23 Things You Never Knew About Motorcycles

Hell For Leather, HFL -


The Wild One 2

There is it seems some debate as to what was the first ever motorcycle made. Some think it was the coal-powered SH Roper from 1869, while others say the first proper motorcycle was Gottlieb Daimler’s wooden-framed gasoline engine version of 1885.

I’m a sucker for trivia and useless information so I attempted to do some research with books and the internet about this but instead found myself lost in a myriad of weird facts and stories about motorcycles that took on a life all of it own.

Here’s a little of some of the more diverse things that I discovered and whilst some of you may already be aware of these I was genuinely surprised about some of the thing I learned.

The name Hayabusa, as used by Suzuki, is actually a Peregrine falcon as well as a World War 2 Japanese Kamikaze fighter plane – the Nakajima Ki-43 known more widely as the Zero

Did you know that modern sports bike tires do not contain any actual rubber? The tread of a tire is composed of synthetic rubber, which has been compounded to give a compromise between durability and traction.
The longest distance riding a motorcycle in 24 hours is 2,019.4 miles and was set by American L. Russell “Rusty” Vaughn at the Continental Tire Test Track, Uvalde, Texas, USA, on 10 August 2011.
Vaughn used his own 2010 Harley-Davidson FLHTK Electra-Glide Limited for the attempt and completed 238 laps of the test track and earned himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
I didn’t realize in the world of cinema Steve McQueen’s infamous 65 ft motorcycle jump in the film The Great Escape was actually done by American Triumph dealer Bud Ekins who did it in just one take.
Nor was I aware that in the 1970s TV cop series CHiPS, actors Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada rode Kawasaki Z1000s with BMW fairings and that prior to the show Estrada underwent an intensive eight-week course, to learn how to ride. In 2007 it was revealed that Estrada didn’t actually have a motorcycle license during the time CHiPs was in production, and he only qualified after three attempts, while preparing for an appearance with a motorcycle on a later reality television show.

I tried to find out what happened to the motorcycles used in the 1970s cult film Easy Rider and opinions on web sites range from both bikes being destroyed during filming to actor and Grizzly Adams TV star Dan Hegarty apparently owning one. But there appears to be more Easy Rider motorcycles out there for sale than were ever actually made for the film. So I got no further with this.
Nobody it seems knows either what exactly happened to Marlon Brando’s Triumph 650 Thunderbird motorcycle from the film ‘The Wild One’. Some people claimed that it was Brando’s own motorcycle that he agreed to ride on the set. Thereafter the trail goes cold. Surprisingly Johnson Motors, which imported Triumph to the USA, was at the time very unhappy about the Triumph logos being seen on Brando’s bike and asked unsuccessfully for them to be taken off the gas tank when filming started.
The first company that advertised its motorcycle’s top speed of over 100mph was Brough Superior that made the claim for its SS100 in 1924. Considered even today to be innovative and beautifully designed machines, Brough motorcycles were the first to have prop stands, twin headlights, crash bars, interconnected silencers and 1000cc v-twin engines. Every SS100 was road tested (yes on public roads) to check that it could reach 100mph. If it didn’t it was returned to the factory for further work.
Engineering genius and owner of Brough Superior, George Brough, also wrote all of his company’s advertising copy describing his motorcycles as “atmosphere disturbers”.
Some of today’s motorcycle companies are more diverse than you would ever believe. Many started from humble beginnings such as Ducati which was a family-owned firm that opened in Bologna, Italy, in 1935 making parts for radios before building motorized bicycles fitted with a 48cc SIATA engine. By 1950, more than 200,000 of these Ducati ‘Cucciolos’ (Italian for puppy) had been sold and two years later the company started making its own motorcycles and engines.

Aside from making bikes today Kawasaki also manufacturers personal watercraft, ships, electronics, construction equipment tractors, trains, helicopters, jet engines, missiles and space rockets.

While rival Yamaha began life in 1887 as a piano manufacturer but today is a multi-national conglomerate which still produces musical instruments, but also boats, car engines, swimming pools, industrial robots, wheelchairs, RVs, electronics, and golf carts amongst other things and motorcycles.

