A Brief History of the Motorcycle: From Boneshakers to Superbikes

In honor of motorcycle season, we thought we’d share the brainstorms and milestones that led to the modern motorbike.

Summer is motorcycle season, a time to get that motor running and head out on the highway. But do you know how the motorbike became the iconic symbol of freedom, adventure, and coolness that it is today? Let’s check it out.

History of the motorcycle

1867(ish)
Sylvester Howard Roper unveils his “Steam Velocipede,” a 2-wheeled contraption powered by a steam engine. Though groundbreaking, his design did not catch on.

1885
Gottlieb Daimler introduces the first “true” motorcycle. Consisting of a single-cylinder internal combustion engine mounted on a wooden frame with iron-banded wooden wheels, it was called the “boneshaker” for its jarring ride.

1889
John Boyd Dunlop smoothes the way for cars and motorcycles alike by inventing the first air-inflated pneumatic tire.

1895
French automobile manufacturer DeDion-Buton introduces a lightweight, 4-stroke engine that makes mass-production of the motorcycle possible.

1899
American entrepreneur and bicycle manufacturer Charles H. Metz creates America’s first production motorcycle (he’s also been credited with coining the term “motorcycle”).

1901
Indian Motorcycle Company begins production of their motorcycle, with a 1.75hp engine based on the DeDion-Buton design. Indians were the world’s best-selling motorcycle up until WWI.

1903
Iconic motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson is launched and starts producing bikes with their signature V-Twin engine.

1914
World War I begins. American and European armies rely on motorbikes to gather reconnaissance and deliver messages.

1920s-1930s
In the more motorized world following WWI, Americans and Europeans embrace the motorcycle, creating a boom in the 1920s. Renowned companies like BMW and Moto Guzzi enter the marketplace. However, the Great Depression forces many manufacturers out of business.

Post-WWII
Motorcycles — especially European models — experience a post-war sales boom. Japanese companies create their own successful domestic market.

1953
Classic biker film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle gang, is released. The motorcycle becomes a symbol of rebellion.

1955
Rebel Without a Cause is released, with James Dean in the role of a troubled teenager. Though James Dean did not ride motorcycles in any of his films, he is nonetheless associated with them and is said to have owned several, including a 1947 Czech Whizzer, an Indian Warrior TT, and a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy.

1958
Yamaha enters the American market.

1960s-70s
Baby boomers come of age and take up motorcycling, creating the biggest sales boom in motorcycle history.

1962
Grey Advertising launches its iconic campaign, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” The wildly successful campaign positions motorcycles as a casual, everyday vehicle, rather than one associated with lawlessness and discontent. Motorcycle registrations soar.

1963
The WWII movie The Great Escape is released and features Steve McQueen’s character famously jumping a 60-foot fence on a motorbike.

1968
BELL Helmets introduces the first full-face motorcycle helmet, the Star.

1969
Honda unveils the CB750. With its revolutionary 4-cylinder, single overhead cam engine, it is considered the first “superbike.”

Early 1908s
Kawasaki and Honda debut the first motorcycles with electronic fuel injection systems, making fuel injection the norm.

1998
California’s EMB, Inc. introduces the world’s first commercially produced electric motorbike, the Lectra. 

2009
The world’s first production hybrid motorcycle, Eko Vehicle’s ET-120, goes on sale in India.

Our own motorcycle milestone

Esurance now offers motorcycle insurance in Wisconsin! And we’ll be adding other states soon. In the meantime, you can get excellent motorcycle coverage through our partner.

What do you think are the most important milestones in the history of the motorcycle? Leave us your comments below.

Happy riding … and keep the shiny side up!

Related links

Top 5 Reasons to Ride a Motorcycle
Summertime Travel: Motorcycle Safety Tips
Insure Your Toys of Summer
Motorcycle Safety: 5 Tips for Drivers
The History of the Bicycle

One Response to “A Brief History of the Motorcycle: From Boneshakers to Superbikes”

  1. Kaustav Maitra
    November 14, 2013 #

    See this Article
    The First Motorcycle of Sylvester Howard Roper : 1886 at http://www.historicalcuriosity.com/2013/11/the-first-motorcycle-of-sylvester.html

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