Classic events Car museums Classic car brands

The development of the motorcycle

1920s US police with Indian ScoutsThe early days of motorcycles was dominated by small independent firms with products largely based on bicycles, with famous manufacturers like Triumph and Royal Enfield both extending their bicycle businesses into motorcycle production around 1900.

The majority of this development and engineering was located in France, Germany and Britain. However, very quickly firms were starting to develop in the U.S. with manufacturers such as Indian and Harley Davidson setting up shop in 1901 and 1903 respectively.

With the foundations of these new or evolving manufacturers, combined with the early stages of motorsport, motorcycle development started to gather pace, with some companies proving to be very adept at tapping into this new market.

By 1910 Indian had become the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer with it producing well over 30,000 bikes in 1913.

The impact of motorsport

Charlie Collier in 1912Motorcycle racing began to develop as early as 1900, with the development of more accessible machines. Different type of racing started to create demand for variations on bikes, whether being engineered by privateers or by the manufacturers themselves. At first these modifications were minimal, but as technology allowed for more to be done, the gaps between bikes for different races became wider and wider.

At the start a bike competing in a Trails competition would not be that different from one entering the very first Isle of Man TT in 1907. This remained the same for the next couple of decades. However, by the late 40s companies such as Royal Enfield had seen the opportunity and were producing specialised bikes for racing such as their Bullet, with ground-breaking suspension designed for trials competitions.

During the 40s, 50s and 60s the evolution of the bike was dramatic, with many alterations, modifications and developments (many brought on by specific motorsports). By the 70s the landscape was changing quite dramatically again with a whole new evolution of bikes starting to dominate from Japan. Many of these bikes had superior durability, affordability and performance. Before long, it was the Japanese brands that were often succeeding on the track and also on our roads.

A rebel without a cause

There is no getting away from the fact motorbikes are more dangerous than cars. They are often faster, with less grip and less protection. However, this sense of danger and freedom helped secure their success.

The early days of motorcycles had been made cool by motor-racing stars. However, by the 1950s film and rock stars were one of the most powerful marketing tools around – and then there were showmen like Evel Knievel.

If these new world stars rode a bike, then whether a child, teenager, or adult, you also wanted a bike.

Rockers 1964In the UK this affiliation became most prominent in the 60s where image became sewn into whole new subcultures. You were either a mod or you were a rocker; and there was no way you could be both. Mods became iconic with 60s music, fashion and the scooter, whereas rockers were all about 50s style, rock and roll and the motorbike. This affiliation to image and culture became so strong that huge riots would take place between the opposing gangs.

Although some of this influence created new danger, injury and death, it did wonders for the popularity and sales of motorbikes.

Standardisation of controls

As with the invention and early development of the car, the motorcycle did not come with standard controls. Each manufacturer would use their own layout for throttle, clutch, brakes and gearing, which may even change between their own models.

By the early 1910s bike manufacturers were starting to put recognisable controls on bikes, in terms of foot operated controls and hand control on the handlebars. However, a standard layout took a long time to become established.

Even into the late 70 you may find that one bike’s controls would be slightly different than another, with gearing in opposite layouts, or controls swapped between left and right. The modern standardisation of controls was predominantly led by a small number of large manufacturers dominating the market with the same layouts. It was at this point that for a manufacturer to set out their bike in any other way would alienate them from the market; so everyone followed suit.

Classic Motorcycle History



Classic Motorcycles Classic Cars