A motorcycle is an engine-powered two-wheel single track vehicle with its origins in the bicycle. Although there are a large number of different types of motorcycle, designed for different purposes and types of journey, they can be broadly classified in three categories:
These motorcycles are designed to be driven on paved roads and include cruisers, choppers, sports bikes, scooters and mopeds. The majority of cruisers have a low-slung design which can sometimes cause limited performance and turning ability, and many are styled on classic American designs from the 1930s – 1960s.
Sports bikes feature high-performance engines inside lightweight frames and are designed to emphasize speed, acceleration, braking, and cornering on paved roads. Due to this emphasis they are often less comfortable and fuel-efficient than other bikes, but can achieve far higher speeds.
Mopeds and scooters are types of smaller motorcycle, with smaller wheels and less powerful engines. Mopeds are closer in design to the bicycle and can often be powered by pedals as well as a small engine. Scooters feature step-through frames and platforms for the rider’s feet and are far less powerful than the average motorcycle. They are popular worldwide due to their low cost, size and convenience for parking and storage.
These bikes, also known as 'dirt bikes', are designed and specialised for off-road racing events. They feature large wheels, lightweight frames and high ground clearance, as well as little bodywork. There are several kinds of specialised bike within this category, each designed for a specific type of race. These include motorcross (which features a track consisting of obstacles and large jumps), rallies (long-distance endurance races, traditionally held in deserts) and track racing (high-speed races held on oval tracks).
The majority of off-road bikes are not ‘street legal’, as their technical specifications mean they cannot be driven legally on the roads.
These bikes, also known as dual-sports, are off-road bikes that have been modified to a ‘street legal’ level. They have additions such as lights, mirrors and signals which allow them to be licensed for public roads.
Collecting vintage motorcycles is a hobby similar to collecting vintage cars in that collectors value original parts and finishes above all else. The most valuable types of collectible motorcycles are factory "works" bikes with documented winning race histories, bikes with low production numbers and those built before 1920.
Most collectors will use one or both of the industry-standard price guides for valuing motorcycles, the NADA (National Automobile Dealer’s Association) Guide or the Kelley Blue Book.
The first motorcycles
The earliest forms of motorcycle evolved not long after the invention of the bicycle itself.
During the 1860s French inventor Pierre Michaux developed a large front-wheeled cycle which would later evolve into the Penny Farthing, and in 1867 Michaux’s son Ernest built one of these bicycles with a small steam engine fitted to it.
At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic the American inventor Sylvester Howard Roper had created a similar design, also powered by a steam engine. He is credited by the Smithsonian Institute with developing the first steam-powered cycle, but was killed in 1869 while demonstrating his new cycle in Cambridge Massachusetts.
The first petrol-powered cycle, known as a ‘reitwagen’, was built in Germany in 1885 by inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. This is considered by historians to be the first true motorcycle, as the entire machine including the frame, engine and wheels was built specifically for motorized use and powered by an internal combustion engine.
In 1894 the German manufacturers Hildebrand & Wolfmüller built the world’s first production motorcycles, with over 200 models sold to the public.
In 1895 the French company DeDion-Buton developed a small, light, high-revving four-stroke engine that revolutionised the mass production of motorcycles.
The first American production motorcycles were built in Waltham, Massachusetts by Charles H. Metz and the Waltham Manufacturing company in 1900.
Both the Orient Light-Roadster and Orient Aster motorcycles featured engines based on the DeDion-Buton design, as did the first bikes from the two major American manufacturers of the era: Indian (who built its first motorcycle in 1901) and Harley-Davidson (in 1904).
Until the First World War Indian was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
During the war Harley-Davidson built around 15,000 bikes to be used during the war by the military, all of which were shipped to Europe.
After the war it took over from Indian as the world’s largest manufacturer until 1928, when it was overtaken by the German company DKW.
By 1931, Indian and Harley-Davidson were the only two American manufacturers producing commercial motorcycles.
This two-company rivalry in the United States remained until 1953, when the Indian Motorcycle factory in Springfield, Massachusetts closed and Royal Enfield took over the Indian name.
During this period the dominant British manufacturers included Norton, Triumph and AJS. In 1951 Triumph was bought-out by the Midlands-based BSA Group.
The post-war years also saw the development of the Vespa by Italian manufacturer Piaggio in 1946. It found immediate success across Europe and many were imported to the United States where the manufacturers had not developed a similar small, efficient and economic form of transport.
During the 1960s the rise of Japanese firms such as Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha saw European and American manufacturers suffer losses in sales.
From 1959 (when Honda became the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer) until the present day Japanese companies have remained dominant in the market. Harley-Davidson has survived to be a market leader in cruisers, due to its retro-styling and iconic status in American culture, and recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity around the world of many other motorcycle brands, including BMW, Triumph and Ducati.
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