Suzuki began life at the turn of the 20th Century making weaving looms for Japan’s then burgeoning silk industry. However, company founder Michio Suzuki wanted to diversify his company and began an engineering firm that started making small cars and its own engines during the 1930’s. The first Suzuki motorcycle appeared in 1952 and was really a motorized bicycle called a Power Free. It was fitted with a two-stroke 36cc engine and was unique at the time as it featured a double-sprocket gear system that allowed the rider to either pedal with engine assistance, pedal without the engine or simply disconnect the pedals and use the engine. Today, aside from the production of motorcycles, Suzuki makes cars, marine engines, wheelchairs and is Japan’s second largest manufacturer of small cars and trucks.

In 1946 Honda began selling pushbikes fitted with two-stroke 50cc generator engines originally designed for use with army field telephones. And 46 years later on it launched arguably the most technically complex production motorcycle ever made with the 1992 Honda NR750. The NR boasted oval pistons with two con rods and eight valves per cylinder. Designed initially as a race bike, Honda made 300 road-going versions of the NR available to the public and at the time it was considered one of the most expensive motorcycles you could buy.

There is so much technical information about motorcycles out there that it’s hard to choose one interesting fact over another. But here are a few points that leapt out at me.

The gearshift lever on a motorcycles was invented by Harold Willis, of Velocette Motorcycles, in 1927 prior to that motorcyclists relied on a system of a foot clutch and hand shifter.

In 10,000 miles the average four-cylinder motorcycle engine will have completed 100,000,000 revolutions and it’s estimated that a con-rod of a modern sports bike engine at full revs withstands 10 tons of compression and tensile forces 500 times a second.

BMW was the first manufacturer to patent and use telescopic forks on its R12 in 1932, yet ironically does not use the system on its big bikes today.

And although BMW claims it has been making Boxer twin engines for its bikes since 1923, production actually stopped for a few months in 1986 when the company thought all of its bikes in the future should have triples and four-cylinder engines. Customer demand persuaded BMW to continue with the Boxer and the production line was re-started again.

Recognized around the world as a leader in crash helmets manufacture for both on the race track and road, ARAI was actually a hat making company founded in Japan in 1926 making headgear for the construction industry. Company founder Hirotake Arai was once a motorcycle stunt rider and the company is still privately owned today and run by the third generation of the Arai family.

When I started out on my research to find out precisely the first production motorcycle ever made (which incidentally is purported to be a 1488cc 2.5 hp Hilberand & Wolfmuller built in Germany from 1894–1897) I never envisioned I would get so distracted by the huge amount of facts and figures out there about motorcycles. But I did learn a thing or two.

  • Jordan

    Wait, the zero was named after the Mitsubishi A6M2, right?

    • Tim Watson

      You’re sort of right right. After WW2 – Mitsubishi and Nakjima Industries were merged. During the war Nakajima made the Ki 43 Hayabusa. it was called the ‘Army Zero’ because of it strong resemblance to the Mitsubishi Zero used by the Navy.

      • Blixa

        Post-WW2, Nakajima became Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru + aircraft), no? I think Mitsubishi remained a separate concern.

        • Tim Watson

          I think you maybe right there Blixa.

    • The Blue Rider

      The Mitsubishi A6M was called the “Type 0″ by the Japanese; U.S. code names were “Zeke” and “Hamp”. The “Hayabusa” was the Japanese Army’s Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar”. Kawasaki also most famously made the Ki-61 Hien fighter, called “Tony”; they’re the only one of the “Big 4″ to have made aircraft during WW2.

      /ww2 aviation nerd

      I remember reading about Soichiro Honda riding several miles on a bicycle to see an American (? – I think) pilot giving a demonstration flight in Japan sometime in the 19-teens. Supposedly it was one of the things that inspired him to become an engineer. Not that he needed much help…

      • Jordan

        ‘Zeke’, that code name takes me back to when I used to watch ‘Black Sheep’ re-runs.

  • Honyock Undersquare

    The Zero wasn’t a Kamikaze plane – those were one-use flying bombs with very primitive controls. They were called “oka” – cherry blossoms.

