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Motorcycling America

A brief history of two-wheels and its mechanical heroes

By Ujjwal Dey

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Editor’s Note: Ujjwal Dey is our Bikernet Emperial Wizard Editor from India. His notions of American history are slanted by a couple of salty oceans and a culture tainted by curry powder, so cut him some slack.

We all love our rides. Whatever they may be. A cruiser, a sports model, a stock bike, a stripped down mud-all-terrain cycle, whatever. But what’s its history? How did a two-wheeler come to have such a passionate following across continents? An ancient rivalry between British and American motorcycles transformed the industry. Then came the Japanese rides challenging American and British pedigree. So what’s the story? We got it all here in a snapshot photo feature.

The Beginning: In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was “safety”. Yes, there is no known inventor of the motorcycle. Various people in Europe seemed to have had the same idea about the same time. The invention however culminated from the safety bicycle. This was a bicycle with front and rear tyres of the exact same size. That’s what was the seed, which grew into a booming cycling industry in second half of the 19th century.


Pedaling along: So then these pioneers of a new industry thought of an automated bicycle. They already had pedals but what if the damn thing pedaled itself. So came a Steam Engine powered bicycle – the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede, can be traced to 1867, when French blacksmith Pierre's son Ernest Michaux fitted a small steam engine to one of the 'velocipedes'.

Pierre Lallement, a Michaux employee, filed for the first bicycle patent with the U.S. patent office in 1866. Then in 1868 an American, Sylvester H. Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts developed a twin-cylinder steam velocipede, with a coal-fired boiler between the wheels. Roper died demonstrating one of his machines in Cambridge, Massachusetts on June 1, 1896.

Soon by 1881, Lucius Copeland of Phoenix, Arizona designed a much smaller steam boiler, which could drive the large rear wheel of an American Star high-wheeler at 12 mph. In 1887 Copeland formed the Northrop Manufacturing Co. to produce the first successful 'Moto-Cycle' (actually a three-wheeler).


Germans: Yeah, they can never stay out of inventions. Heard the names Diamler-Maybach. Yes, the company that makes multi-million dollar sedans for the rich pigs of this economy. Back in 1885, Mr. Diamler and Mr. Maybach of Stuttgart invented the first petroleum-powered vehicle, running on a light gasoline. Named “Reitwagen”, it meant “riding car”. It was invented with Diamler’s ambition to prove that his grandfather clock would function just as well on a moving vehicle.

Sell it to the circus: So by 1880, every Tom, Dick and Frankenstein were inventing motorized bicycles. The trend spread from France, England and Germany to United States of America. There were new designs of something spectacular called “internal combustion engine.” The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller became the first motorcycle available to the public for purchase in 1894. Designs changed and more powerful engines were being made everyday. The very first known motorcycle in the USA is a machine brought to New York by a French circus performer, in 1895. It weighed about 200 lb (91 kg) and was capable of 40 mph (64 km/h) on a level surface. Same year, an inventor from the United States, E.J. Pennington, demonstrated a motorcycle of his own design in Milwaukee. Pennington claimed his machine was capable of a speed of 58 mph (93 km/h). Pennington is credited with inventing the term "motor cycle" to describe his brilliant machine.

So America can take heart at owning the word if not the invention.

War Horses: Eat crow all of you. I own a Royal Enfield Bullet. And Royal Enfield was the first brand name in motorcycle industry. They opened manufacturing facilities in England and launched a commercial product in 1901, with a 239 cc engine mounted in the front and driving the rear wheel through a belt. Royal Enfield is now the oldest motorcycle brand in the world still in production with the Bullet model enjoying the longest motorcycle production run of all time.

In 1902, British bicycle maker Triumph also jumped in the motorcycle manufacturing arena. They had a Belgian-built engine. Also in 1901, the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company, founded by two former bicycle racers, designed the "diamond framed" Indian Single. Its engine was built by the Aurora Firm in Illinois as per Indian's specifications. Indian's production was up to over 500 bikes by 1902, and would rise to 32,000, its best ever, in 1913.

In 1903, as Triumph's motorcycle sales topped 500, an American company emerged – our very own Harley-Davidson started producing motorcycles, well one at least.

A time of experiments and innovation emerged. Everyone wanting to outdo each other to improve their product. This resulted in the new sport of motorcycle racing. This resulted in faster, tougher, more powerful and more reliable motorcycles. Chief August Vollmer of the Berkeley, California Police Department is credited with organizing the first official police motorcycle patrol in the United States in 1911.

By 1914, only basic bicycle elements such as seating and suspension could be recognized in a motorcycle. The motorcycle was now its own separate identity.

Right up to 1931, Harley-Davidson and Indian were the only American companies making commercial motorcycles for sale to general public. This rivalry is remembered proudly on the race tracks. After World War I, the Indian lost its “largest motorcycle manufacturer” title to Harley-Davidson.


Back in Britain, it was crazy. There were 80 different brands of motorcycles in Britain by 1930s. The familiar names like Norton, Triumph and AJS to the obscure, with names like New Gerrard, NUT, SOS, Chell and Whitwood.

Meanwhile records were broken with the new American hobby of customization. In 1937, Joe Petrali set a new land speed record of 136.183 mph (219.165 km/h) on a modified Harley-Davidson 61 cubic inch (1,000 cc) with an overhead valve-driven Knucklehead. This same day, Petrali also broke the speed record for 45 cubic inch (737 cc) engine motorcycles.

