History of the Motorcycle

History of the motorbike

Perhaps surprisingly, motorbikes were invented at almost exactly the same time as cars. The Daimler Reitwagen, built by Gottlieb Daimler, first appeared in 1885, the same year as Karl Benz built his Patent Motorwagen – the first petrol-powered motor car.

Now, the Reitwagen might look pretty crude to our eyes, but it was the first effective two-wheeled vehicle powered by a petrol engine.

That engine was a four-stroke 264cc single, making a heady 0.5bhp, and the ‘bike’ itself used a pair of stabiliser wheels to help it go round corners.

Inventors and engineers quickly worked out that they needed better chassis tech though, and borrowing innovation from the world of bicycles, they began to develop frames with better steering geometry and more powerful engines.

Arguably the first ‘proper’ motorbike, rather than Daimler’s rather impractical prototype machine was the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller ‘motorrad’ of 1894.

It went into full series production, with more than 800 produced in Germany over three years.

It used a weirdly primitive engine design – like a steam train, the twin cylinder motor’s con-rods were joined directly to the driving (rear) wheel, so the ‘crankshaft’ was simply the back wheel – there was no clutch or gearbox at all.

It weighed a skinny 55kg and the 1,488cc water-cooled engine produced a wild 2.5bhp – meaning it could almost touch 30mph.

The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller (H&W) was a bit of a dead end thanks to that archaic engine layout, but it had broken new ground for the motorcycle – and before we knew it, we were all riding Fireblades and ZX-10Rs.

Okay, it took a wee bit longer than that – but it’s fair to say that without the Daimler Reitwagen and the H&W, bikes might well not have appeared until much later.

Who invented the motorbike?

 Germany was the home of many early automotive developments, including the motorcycle.

The Daimler Reitwagen, produced by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1885, is generally accepted as the first petrol-powered motorbike, though there were various experimental steam-powered machines around at the time.

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When was the motorbike invented?

The first motorbike as we would understand it today appeared in 1885 in Germany.

Built by Gottlieb Daimler, and Wilhelm Maybach, both later to become famous for their car brands, the Daimler Reitwagen was a very basic experimental prototype rather than a full-fledged useful transport solution. It did use a petrol-powered engine though.

The first production motorcycle was the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller, produced between 1894 and 1897.

Why was the motorbike invented?

The motorbike came about as a simple way to produce motorised transport cheaper than a four-wheeled car.

The basic technology behind early models – the pedal-powered bicycle – was an obvious foundation to start with, and early pioneers quickly worked out how to mount engines in the frame to replace human-powered pedal drive.

This allowed higher speeds and longer range at a lower cost than a motor car – which meant many more people were able to afford to buy them.

Types of motorbike explained

Today, there’s a massive range of motorbikes available, to suit a wide variety of needs.

Starting at the most basic level, small-capacity scooters provide cheap simple transport for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, giving mobility to communities with few other options.

The scooter design – a step-through frame design, protective bodywork and automatic engine – appears elsewhere too though, in large-capacity high-performance form for well-heeled city commuters in Europe.

At the other end of the scale is the superbike – a very high performance sports machine, with more than 200bhp available from a high tech multi-cylinder engine, race-spec tyres, brakes and suspension, and aerodynamic fairings protecting the rider from near-200mph wind blast.

Recent years have seen an upsurge in popularity for naked machines – standard motorcycle designs, with no plastic bodywork, and the engine and chassis parts all laid out on show.


These have a more upright relaxed riding position, and are less suited to high speed riding than a faired machine.

Off-road riding has always had a strong appeal, and dirt bikes are as popular as they’ve ever been. That includes small-bore lightweight designs, aimed at riding through really tricky terrain – sand, mud, hills and fields – as well as much larger ‘adventure’ type bikes.

Adventure machines have some off-road potential, with plenty of ground clearance, knobbly tyres, high seats and torquey engines.

But they’re also big and fast enough to carry two people and luggage for hundreds of miles a day on motorways – so owners can go on long-distance ‘adventures’ with ease.

Biking has always had an element of showing off – and there are a few sectors of the market which are perfect for this. First is probably the custom/cruiser variant – Harley-Davidson being the archetypical marque here.

Long, low-slung, unfaired machines, with large V-twin engines, lashings of chrome plate and high-end metal flake paintjobs catch the eye, and are perfect for living the West Coast USA lifestyle – even if you’re riding through a drizzly Walsall.

The other showy option, and very popular of late, is the retro ‘hipster’ model.

This can be factory built – like the Triumph Bonneville Bobber, the Husqvarna Vitpilen, or the BMW RnineT – or they can be bespoke customs, either home-made or specialist-build, based on Honda CB or BMW Boxers from the 1970s and 80s.

There’s often a mild steam-punk feel, and a harking back to the 1950s, in dress as well as bike choice.

Brown leather seats abound, and there should be a minimalist feel, but in general, anything goes – so long as it’s been well-executed and had a lot of design effort put in.

Which motorbike should I buy?

The answer to the question ‘which bike should I buy’ depends totally on what you need from it.

And at the most pragmatic level, the more tightly-defined your requirements… the easier the choice is.

If you need a cheap commuter, then a small-capacity scooter like a Honda SH125, a naked bike like Kawasaki’s Z300 or even a single cylinder middleweight dirt bike like a Yamaha XT660 will do a great job.

Want to tour Europe two-up with a load of luggage?

Consider a big adventure bike like the BMW R1250GS or a dedicated tourer like the Honda Gold Wing or Yamaha FJR1300. Fancy learning how to ride fast on track?

A used 600 or 750 supersports bike like a Kawasaki ZX-6R or a Suzuki GSX-R 750 will ease you in far better than a full litre superbike.

Working out exactly what you’ll need from a bike is key – then calculate how much you want to spend.

Don’t forget things like insurance – you might not be able to get a policy for a high-power machine if you’re inexperienced, and theft cover may be tricky and expensive if you don’t have a garage and live in a big city, for example.

Once you’ve worked out the basics, get onto the bike firms’ websites and see what fits the bill.

Staff at bike dealers are mines of useful information – and joining up on relevant social media groups will also provide loads of tips.

Bike magazines and websites (like this one!) also run tests and other features which can help you decide what’s best for your needs.

Which motorbike is best for me?

Unlike a car, a microwave oven or a washing machine, the best bike choice will have an emotional attachment as well as fulfil a practical need.

Sure, if your bike gets you to work and back every day, and has a top box to put your weekly shop in, and gives good fuel consumption then whoop-di-do.

But if you don’t take a second glance at your bike when you park it up at night, or double-take at how great it looks when you open the garage door on a sunny Sunday morning, then there’s something wrong.

The whole experience of riding is such an involved, dynamic, emotional act, that you deserve to get a bike which rocks your world every time you get on it.

Go to dealers.

Get test rides.

Sit on bikes at shows.

Try out your mates’ bikes.

Do whatever you can to distil down exactly what will float your boat. Then – only then – will you know what bike is best for you…

Why not check out the hottest new bike releases for 2020 here…

Check out the rest of our motorcycle features now...

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