After engineering a buggy that runs on four wheels it didn’t take long to realize a motorized bicycle would work well. Motorcycles are more efficient than cars: they use less fuel and take less space. However, they’re more dangerous than cars, offering far less protection in the event of a crash. They’re also fun.
In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach created the first motorcycle, the Daimler Petroleum Reitwagen. Earlier steam-powered motorcycles existed but, like steam-powered cars, they never worked well. Daimler and Maybach’s bike is the first internal combustion engine motorcycle.
The motorcycle itself looks like a somebody bolted an engine to a bicycle. It is large, clunky, and uses metal rather than pneumatic tires. People sat on a leather harness on top of the engine with no provision to dissipate the heat. It seems unlikely anybody actually drove the motorcycle. “The first motorcycle looks like an instrument of torture,” wrote motorcycle journalist Melissa Holbrook Pierson.
The Butler Petrol Cycle is the first production motorcycle. It had a liquid-cooled engine that drove a rear-wheel and pneumatic tires. The Butler sounds like a usable bike except it did not include brakes. Butler failed to find investors, possibly due to their fate after getting the bike up to speed and finding no practical way to stop it.
Daimler’s primary interest in motorcycles focused more on the miniaturization of engines with motorcycles being an obvious use.
Towards the late 1800s, countless bicycle companies tried adding motors to their bikes, some with more success than others. Eventually, dedicated motorcycle companies were established. Triumph Motorcycles began production in 1898, Norton in 1902, Indian in 1901, and Harley Davidson in 1903. Triumph and Harley Davidson sold countless bikes to the army during WWI.