The evolution of the motorbike through the ages

A vintage Harley Davidson motorbike (file picture)
A vintage Harley Davidson motorbike (file picture)

The simplicity of the motorbike is one of its main draws; it is just the rider, their bike and the road. However, the technical mastery behind these seemingly uncomplicated two wheeled machines should not be underestimated. Here, we take a look at the evolution of the motorbike over the years.

The invention of the motorcycle itself was an imaginative piece of engineering. It was Parisian blacksmith Pierre Michaux who first installed a push bike with a motor, which he did some time in the 1860s.

The crank mechanism featured on the machine underpinned the basic technology of the drive system of modern motorbikes, the type of which might see at a dealer such as Metropolis Motorcycles; however, the steam powered, high wheel bike now looks a little bizarre in comparison to the models we have today.

A vintage Harley Davidson motorbike (file picture)
A vintage Harley Davidson motorbike (file picture)

Apart from the aesthetics, another key difference between this early model and modern motorcycles was that the machines were curiosities rather than production vehicles. It took another 30 years for large scale manufacturing to get into full swing.

By the end of the 19th century however, combustion engine bikes were finally rolling off the production line with the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller cycle the first ever mass produced motorcycle.

Early motorcycles were little more than adapted push bikes, yet by the start of the 20th century, producers of the machines were engineering bikes with ever increasing power, such as the 239cc model made by English quad bike manufacturer Royal Enfield.

Clearly, the motorbike was outgrowing its flimsy frame and as a result manufacturers began making purpose built chassis capable of encasing the potent engines.

As so often is the case with technology, military conflict proved a catalyst in the evolution of the motorcycle. The bike really came into its own during the First World War, as the machine was recognised as a fast an effective form of transport. Increased productivity saw British manufacturer Triumph release the 500cc air cooled four stroke single cylinder bike called Model H.

The rear wheel of the bike was driven by a belt while the model was the first produced by Triumph not to feature pedals.

Thanks to the demand during the War, following the conflict motorcycle manufacturers were able to invest heavily in their two wheeled projects and development flourished as a result. The shaft drive, opposed twin engines and enclosed transmission all evolved from this rich period of motorcycle evolution.

In Britain alone there were over 80 different motorcycle manufacturers in the 1930s, well over twice that we have today.

Unsurprisingly, the Second World War again proved fruitful for motorcycle development. An example of this was the 125cc motorcycle produced by Royal Enfield, a bike so lightweight that it could be carried by an aircraft and dropped from a parachute pod.

By the time the Second World War had come to an end motorcycles were highly developed machines.

The next stage of the evolution of the motorcycle came in the 1950s when Japanese manufacturers took mass production to the next level and dominated world markets with well-built and cost effective models. By the 1980s, two of the largest Japanese manufacturers, Kawasaki and Honda, introduced motorcycles installed with electronic fuel injection, which soon became the norm for two wheeled motorised transport.

Japanese manufacturers continue to dominate the market; however, traditional names such as Triumph and Harley Davidson remain popular. Many of the more recent developments in the evolution of the motorcycle relate to speed, with performance levels always on the up.

A far cry from Michaux’s steam powered machine, the fastest production bike in the world today is capable of reaching a top speed of 218 miles per hour.


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