When the early precursor of the motorcycle was invented in the mid 19th Century, no one would anticipate the institution that it has since become. Arguably more than any other vehicle, motorcycles form the absolute center of many lifestyles and are universal symbols of a very precise character. The history of the motorcycle is fascinating because of the way it interweaves with major historical and technological developments, and because of the relative constancy of the iconography that it constitutes today. Perhaps due to the speed, danger, and maneuverability of which they are made up, there has long been a close tie between motorcycles, rebellion, and independence: the motorcycle is a vehicle for whom the freedom of a conventional car is still too claustrophobic and conformist.
The Early Years
Given the compact, bare construction of a motorcycle, one might be inclined to think that matters of size and exposure would guarantee that the development of the motorcycle lag far behind that of the standard automobile. While this is a sensible intuition, it is not reflective of the truth. The first motorized bicycle (the name motorcycle would be coined much later on) was engineered as early as 1867, by an American inventor named Sylvester Roper. This newfangled bike was steam-powered and operated using a coal engine. The invention was never put into production – the design was likely too precarious or impractical – and was separated engineered again by another inventor – Michaux Perreaux – only a few years later. Roper hand built three of his steam velocipedes (the formal name for what is now popularly known as a "boneshaker"), and remaining photos and diagrams do visually suggest that the heat and steam produced just behind and below the driver / passenger would make for an uncomfortable or downright dangerous ride.
While the definition is somewhat arbitrary, many contemporary definitions of the motorcycle demand that eligible vehicles be powered by an internal combustion engine. By this definition, German engineering duo Daimler and Maybach would be the first to outfit a true motorcycle, innovating on Nicholas Otto's work to create a bike-size combustion engine. It is only a decade past this point, in 1894, that motorcycles (finally so-dubbed) would see commercial production.
This first commercial production took place in Germany, produced by the company Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. Within the next decade, motorcycle production and popularity would explode in the new world. Charles Metz would be the first to manufacture this European design in North America, but it would be the Indian Motorcycle company that first took hold of the American market. Indian Motorcycles were an immense design and commercial success, and would dominate until The Great War.
A great number of American motorcycles were used overseas in the first world war, as they were outstanding tools for the transfer of information and the rapid, covert movement of small numbers of troops. Consequently, this wartime need grew the industry's productive forces at home. Though productivity was for a time directed away from domestic sale and use, come the 20s and 30s motorcycles would see a tremendous cultural boom.
It is during this period following the war that motorcycle culture as we know it today first began to take shape. Harley Davidson Motorcycle Company grew in popularity during this period, and MC (motorcycle club) membership started to grow significantly. Outlaw motorcycle clubs were also starting to come to prominence, with long-time opponents of the Hell's Angels – Outlaws Motorcycle Club – being founded in '35. OMC actually predates Hell's Angels, and is one of the oldest remaining 1% clubs around today.
World War II and Beyond
World War II bore consequences similar in kind to those related to the Great War before it. The difference being that the motorcycle industry was far more established than the industry pre-WWI, and the effect of WWII on America's productive forces was far more dramatic. All precious goods were rationed at this point in time, be it sugar or gas. In order to limit the consumption of goods essential to the war effort, legislation was passed limiting the activities of all motorcycle clubs. Like WWI too, American motorcycles were an essential tool overseas. The Harley Davidson WLA is an absolute icon of WWII service and was the chief American motorcycle contribution to the war. More than ninety thousand of these bikes were produced over the course of the war, being used on the eastern and western fronts alike. Those which made it back from their service abroad were popular mod bikes, as they were one of the most competent motorcycles available at the time. World War II saw the employ of many different styles of motorcycle, such as those fitted with side car and sub machine gun. These bikes mostly came from British companies like Norton and Royal Enfield.
Two major developments came after the war which shaped the motorcycle landscape and remain significant today. This is the crisis of public trust in motorcycles and cyclists, and the introduction of Japanese motor companies into the motorcycle industry. This latter change inspired profound escalation in technological innovation and performance, with Yamaha challenging Americans and producing some of the most impressive motorcycles of the 50s. The post-war westernization of Japan is undoubtedly responsible for this transformation, and parallel to its significance for North American consumers, a profound love of the motorcycle fomented in Japan, and gave birth to a unique motorcycle culture entirely its own.
The public relations crisis is often cited as being born with the Hollister riots in California. While motorcycles and motorcycle culture was only tangentially related to this outbreak – and regardless of any relation to motorcyclists, it was not an event reflective of the broader culture – the provocative work of journalists came to tarnish the image of motorcycles nation-wide. Ever since, and especially before the US made its turn away from propriety culture, motorcycle companies have had to figure out how to overcome the association with gang violence, danger, and maverick individuality. An iconic piece of advertising from early in Honda's career as a motorcycle company; “You Meet The Nicest People On a Honda!”, effectively captures the posturing that was needed to move away from the symbolism that constituted motorcycles – even though it always only reflective of a small number of riders. As American identity has shifted more to embrace a certain radical individualism, other companies have at various points decided instead to lean into this reputation – never, of course, of violence or danger, but of punk rebellion. Like much truck advertising today, motorcycle advertising often embraces and attempts to upsell the machismo they evoke. From this point of view, you can't be threatened by an interpretation of your product that you embrace!
Unless you get into the technical minutiae of motorcycles, there has been fairly little upset or revolution in the industry since the sixties. While one might get an alternative impression from the ubiquity of American made touring bikes, the industry is palatably free of monopoly. Looking to magazines and experts for a survey of the best on offer today in 2022, a slew of brands of various nationality are listed, many praised in accord with excellence in a certain niche. There is no best motorcycle, nor even a best brand – motorcycles are about individuality, and this is reflected in the varieties of excellence available to the consumer.
Notably, new technologies which are becoming dominant elsewhere in the automotive industry, are a more fringe enthusiasm amongst motorcyclists. Harley Davidson has been innovating in the electric motorcycle sphere, and broke that endeavor off from the HD name, suggesting that the market is not ready for such a transition. This is fairly unsurprising as, all optics aside, many rides would argue that part of the visceral joy that comes from riding a bike is found in the ferocity of engines and the feeling of such power "strapped" beneath you. As electric vehicles do not rely on pistons or combustion, the two major sources of rock and rumble in a motorcycle, such a vehicle has an immensely different feel.
To recap, the "motorcycle" (its steam-powered precursor, at least) was invented in the 1860s by an American inventor. With the development of combustion engines, the motorcycle first took off in Europe, and saw commercial adoption in America very early in the 1900s. Motorcycles quickly grew in popularity in North America, and in spite of tumult caused by both world wars, the vehicle would ultimately come out of each conflict more powerful, more important, and more popular. Motorcycles have long struggled with their rebellious associations, in spite of being popular primarily with the average, peaceable citizens throughout their long history. In spite of this, motorcycles continue to triumph, and the industry is the biggest today it has ever been.