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

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

Yamaha enters the American market.

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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
Learn about the different motorcycle types here

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about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.