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The Motorcycle Pioneers - 1900-1920

No one can really say where the motorcycle began for it was the result of many simultaneous experiments in different countries.

Most historians date the motor industry from 1885 when two German Daimler and Maybach put the first really practical four-stroke engine into a wooden test vehicle that they called the Einspur. As it had two wheels albeit with a small pair of supporting wheels on each side this can be said to be the first motorcycle although Daimler and Maybach themselves saw it simply as a stepping stone to building the first car. But the British industry also got off to a flying start for, at around the same time, British inventor Edward Butler put forward his design for a twin-cylinder tricycle which in featuring electronic ignition and a proper carburettor was in many ways more advanced plans to go into full production failed to materialise and Butler went no further than a prototype.

What is beyond dispute is that the German Hildebrand and Wolfmuller in 1894 was the first commercially successful motorcycle, while in France De Dion was building tricycles in 1895.

Unlike Europe, developments in Britain had been hampered by the Locomotive Acts on the 1860s which restricted speeds to less than a fast walking pace and were responsible for the notorious red flag that had to be carried in advance of any motorised vehicle. When this law was repealed in November 1896 it was the cause of celebrations that are commemorated to this day in the form of the London to Brighton run.

The repeal helped a fledgling industry to get started, at first mainly through the efforts of established bicycle proprietary engines from the French manufacturers such as De Dion and Menevra while others obtained a licence to build bikes.

There were many snags in getting the industry off the ground. Even if the basic design was sound - and many were not - public appearance of the motorcycle was a long time coming. To start with, they were invariably expensive to buy and running costs were high. There were no wayside fuel stations and the road very ofter consisted of an unmetalled, rutted track covered with mud and horse manure. Speed traps were common and there were many other legal restrictions on the pioneer motorist.

Unreliable, low-powered engines were the norm and this helped to delay the development of a proper motorcycle, since what was euphemistically termed 'light pedal assistance' was looked on as essential not only for starting but also for going uphill or even into a headwind. As a result, it was a long time before motorcycles dispensed with pedalling gear completely and became something other than motorised bicycles.

The need to retain the pedalling gear, as well as a natural desire to experiment, let to considerable debate about such matters as the location of the engine. There were many weird and wonderful alternatives, while the problem on the designer's mind was the dreaded 'side-slip' or skidding, a natural result of poor road surfaces, skinny tyres and what was often a very high centre of gravity.

It is perhaps surpising that the motorcycle evolved at all but all the trials and tribulations must have been worth it for the occasional opportunity to fly effortlessly and unhindered down an open road. The ingenuity and the enthusiasm of the designers knew no bounds, while the astonishing flexibility of the pioneering engines allowed then to triumph, despite the fact that most bikes lacked such items as a clutch or gearbox. Machines were generally started by a run and bump and stalled then they stopped which initially limited their appeal to fit young men.

Even so the fledgling British motorcycle industry produced some astonishing designs including the world's first four-cylinder motorcycle. Development of the Holden began in 1896 and a water-cooled version was launched in 1899. With an engine that ran at just 400rpm and a power output of some 3bhp it comleted a run of over 100 miles in 1900.

Such experiments apart it was clear for the most part that developments would centre on single-cylinder side-valve engines with simple are cooling.

It was not untli the start of the 20th century that bikes that were recognisably related to the modern motorcycle became generally available on the British market. The French Werner helped to pioneer the conventional position of the engine in place of the bicycle's bottom bracket and many British manufacturers had their own variations on the theme. Although many of these early bikes were too primitive and too demanding to appeal to anyone but committed and well-heeled enthusiasts the majority went surprisingly well and were also capable of turning in some astonishing speed and endurance records.

The problems of accommodating a passenger, which had led to strange inventions such as the trailer and forecar, was now resolved mainly by the equally odd sidecar. This, however, had the significant advantage that the passenger was separated from all the fuss and dirt of the motorcycle itself.

While road racing had helped developments in mainland Europe, British roads could not legally be closed for motor sport. As a result, many of the early speed races were undertaken on the banked tracks built as a result of the cycle boom, or on the driveways of private estates. But the bar to pure road racing was removed with the construction of Brooklands in Surrey, a banked road track designed by Holden, where the first full-scale motorcycle race was held in 1908. A year before, the Isle of Man, not subject to mainland restrictions, became the site of the first Tourist Trophy - effectively a cross between a race and a reliability trial - in 1907. Won at a little over 36mph, it was a small beginning for a race that would become a dominant force in the British motorcycle industry and then the world.

Before World War I, racing and commercial pressures had forced the pace of technological change and most of the features of modern motorcycle had been tested in some form. Although the majority of bikes still used a direct belt drive linking the engine and the rear wheel, the advantages of a variable gear had been amply demonstrated, while numerous ingenious suspension systems had been tried. Chain drive, shaft drive, telescopic forks, four-valve engines, four-cylinder engines, water-cooled engines, overhead-camshafts and many other features recognisably similar to those of modern bikes had all been seen - many of them British inventions. And with the outbreak of war the light manoeuvrable motorcycles produced by the leading British manufacturers found a host of applications which earned them respect in the most taxing conditions in history.