The industry was booming. Everyone knew the product. Then War broke out. With the build up to World War II, the production in Europe multiplied. Both BSA and Royal Enfield ramped up manufacturing to supply motorcycle to the Army. Royal Enfield’s 125cc light-weight could be dropped (in a parachute-fitted tube cage) from an aircraft to any field location or war-zone.

Freedom: Americans and the allies won. The World War II was over. Troops returned home. But these men had lived through hell. They sought more adventure, more brotherhood, more speed in life, and the edge that comes with living dangerously. These men started Motorcycle Clubs. A new lifestyle. Biker clubs thrived. It created a new persona. Hollywood art imitated the town-truths. Marlon Brando immortalized it in “The Wild One” (1954).

BSA purchased Triumph to be the largest manufacturer, claiming “one in every four”. Royal Enfield even had an alternative diesel engine motorcycle since 1965.

Social motorcycling was aimed at raising money for charities. Others took to rebel attitude long-surviving in American biker culture. These outlaw motorcycle gangs indulged in violence, retribution, protection racket of extortion, smuggling, gun-running, and other criminal activities. The FBI calls the current Pagans, Hells Angels, Outlaws MC, and Bandidos clubs as the “Big Four” OMGs (Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs).

By the 1970s, bobbers, then choppers became a symbol of disillusioned America breaking away from the social structure and conformations. They believed in a different America. They had their own outlaw codes. They loved and fought the same human challenges the common man faced in a bold new way.

The British also labeled its motorcycle enthusiasts as leather-jacketed hooligans.

Biker culture was a brave new way to deal with life’s bitter truths. Vietnam War Veterans came back home to their citizens calling them murderers. These war-men were a different lot than the ones who returned as heroes after World War II. While a few became distressed and depressed, others took up arms to protect their American Constitutional Rights. These biker clubs have been the most organized in its need to get back and reclaim their America. Motorcycle clubs and motorcycle freedom fighters developed a whole new motorcycle community across America.

Tourism and Bottomline: The motorcycle manufacturing industry along with the government entities tried to save the business by promoting a cleaner image of its buyers. They wanted to sell bikes. They didn’t want bikes to represent hoodlums. So the motorcycle was advertised with friendly people smiling. It was a quick getaway for a picnic by the beach or a weekend in the woods.

In the late 20th century, a cleaner image appeared with HOG and AMA. They even lobbied for political support for safer motorcycle-friendly legislation.

It was now all about keeping companies afloat, beating competitors in product quality, utilizing the fascination of the boy wanting to be his own man.

Asian Sun rising: This trend of safety and conformity was very well supported by the new competitors in the market. It was in the late 60s and then the 70s when Honda made it big with its fuel-efficient and maintenance-free motorcycles.

Honda was officially founded in Japan on September 24, 1948. They introduced their SOHC inline four-cylinder CB750 in 1969, which was inexpensive and immediately successful. This was followed by other Japanese legends, Kawasaki four-cylinder engine KZ900, Suzuki and Yamaha.

The British dominion in the motorcycle market quietly sank into a sunset. The Japanese were manufacturing the way Ford mass-manufactured efficient, reliable, strong machines. Americans bought into this new friendlier motorcycle. It didn’t look mean and big and bad. It was true as the Honda slogan said, “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” – a major change in the selling strategy in the industry.

The Japanese dominated the industry. The motorcycle was now a new symbol – a symbol of affordable transport for the common man. The statistics reveal it all. The 58% of world’s motorcycles are in the developing countries of Asia – Southern and Eastern Asia, and the Asia Pacific countries (excluding Japan) – while 33% of the cars (195 million) are concentrated in the United States and Japan. By 2002, India was home to the largest number of motorised two wheelers in the world that stands at an estimated 37 million motorcycles/mopeds. China came a close second with 34 million motorcycles/mopeds. In 2006, China had 54 million motorcycles in use and an annual production of 22 million units. Motorcycle taxis are the developing world's limousines.

It was the poor man’s ambition now. The first motorized vehicle bought by any average Indian citizen happens to be a two-wheeler, either a motorcycle or a scooter. It was a machine to get you from Point A to Point B at your convenience at an affordable budget. I don’t wear leather or patches while I ride my Enfield Bullet. It’s the only vehicle I own. It’s an extension of me, a part of me. For me the Biker Lifestyle doesn’t mean breaking social norms, but to ride because I prefer the motorcycle to anything else. It’s practical and I must admit, quite stylish. Girls still like bikers, its true, ask your blonde, redhead or brunette.

Then and Now: Today the Japanese manufacturers, namely, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha dominate the large motorcycle industry. Superbikes offering top speeds are the craze. Harley-Davidson still maintains a high degree of popularity, particularly in the United States. Indian motorcycle has been revived and shut down and revived again and again. It is as of 2012 available for purchase but I think its apparel sells more than its bikes ever will. Recent years have seen resurgence in the popularity of other motorcycle brands, including BMW, Triumph and Ducati, and the emergence of Victory as a second successful mass-builder of big-twin American cruisers.

Of course, if I could afford to buy a Harley-Davidson I would be owning one now. It’s still a rich man’s toy in India for now. It’s owners already having luxurious sedans from Audi, Mercedes and BMW in their fleet. Hey, maybe I will win the lottery. You never know!

Cheers to my favourites from the lot:


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Reader Comments

Good Job, Bandit !

Tom Rodan
Tujunga CA, LACO
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Editor Response I didn't do it. Blame it on our correspondent in India. He's far away...

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