All the countless Steam Punk customs of the last few years — with their affected brass fittings and better mousetrap-style needless mechanical complication — have nothing on this 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmuller. Not only is its design derived from steam power know-how and its engine equipped with rubber bands, but it’s the first machine to which the term “motorcycle” was ever applied. That’s right, this is the bike that started it all.

The engine in this H is a 1,488cc four-stroke parallel-twin developed by Alois Wolfmüller and his mechanic Hans Geisenhof. The cylinders lie flat under the “floor.” Like a steam locomotive, long connecting rods directly link each piston to the rear wheel and also open and close the mechanical exhaust valves through pushrods actuated by a cam on the wheel hub. The rear wheel also serves as the engine’s flywheel, necessitating that it be a heavy solid disc. Rubber bands are used to help the pistons make the return stroke.

Fuel is contained in the relatively large tank behind the front wheel and dropped to a surface carburettor which then feeds two atmospheric inlet valves leading to the combustion chambers where the mixture is ignited by a platinum hot tube. Cooling water is stored in the box-like rear fender and one of the frame tubes holds the oil. The tires, manufactured under license from Dunlop, were the first pneumatic designs ever fitted to a motorized bicycle.

And motorized bicycle the H is. Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand were in the bicycle business when they began experimenting with non-human power sources. First they tried steam power, then a two-stroke engine also developed with Wolfmüller before finally deciding on the four-stroke gasoline arrangement. Originally planning to put the engine in one of the then-new “safety” bicycles — modern-types that were quickly replacing the dangerous high-wheelers at the time — that arrangement proved too fragile to house the mighty 2.5bhp, 240rpm parallel-twin and the more integrated solution you see here was developed. Thus, the H was no longer a motorized bicycle and was patented as a “motorrad” in Germany.

That’s not to say it didn’t continue to used period bicycle technology. A rod-operated steel “spoon” applies friction to the front tire when it comes time to arrive at gradual halt. Not an ideal solution when the H is capable of reaching a heady 30mph.

The motorcycle components are primitive too. The throttle is controlled by means of a thumbscrew and there's no clutch. To start the H, the rider pushes the bike until the engine fires, then leaps aboard while regulating engine speed with said thumb screw.

While machines like Gottlieb Daimler’s Einspur pre-date the H, none called themselves a “motorcycle” and no inventors intended to put their designs into serial production until the Hildebrand brothers showed up.

News of the invention of the motorcycle in 1894 traveled quickly and plans were made to build a factory in Munich in addition to one in Croissy, France where Superbe et Cei planed to market this machine as “La Petrolette.”

But, the newly-formed Motofahrrad-Fabrik Hildebrand Wolfmüller soon ran into trouble. perhaps over eagerly, the H was entered into the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, where they promptly broke down halfway through (presumably in Bordeaux). Worse still, the first paying customers complained of difficult starting due to the hot tube ignition and poor running due to the rear-wheel’s inconsistent flywheel effect. Superbe et Cei lost a court case to an angry customer and soon other such cases swamped both that company and H Both went under in early 1897.

No accurate records exist as to how many H’s were made, with accounts ranging from 800 up to 2,000. This restored example will be auctioned by Bonham’s at the Imperial Palace Hotel in Las Vegas on January 6, 2011. Bonham’s was kind enough to provide these photos and information on H

There's five exceptionally detailed images in this gallery.

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