Early History of Motorcycles

Jun 22, 2017

Riding a motorcycle has many well-known benefits, including the feeling of freedom and adventure while riding, superior gas mileage, and a sense of community with other riders. But less well known is the rich history behind the world of motorcycle riding.

The history of the motorcycle began in the nineteenth century, when several early versions were independently created by different inventors. One of the earliest predecessors of the motorcycle was the steam-powered velocipede, created in 1867 by American inventor Sylvester Howard Roper. The vehicle ran on a two-cylinder, coal-fired steam engine.

In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach invented the reitwagen (or “riding wagon”), which combined the general structure of a bicycle with an internal combustion engine. Motorcycles became popular in the late nineteenth century as companies sold motor kits to attach similar engines to regular bicycles. In 1894, Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand and Alois Wolfmüller patented the world’s first production motorcycle, which was sold as a fully motorized bike rather than a kit. Later, in 1903, William Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson launched the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, one of the most well-known motorcycle manufacturers today.

(Library of Congress photo: First female to obtain motorcycle license in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 15, 1937): Mrs. Sally Halterman. At the age of 27, she became the first and only female initiated into the D.C. Motorcycle Club.)

World War I and World War II

Motorcycles proved useful in World War I, during which the American and European militaries used them to carry messages and information due to their speed and small size. Demand for bikes boomed for a while after WWI, but dropped during the Great Depression, which saw the demise of many smaller motorcycle manufacturers. Though this era saw a decline in demand for motorcycles, that’s also when bike rallies became popular. Many rallies born during this time are still around today, such as the Daytona Beach Bike Week and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

World War II played a huge role in the creation of modern motorcycle culture. Motorcycles were once again used by American and European militaries. Harley-Davidson grew extremely successful by the end of the war due to its contracts with the military. Japan had also established its own domestic motorcycle market, giving rise to companies such as Honda. After the war, bikes and biker clubs became popular among American veterans, helping to form the biker culture that exists today. Many aspects of today’s biker culture come from military culture, such as wearing patches with certain colors or logos to represent one’s club.

Hollister Riot

The Hollister Riot had a major impact on the reputation of motorcycles and motorcycle clubs. The event began as a simple motorcycle rally in the small town of Hollister, California in 1947. Bikers poured into the town and nearly doubled its population. The town received little damage, but by the end of the event, many streets were littered with beer bottles and there were reports of motorcyclists riding drunk. The event received national media attention and helped give biker culture its reputation for crime and disorder. Today, bikers have fought hard to dispel that reputation.

Are You in Need of a Motorcycle Accident Attorney?

Despite its many benefits and rich history, riding a motorcycle can be dangerous. In fact, 88,000 motorcyclists were injured in 2015 alone. If you or a loved one has been involved in a motorcycle accident, schedule a free case evaluation online or call us at: