It’s convenient for motorcycle historians that the history (so far) of the motorcycle coincides almost exactly with that of the Twentieth Century. The title “the first motorcycle” is usually awarded to a machine built by Gottlieb Daimler and William Maybach in 1885. But their contraption could also be described as the first car. It had two ungainly wooden wagon wheels fore and aft, with smaller stabilizing wheels off to the sides.
|The operator straddled it like a motorcycle, but it didn't lean to turn. It's your call whether this is the first motorcycle, or the first car, or just some precursor to both.|
Hildebrand and Wolfmuller produced the first commercially viable motorcycle in 1894. This was also the first time the word “motorrad” (German for motorcycle) was used. Any modern motorcyclist would immediately recognize it as such: it had a gravity-feed fuel tank mounted above an internal-combustion motor; it rolled on air-filled rubber tires; the rider controlled it by means of a twistgrip and levers on a handlebar.
Power was transmitted to the rear wheel by steel rods, connected directly to the crankshaft. The rods were assisted on the return stroke by rubber bands! Despite its impressive displacement of 1488cc, Heinrich Hildebrand’s motor only produced about 2.5 horsepower. It’s not surprising that for the next twenty years or so, most motorcycles also had bicycle pedals, for assistance on hills or when extra oomph was required to pass a horse that was feeling his oats.
1900-‘09: The de Dion-Bouton motor powers a revolution
Hundreds of small European workshops aspired to design and sell motorcycles. And why not? Anyone who could make a bicycle could make a motorcycle, if only they could find a small, reliable motor that made reasonable power and was available cheap.
Supplying those motors was the mission of two pioneering Frenchmen, Count Albert de Dion, and Georges Bouton. They patented a small, high-speed gas engine that they used in automobiles of their own design. More importantly, they also sold thousands of motors and licensed their design to over 150 motorcycle companies.