History of motorcycles

Motorcyclist with white helmet pauses and looks back on a rural road

March 24, 2021

The development of the motorcycle to its current form has taken many decades of technological innovation. And it’s all pretty much thanks to the invention of the bicycle. Read on as we go through the history of the motorcycle up to the present day.


The first versions of the bicycle appeared in the early 1800s, resembling the shape of modern bikes somewhat although without pedals, instead being propelled by the rider essentially running whilst sitting on the bike. Later versions included pedals, cogs and a chain, allowing the rider to travel at increased speed, although comfort was still an issue.


Pierre Michaux, a French blacksmith, was an inventor who constructed pedalled bicycles in Paris called “velocipedes” during the 1860s. The year 1867 saw the invention of the ‘steam velocipede’ by Ernest Michaux, Pierre’s son, when he fitted a small steam engine to a velocipede. Many other steam-powered bicycles soon followed, both in Europe and the US, before the development of a petrol-fuelled bicycle in 1884, the Butler Petrol Cycle.


The first commercial motorcycle (rather than just a bicycle with an engine) was the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller produced in 1894 in Germany. The 1890s then saw an explosion of innovation, with companies such as the Excelsior Motor Company in England beginning production for the public in 1896, and Peugeot Motorcycles began production with a four-stroke De Dion-Buton engine which was then copied by many other manufacturers. Despite being invented in 1845 by Robert William Thomson, pneumatic tyres only really came into use fifty years later when they could be produced more cheaply.


Many former bicycle producers quickly turned their attention to motorcycles, though they soon discovered that they would need to construct stronger chassis to support the increased weight of the more technologically advanced engines. Around the beginning of the 20th century, companies such as Royal Enfield, Triumph, Norton, Indian and Harley-Davidson all began producing their own brands of motorcycles. It was also around this time that motorcycle racing became popular, with some advancements then being adopted by commercial manufacturers.


The First World War saw motorcycle production increase dramatically, with them used predominantly to aid communications. After the Second World War, improvements in production methods and lower engineering costs saw motorcycles become even more popular, with motorcycle clubs forming, particularly by war veterans.


In the 1960s, the dominance of British and American motorcycle companies began to wane as Japanese brands such as Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki gained prominence. Later on, other companies began to expand their markets, such as BMW and Ducati, offering intense competition throughout the world of motorcycles.


Motorbikes have benefited greatly over the last 100+ years from advancements in technology, such as disc brakes, ABS, alloy frames, and user-interface systems, as well as gear improvements such as airbag vests and helmets with cameras, GPS and Bluetooth, mean that riding a motorcycle has never been more enjoyable – or safer.