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Steam-Powered Motorcycles and Beyond

The Michaux-Perreaux steam bicycle is generally thought to be the first real motorcycle, built in France, 1868-69. It had a steam engine mounted on the main frame, but it was still made in the velocipede style, not the later Safety Bicycle style. Its pedals were still mounted to the front wheel. It was quickly followed by an American version of a steam-powered two-wheeler, the Roper Steam Velocipede of 1869, with several other steam engine versions making their debut over the next few decades. Since these were all built on a more or less standard bicycle frame, there was much experimentation as to where to put the engine, which developed the standard placement in the center of the frame, which provided the best balance and ergonomics. This placement is standard in most motorcycles to this day.

The late 19th Century was the period of development of the internal combustion engine, and inventors found a multitude of uses for it, including expanding the range of the already popular bicycle. The Otto Cycle engine, the first truly functional 4-stroke engine, was developed by Nicolaus Otto, a German engineer. His was the first actual internal combustion engine which burned fuel efficiently in a piston chamber, and his four-stroke cycle method is still the standard for most motorcycles, although two-stroke engines are also popular today.

Gottlieb Daimler used the Otto Cycle engine to test the feasibility of an internal combustion (IC) engine on a two-wheeled vehicle, and the resulting vehicle, the Daimler Einspur, 1877, is acknowledged as the first true motorcycle – a two-wheeled vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Daimler redesigned the Einspur as the Reitwagon in 1885, changing his innovative handlebar twist grip controls into a system of levers on the frame. Those handlebar controls reappeared in later motorcycle models, with some modern models providing hand-warmers as well as throttle control.

Motorcycle design spread throughout Europe and in America in the late 19th Century. The first production motorcycle was made by Hildebrand and Wolfmuller in France in 1894. It had a four-stroke, water-cooled motor, 1428 cc, which produced 2.5 bhp and a top speed of 25 mph. It had a unique parallel twin design motor, with one forward-and one rearward-facing piston with a connecting rod connected to a crank mounted on the rear wheel. It was called the Petrolette; its high purchase price limited its popularity, and the factory closed in 1919.

The beginnings of motorcycle development in America predate the better-known Harley-Davidson and Indian companies, which began in the early 20th Century, and continue to the present. In 1898, the Orient-Astor began production by the Metz Company, in Waltham, Mass. The Astor engine was a small, lightweight four-stroke single engine with battery-and-coil ignition, an engine that made mass production and widespread use of motorcycles a real possibility for the first time. The placement of the engine in the lower part of the center frame has remained in use to the present time; its chain-driven style is also typical of bikes today.

All for Speed

Since motorcycles were invented, riders have sought a single-minded vision in their bikes – speed and maneuverability. Early bikes were clumsy and slow; each development of the motorised bicycle brought more of the dream of speed into being, and drivers naturally sought to test themselves against other bikers. The English motorcycle race was born in 1897, in Richmond, Surrey at the Sheen House, a roadhouse or café in the countryside. The race was more than a mile and was won by Charles Jarrot, who made the goal in two minutes, eight seconds, riding a Fournier.

 As motorcycles became heavier, larger tracks were built especially for them, the first being the Coliseum Motordrome in Los Angeles in 1909. This track and others like it was much longer and could accommodate many riders at once. The public went crazy for the dramatic exhibitions of speed and danger of these riders riding full out throughout the course (motorcycles designed for board tracks lacked brakes or throttles); the resulting fatalities finally closed these facilities for good.

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