On this day in 1885, Paul Daimler made the first ever journey on a motorcycle. The short drive, over a distance of 5.5 kilometres from Cannstatt to Untertürkheim in southern Germany, was made on the petroleum reitwagen, the invention of Paul’s father Gottlieb Daimler, and his colleague Wilhelm Maybach.
Daimler and Maybach had been experimenting with the internal combustion engine for a number of years, devoting their endeavours to producing a lightweight design that would be capable of propelling a vehicle. In 1885, they came up with a design that was small and light enough to perform the task. Nicknamed “the grandfather clock” for its pendulum-like appearance, the small combustion engine was affixed to a custom-made cycle, and the petroleum reitwagen was born. It was a primitive wooden-framed machine running on ironclad wooden wheels, with no suspension and only a rear brake. The engine had 0.5 horsepower, and gave a top speed of 11 kph.
The first short journeys made on Daimler and Maybach’s contraption proved to be the humble beginnings of what would develop into a transport phenomenon. Other manufacturers and designers were quick to see the potential of the reitwagen, and began experimenting with their own motorcycle designs. By 1894 the first production motorcycle was produced, made by Hildebrand and Wolfmuller of Munich. Their vehicle was far closer to the designs that became ubiquitous throughout the 20th century. Its two-cylinder engine was capable of producing 2.5 horsepower and could achieve a top speed of 45 kph.
The popularity of the motorcycle grew steadily, with Indian, American, and German manufacturers dominating the market in the first half of the century. In latter years, due to the relative low cost of production, the motorcycle has become the vehicle of choice across much of the Far East, with more motorcycles sold in India, China and Vietnam than anywhere else in the world.
The motorcycle industry is now dominated by the Japanese “big four” of Honda, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Suzuki. There are estimated to be around 200 million motorcycles in use worldwide, of which over 60 million are Honda’s Super Club, the most successful motorcycle vehicle ever.
The status of the reitwagen as the first motorcycle has been disputed over the years. Daimler and Maybach did not follow convention when designing their vehicle, including a small stabilizing wheel on either side of the body. These auxiliary wheels have prompted some to question whether the reitwagen can truly be deemed a motorcycle. However, general consensus is that Daimler and Maybach’s invention satisfies the criteria for motorcycle design, and Gottlieb Daimler is often dubbed “”the grandfather of the motorcycle.
Credit: © Wladyslaw Sojka
Caption: The reitwagen, the world’s first motorcycle, had a top speed of 11 kilometres per hour.