The motorcycle began from humble stock as the “safety” bicycle, but depending upon whose claim you wish to believe, the first motorbike was built in the late 1800’s either by Daimler (the company which would one day become Mercedes-Benz) or by Sylvester Howard Roper.
If you go for the Roper version of the story, the first real motorcycle was powered, not by a gasoline engine, but by a steam engine. Roper rode his steam-powered bike at demonstrations and races during fairs and circuses in the eastern US in 1867, and though it did generate considerable publicity, it failed to capture the imagination of the buying public. It did, however, include features which anticipated those found on many modern machines. Those lasting innovations include the twist-grip throttle.
If you’re looking for the world’s first really practical, gasoline-driven motorcycle, you’ll find it in the form of the 1885 Daimler Reitwagen.
But it wasn’t until the turn of the century that machines which could correctly be called “motorcycles” began to appear on the scene. In 1895, a U.S. inventor, E.J. Pennington, demonstrated his machine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and claimed it was capable of a top speed of 58 mph. It is Pennington who is ultimately credited with coining the term “motor cycle” to describe such machines.
In 1901 English bicycle maker Royal Enfield introduced the firm’s first motorcycle, and it featured a 239 cc engine mounted in the front which drove the rear wheel via a belt system. By the early 1900’s, English bicycle maker Triumph began the initial work necessary to manufacture motorcycles, and by 1902, the company had produced its first design. Essentially a bicycle fitted with a Belgian-built engine, Triumph sales reached 500.
The Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company, founded by two former bicycle racers, designed the so-called “diamond framed” Indian Single in 1901 with an engine was built by Aurora in Illinois from specifications created by Indian. The resulting bike, a single, sold 500 units by 1902 and that output would rise to a high-water mark of 32,000 annually by 1913.
Led by Indian, design experimentation and innovation were moved forward by the wildly popular new sport of motorcycle racing. The demands of the track required the development of tough, fast, reliable machines, and Indian led the way.
1900-1955 Motorcycles As Industrial Output
- 1902 – Triumph
- 1903 – Harley-Davidson (Harley-Davidson Motor Company)
- 1946 – Honda (The Honda Motor Company)
- 1952 – Suzuki (Suzuki Motor Co.)
- 1954 – Kawasaki (Kawasaki Heavy Industries)
- 1955 – Yamaha (Yamaha Motor Corporation)
1945-1985 — The Motorcycle Boom in the US
- 1945 – 198,000 motorcycles registered
- 1955 – 450,000 motorcycles registered
- 1958 – Over 500,000 motorcycles registered
- 1962 – 646,000 motorcycles registered
- 1965 – 1.4 million motorcycles registered
- 1970 – 2.8 million motorcycles registered
- 1975 – 5 million motorcycles registered
- 1985 – 5.4 million motorcycles registered
- 1990 – 3,650,000 million motorcycles registered
- 1998 – 4,809,000 million motorcycles registered
Watershed Moments in the History of the Motorcycle
- 1953 – Marlon Brando makes movie The Wild One – the birth of motorcycle cool
- 1959 – First Japanese motorcycle manufacturer (Yamaha), takes on the U.S. market
- 1962 – “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ad campaign converts the masses
- 1969 – Stock motorcycles run quarter-mile in less than 13 seconds,
- 1970 – Easy Rider movie released – motorcycle cool redefined
- 1972 – Motorcycle controls standardized
- 1973 – Motorcycle Safety Foundation formed
- 1978 – First time stock motorcycles run quarter-mile under 12 seconds
- 1980 – First International Motorcycle Safety Conference sponsored by MSF
- 1980 – Stock motorcycles torch the quarter-mile in less than 11 seconds
- 1986 – “Superbike” ban proposed and summarily defeated
- 1986 – First stock motorcycles run quarter-mile in under 10 seconds
1978-1987 – The Fall From Grace – Motorcycle Sales Decline
The original explosion of the motorcycle market coincided with the first baby boom generation.
During the postwar years of 1944-46, veterans returning from World War II were restless and seeking thrills to match their war experience. Motorcycles were the answer, and the most adventurous GIs stripped them down and hit the highways seeking speed and the adrenaline rush they found lacking in postwar America.
But it wasn’t until the 1960’s when the children of those pioneers came of age that motorcycling found its way into the public consciousness. In 1962, the most successful motorcycle ad campaign in history was created by the Honda Motor Company, and the game was on. That campaign, dubbed “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” managed to push motorcycle sales through the roof. In a scant three-year period, the number of registered motorcycle doubled in the United States, and five years later, that number had doubled again. After another five year stretch, registrations doubled yet again and the boom was on.
Registrations climbed from 646,000 to 5 million in just over 10 years.
During the early boom years the average motorcycle buyer was young and content with the cheap, small displacement motorcycle offerings of the Japanese. But as roads were expanded across North America, those young riders gained experience and began to lust after larger and more powerful machines. The Japanese manufacturers saw the writing on the wall, and in 1969 , Honda came out with the iconic and perfectly-timed CB750K. At 750cc, it was a “superbike” capable of astonishing speed, comfort and handling, and the release of the CB750 spurred over sales yet again. As other manufacturers followed suit in designing more powerful and comfortable bikes, the 1970’s became the Golden Age of road bikes.
As the decade came to a close the, motorcycle industry suffered the first of many crushing hits and sales dropped drastically. The kids who had been responsible for the boom were now starting families, settling down and the motorcycle lifestyle just didn’t fit the into the picture. The second boomers stopped buying and motorcycle manufacturers went into panic mode. The bust caught motorcycle manufacturers by surprise and they had no ready answer for the disastrous conditions they suddenly faced.
At the time, the predictions for the entire industry were dire indeed and it looked like the Day the Motorcycle Died had indeed come to pass.
Very Late 1980’s – Back in the Saddle Again
While motorcycle sales were in the trench near the end of the 1980’s compared to just 10 years before, there was actually light at the end of the tunnel. The motorcycle dealerships who managed to weather the drought were in horrible shape, but two mostly-unexpected things occurred; baby boomers came back to motorcycling – and they brought their freshly-minted children with them on the trip.
Whereas they had once sought speed and handling at the expense of comfort, the boomers came back to motorcycling in search of comfort and reliability. Suddenly, what had come to be called cruisers were in fashion with older riders. Their children, as they had before them, were on the quest for speed and adrenaline the older riders craved back in the day.
Present – Baby Boomers Rediscover the Motorcycle.
The Motorcycle dealerships and manufacturers who survived the down times found themselves once again on the cusp of success and profitability. As it now stands, the number of registered motorcycles is approaching historically high levels and every year sees a new crop of models offered – and more importantly for the industry – sold. Participation in racing events of all stripe is climbing as well. The rebirth of the Cafe Racer culture, the popularity of sport bikes and the continued dominance of cruisers on the sales charts is a testament to the enduring appeal of the motorcycle.