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.
Top 10 Things You Might Not Know About Harley-Davidson
C’mon, I hear you saying, how can there possibly be 10 things about Harley that most everybody doesn’t know? Haven’t even the smallest details been published, debated and all but resolved over the years? But there are, indeed, many interesting factoids buried in more than a century of H-D’s history. And, as a whole new generation has come under the spell of the Milwaukee Mystique, some of them may be nearly as clueless as I was when I started studying the brand.
So, while there are likely far more than 10 things you may not know about Harley-Davidson – dependent largely on your age and level of interest in the history – the following are my arbitrary Top 10. Feel free to contribute your own historical facts (verified or not), and we may get to a level of obscurity that will be hard to top.
10. Harley Made Bicycles
Yep, the legendary Motor Company manufactured bicycles for a few years, beginning in 1916. In fact, most of the growing industry of motorcycle design, engineering and manufacture began in the bicycle business. The components for Harley’s bicycles were actually made by the Davis Sewing Machine Co. of Dayton, Ohio, then assembled in Milwaukee. Harley’s bicycles were stout and stylish, but they were expensive in a quite crowded market. The motorcycle showed far better prospects for profit, so H-D’s bicycle operations ceased in 1921.
9. 1903 Wasn’t Really the First Year of H-D Production
William Harley and Arthur Davidson finished one bike in ’03 and two more the following year. The first machine was two years in the making, with the assistance of a German designer named Emil Kroger. One of the next two prototypes was sold in 1904 to a Mr. Meyer, and after passing through four more owners in the following years, had reportedly logged 83,000 miles. The first year of “mass” production was 1905, when H-D manufactured eight motorcycles.
8. Harley Didn’t Immediately Dominate the Motorcycle Market
In the first decade of the 20th century, there were well more than 100 motorcycle manufacturers in America. Indian had nearly a five-year head start in terms of production bikes. Springfield’s George Hendee was a former bicycle racer and astute marketer; his partner Oscar Hedstrom was a brilliant engineer.
Milwaukee was barely sniffing Indian’s exhaust during the first five years. By 1910, H-D was producing about 3,000 machines a year, while Indian figures were double that. Indian’s successful racing endeavors and subsequent sales success were the motivating factors forcing Harley to abandon its policy of no factory-supported competition. An internal race department was formed in 1914, and the legendary Wrecking Crew went on to win countless races and bring needed notoriety to The Motor Company. Harley became the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer by 1920.
7. Harley Built Boxer-Style Twin-Cylinder Engines
Everyone knows H-D for its historic V-Twin engines, and amateur historians know about the company’s single-cylinder motors that powered many early H-Ds. But did you know Harley also built Boxer motors?
The 584cc W Sport (1919-22) used an opposed-Twin engine, with cylinders arranged inline with its wheels, patterned on the British Douglas. Producing only six horsepower, the W was not especially fast, but its low center of gravity gave it nimble handling. The lightweight model did not sell in large numbers stateside, but it did well overseas, with production numbers totalling nearly 10,000. The WJ (equipped with a battery and coil rather than a magneto) was the first motorcycle to ascend Mt. Baldy.
6. Porsche Designed a Liquid-Cooled V-4 Engine for Harley in the 70s
In the mid-1970s, Harley embarked on what would now be called a middleweight sport-touring bike. The Nova featured a compact liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-4 engine displacing 800cc, designed by Porsche and slated to eventually be built in sport, cruiser and racing configurations. H-D was then residing, uncomfortably, under the corporate umbrella of American Machine & Foundry (AMF), which was approaching the conclusion that it was time to cut its losses and find a buyer for Harley. Thus, after what was reported to have been a $9 million investment in the Nova project, it was shelved. Among the companies expressing interest in the H-D acquisition were Caterpillar, Bangor Punta and Fuqua Industries. Fuqua Harley?
5. Evel Knievel Doesn’t Hold the Distance Record for Jumping a Harley
Knievel might be the most famous jumper of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but he no longer holds the record for the longest jump. His best leap on his XR-750 traveled 133 feet over 14 Greyhound buses in 1975. But in 2008, Bubba Blackwell broke Evel’s record by jumping his XR-750 157 feet. While Blackwell holds the distance record on a Harley XR-750, the longest-ever jump on a Harley was made by Seth Enslow in 2010. The Crusty Demons of Dirt alum used a modified XR1200 to leap an incredible 183.7 feet.
4. H-D has Won World Championships in Roadracing
In 1960, Harley-Davidson bought 50% interest in the Italian Aermacchi factory, taking it over entirely in 1974. The Italian-bred two-stroke roadracers, re-badged as Harley-Davidsons, went on to earn three consecutive 250cc World Championships (1974 through 1976) with racer Walter Villa aboard the RR-250. Villa followed up his quarter-liter success by earning the 350cc title for Harley in 1977.
Harley also attempted a return to macadam scratching in the AMA Superbike ranks in 1994 with the VR1000. Developed with design and engineering assistance from Porsche, it proved an expensive undertaking that produced mediocre results. Riders Miguel Duhamel, Doug Chandler, Pascal Picotte and Chris Carr campaigned the bike but never won a race.
3. Harleys have been Manufactured in Japan
Beginning in the early 1930s, the Rikuo Internal Combustion Company manufactured motorcycles under license using H-D tooling. The company name was eventually shortened to just Rikuo (apparently meaning “Land King” or “Continent King”), which built nearly 18,000 motorcycles between 1937 and 1942, many of which were employed by military and police departments. Rikuo production continued following World War II until 1958.
2. Made Two-Stroke Engines as Far Back as 1948
Despite its traditional reverence for big V-Twin engines, Harley-Davidson did not disregard the practical appeal of the small two-stroke. As the result of the allied victory in World War II, the spoils of war were divvied up between Harley and Britain’s BSA. This gave the Yanks the use of the trustworthy DKW two-stroke Single. The Model S 125, which later became the Hummer, appeared in 1948 with an MSRP of $325 and a claimed 3 horsepower. Though never widely popular in the states, the tiddler did introduce many youngsters to the joy of motorcycling at an affordable price. The Hummer eventually grew to 175cc street and dirt models that were available through 1967. They were replaced by the Rapido 125 and Baja 100 models with two-stroke Aermacchi engines.
1. Harley Built an Inline Four-Cylinder Engine
In the mid-sixties, with the popularity of four-cylinder motorcycles growing, especially in Europe, H-D put a transverse inline-Four through the design phase, and had a wooden mock-up made for potential chassis fitment. In the late 1960s, Harley’s marketing department decided the air-cooled, across-the-frame configuration would not be successful in the American market. Then Honda’s CB750 Four arrived in 1969 and blew the minds of gearheads the world over
I recall seeing the mock-up engine when I visited Harley’s Dick O’Brien (pictured) for an interview in 1971. It didn’t look much different from the Honda. Unfortunately, I didn’t snap a picture of it!