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.