    • Resellaw

      Zeroes were used on Kamikaze Missions, as well as the above mentioned Ki-43 “Oscar”. They used whatever would still fly towards the end of the war. The Okha was the only one that I know of expressly designed for Kamikaze role. #uselesswwIIinfo

  • Pete terHorst

    Hi Tim,

    That 24-hour record may be in the Guinness record book, but in the spring of ’86 Honda took a pair of new VFR700/750Fs to the 5-mile oval at Laredo, Texas to set an FIM record. The bikes ran for 24 hours and both averaged speeds of approx. 140 mph, totaling 3400+ miles. Paul Dean wrote about it in Cycle World, see http://tinyurl.com/CycleWorld-Honda-8-86.

    • Mykola

      The # of participating riders separates these records. I’m guessing only a C-14 or GoldWing or similar would have a fighting chance against the Electra Glide.
      Off topic, browsing through the other CycleWorld articles was immensely entertaining, especially seeing how much and how little has changed. The Mustang, Ducati Montjuich, cigarette ads, mustaches, Suzuki Savage, pillion riding…

  • Charles Quinn

    Brough made some really beautiful engines, for me the SS80s look even better than the SS100s.

    • Ken

      T E Lawrence (of Arabia) famously died on an SS100. Or off one I suppose.

  • http://www.skiilight.com/ Jonathan

    This info in this post is great, but the presentation is not so great. Throw in a little attention to the paragraph spacing, maybe put in a couple of thumbnail photos related to the topics here and there to break it up. Would make for a better read. Thanks for the info.

    • http://www.skiilight.com/ Jonathan

      Also, the article headline says “23 things” – maybe making this a numbered list would help to separate the points. I’ll stop now.

    • Scott Rounds

      And proofread. You lose some credibility when there are punctuation and grammatical errors in your writing.

    • carbureted

      Agreed. As soon as I clicked the link, I thought, “Wow. Disorganized.”

  • http://ericrshelton.com/ Eric R. Shelton

    As I’ve heard it, Hayabusa means “peregrine falcon” and was specifically named such because peregrine falcons prey on blackbirds. As in the Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird.

    (The Ki-43 is not the Zero. That’s a Mitsubishi A6M.)

    • Street Kore

      Yes, Suzuki picked the Hayabusa name solely as a marketing tool/ nudge to Honda’s CBR1100XX. As it was introduced 1 year after the Blackbird. And coincidentally blew Honda’s wheels off.

  • Brandon Carlson

    This is awesome! What a great post that really gives some fun and interesting facts that I never knew. Great read!!

  • Hooligan

    Perhaps this would be a useful read for the car driver the other day who angrly got out their car to berate me for not reversing back up a hill after they made a bad judgement and could not get through a gap. When I pointed out bikes do not have reverse gears, they just looked at me and muttered “never knew that”

  • Tom327Cat

    Here is another one for you, My John Deere SX-95 lawn tractor comes standard with a Kawasaki engine. Now, do I paint my bike John Deere green, or my lawn tractor Kawasaki candy green metallic?

  • Doctor Jelly

    …You must be related to Alanis Morisette, because it isn’t ‘ironic’ that BMW isn’t currently using hydraulic forks for their ‘big bikes’. That’s actually called progression (or so BMW claims, and I’m apt to believe as they’ve had a fair bit of success being firsts with a lot of what is today considered standard designs). Also, to be fair, their forks still technically telescope, and they still use a hydraulic damping unit (it’s just more like a rear shock than a front fork).

    Also, an interesting tidbit I’ve never been able to verify is that BMW’s first opposed twin design (initially for aircraft) was actually a copy of a Douglas twin. The only difference being the way it was mounted. Douglas followed suit and eventually started mounting their engines the way BMW did and still does today.

  • motoguru.

    All of this and no mention of the Kawasaki Dream Plus Hyperbaric Air Chamber which could be the most random of them all…


  • Ares4991

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but Nimbus introduced telescopic front forks a year before BMW’s R12, with it’s Model C, also knows as the Bumblebee.

  • Peter Kitagawa

    The Zero and the Hayabusa were two different airplanes. Also, the original Easy Rider, Captain America bike was stolen during or after production, I forgot the story. Peter Fonda now owns a replica. I used to work for an auto and moto storage company in Beverly Hills. He also drives a Ferrari and rides an MV Agusta.