The History of Motorcycles

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What better way to spend a beautiful, sunny summer afternoon than by enjoying the fresh air and beautiful scenery of South Dakota mounted atop a roaring motorcycle?  As the home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and miles upon miles of stunning scenic roads that are popular among visiting and local motorists alike, the state is a premier destination for those that love to ride, or are simply fascinated by, the two-wheeled mechanisms. We’ve compiled the interesting history behind the development of the present day motorcycle so you can impress your friends and family with your knowledge on this famed regional pastime.

Early Development

Although no sole person can lay full claim to inventing the motorcycle, as it was developed in stages by numerous inventors, the first versions began appearing in the 1860’s. In 1867, French inventor Ernest Michaux attached a steam engine on his father Pierre’s velocipede, which was an early version of a bicycle where the pedals attached to the front wheels. The contraption was fueled by alcohol and contained twin belt drives that powered the front wheel.

Around the same time, American Sylvester Howard Roper also invented a two cylinder steam-powered velocipede that contained a coal burn furnace. Roper, who also helped develop the steam-powered car, died in 1896 during one of the demonstrations of his primitive motorcycles. His efforts in their development earned him a spot in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, of which he was inducted to in 2002.

A few years later, in 1871, engineer Louis-Guillaume Perreaux, using the Michaux velocipede model, developed an alcohol burning motorcycle with twin belt drives. The real breakthrough, however, came in 1881 when Lucius Copeland of Phoenix, AZ developed a small steam boiler that would power the back wheel to allow the contraption to go to speeds of up to 12 miles per hour. Later, Copeland would form a manufacturing company whose objective was to produce the first “moto-cycle”, which was a three-wheeled apparatus.

The Beginning of the Modern Day Motorcycle

The first motorcycle powered by gasoline would finally make its appearance in 1885. Engineered by German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, the petroleum reitwagon (riding wagon) served as the blueprint to many others in following years in the development of contemporary motorcycles.

In 1894, Hildebrand and Wolfmuller developed the first mass produced motorcycle in Germany.  Although only a few hundred were built, they led the way for many other companies to begin manufacturing them around the world, including the Excelsior Motor Company in England and Peugeot Motorcycles in Paris.

Two motorcycle companies that are widely recognized in the United States today, Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company and Harley-Davidson Motor Company, both had their starts in the early 1900’s, in 1901 and 1903 respectively. Around this time, motorcycle racing was starting to become a popular activity, leading to motorcycle producers to focus on developing more powerful engines and sleeker designs.

Motorcycle Culture Today

Over the years, motorcycle popularity has only continued to grow, and the vehicles have become utilized by those in all walks of life. Beginning with World War I, United States military troops integrated motorcycles into their operations, a practice that continued into World War II. After troops returned from the Second World War, those that craved the excitement and sense of camaraderie that riding motorcycles provides formed motorcycle groups, many of which still exist to this day.

Today, over 500,000 motorcycles are sold annually in the U.S. Although Japanese manufacturers Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha dominate the motorcycle market around the world, Harley-Davidson has become an American icon throughout time.

South Dakota and Motorcycle Culture

Every summer, between the end of July and the beginning of August, South Dakota receives over 500,000 motorcycle enthusiasts that attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the biggest rally of its kind in the world. Started in 1938, the rally generates around $800 million in revenue for the state, making its impact on South Dakota quite substantial.

Now that you have expanded your knowledge of the development of the modern day motorcycle, stop into the Pioneer Auto Show in Murdo to take our Motorcycle Tour , which will allow you to see our extensive collection of antique motorcycles that will truly allow you witness their evolution over the years. See you soon!


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