride. Eventually, a number of new designs and inventions were rolled out in the market.

Racing

Motorcycles didn't have to wait until the 1900s, when the proper ones were taking shape, for racing. Motorcycle races were organised back in 1868 as well. Racing is what brought people together into what we call the motorcycle community. Eventually, the races got bigger so someone had to administer them. Hence came along FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) in 1904 and the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) followed in 1924.

Some motorcycle manufacturers even entered the market with a focus on winning races. One of them was Indian Motorcycle. Other manufacturers like Harley-Davidson, Triumph and English Royal Enfield also worked towards building more powerful and faster machines.

Motorcycles got a further push in popularity through iconic movies like 'The Wild One' starring Marlon Brando. (Image: Sony Pictures Museum) Motorcycles got a further push in popularity through iconic movies like 'The Wild One' starring Marlon Brando. (Image: Sony Pictures Museum)

Motorcycles have even served in wars for sending messages and even during combat. By 1901, it was clear, the motorcycle was here to stay. And we thank the Gods of motorcycles that it did.

Motorcycle clubs have been a phenomenon much older than we think. They've existed since the turn of the twentieth century. Clubs like Hell's Angels rose to immense popularity, even amongst those with no interest in bikes.

Honda CB750, the world's first superbike. (Image: ujenimotors.com) Honda

CB750, the world's first superbike. (Image: ujenimotors.com)

The culture of motorcycling quickly spread across the world. Some motorcycle clubs were also an outlaw. While criminals too loved the rush of the motorcycle, it wasn't necessary that the clubs indulged in criminal activities. But the 'bad' reputation of the motorcycle clubs did give them the quotient of 'coolness!'.

BMW hover-bike concept BMW

hover-bike concept

Soon the Japanese companies gave the world mass market products that no longer required riders to the 'badass' and 'outlaw', but nice people could buy these nice bikes too. And today the motorcycle is the most sold two-wheeler in the world, with several purpose-built categories - sports, sports tourer, adventure tourer, dirt, commuter, cafe racer, roadster, super, hyper, and many more. We love our bikes. Motorcycles are one of the best things to happen to mankind, and it all gets traced back to a wooden bicycle.

Source: Drive Tribe/Helene Helle

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