The modern motorcycle is a result of more than one hundred years of technological advancements, transforming it from an unwieldy beast into a machine of beauty and innovation. Today there are more than 530 motorcycle brands across the world, but which is the oldest? And which is still in production?
The precursor to the motorcycle was the bicycle, the first of which was the penny-farthing, a monstrosity featuring a large front wheel and a small back wheel, capable of achieving fast speeds but being dangerous for riders given the immense height of the seat. After the penny-farthing came the “safety bicycle”, which has remained virtually unchanged to this day, apart from some improvements such as lighter frames, better brakes, and suspension.
The first powered, two-wheeled machine was the velocipede, developed by Pierre Michaux in France in 1867, which used a steam engine for propulsion. This was followed by more complex machines, until eventually steam power was replaced by diesel, allowing the machines to travel further, faster, and with fewer refuelling stops.
Once this change was made, the development of the motorcycle continued steadily throughout Europe, and many companies started creating their own versions. This is where history becomes a little murky, as it all depends on what one defines as a “motorcycle”.
Gottlieb Daimler is often credited as the “father of the motorcycle”, due to his creation of the petrol “Daimler Reitwagen” in 1885, quite a few years after Michaux’s steam-powered machine, although they stopped producing motorcycles after the automobile became more popular. In 1894, the German company Hildebrand and Wolfmüller established a production line for motorcycles, yet they went out of business in 1919.
Other companies were established which began making motorcycles and then changed their focus, while others continued to make them. Some see Royal Enfield, established in 1901, as the oldest motorcycle brand, however there was a brief period when their motorcycle production stopped in order for them to focus on automobiles; when this decision proved disastrous, they switched back their production to motorcycles. Production ceased again, however, in 1970, and the company was dissolved in 1971. Royal Enfield India had been tasked with assembling the 350cc Bullet in 1955, until it took over full production of the model after Royal Enfield sold all its components to the Indian company.
Other sources claim that Peugeot Motocycles is the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Their first machine appeared in 1898, yet it was not put into production. They produced several different machines with three or four wheels (which weren’t very popular), and it wasn’t until 1914 that the Peugeot 500 M was created, the first motorcycle to utilise a dual overhead camshaft. Peugeot Motocycles is now completely owned by Mahindra, an Indian-based manufacturer of farm machinery, and their main focus now is on mopeds, scooters and dirt bikes.
In terms of those motorcycle companies without a break in their production and still around today, Harley-Davidson would possibly win that race, as it was established in 1903. Despite changes in ownership and periods of immense uncertainty in the viability of the brand over the years, Harley-Davidson is still producing motorcycles.
As you can see, the question of what is the oldest motorcycle company is not so easy to determine, as it seems there are as many opinions as there are brands.