From Big Bang to suck-squeeze-bang-blow and beyond…
Motor cycling is a magnificent obsession. I was bitten by the motor cycling bug at 16 and it has dominated many of my waking and some of my sleeping hours ever since. This website will not delve into the psychology of motor cycling. Nor will it seek to explain the obsession. It’s simply an attempt to to review the story of the motor cycle from the start.
Most histories will date that start to 1885 when a petrol powered two-wheeler (with stabilizer wheels to make it rideable but let’s not quibble) was ridden, in Germany, by a brave teenager. But steam-powered two-wheelers were ridden in France and the USA nearly 20 years before. They could not have been made without a range of materials, techniques and the people to develop them. The motor cycle story started an extremely short time after the Big Bang, so that’s where this timeline starts. It will end when I’m no longer capable of adding to it.
Editorial note: This timeline is reasonably complete and illustrated from the Big Bang to 1924 although more stories surface all the time. A fair amount of text is in place up to the late 1930s with pics to follow and a few entries have been made for the fifties and sixties (because it’s the year I got my first bike I’ve made a good start on 1969). Features from touring tales and whimsical fiction to TT, six-day trials and show reports are attached to the relevant years. Poetry (not as bad as it sounds) humour have their own pages; there’s a large and growing A-Z gallimaufry of biographies, marque histories forgotten slang and anything else that doesn’t fit in elsewhere. Where possible I’ve culled information from contemporary sources, particularly The Motor Cycle, where I was lucky enough to work at the end of its long and illustrious life and was, as a callow youth, blessed to have rubbed journalistic shoulders with Bob Currie and Vic Willoughby who, in their youth, had worked with Ixion himself. The books and articles they left left for our education and delight are well worth tracking down; as is GS Davison’s The Story of the TT. Many marques and one-make clubs have their own websites but there are some sources of unending delight that must be mentioned: gracesguide.co.uk cybermotorcycle.com ozebook.com/wpaz archive.org archivemoto.com statnekov.com/motorcycles
Spelling and usage changes over time; in the early 20th century handlebars were handle-bars, motorcycles were motor cycles (or motor bicycles or just bicycles), carburettors were carburetters, the ACU was the A.C.U. (née A.C.C.) and motor cycle magazines were sprinkled with latin and french. As far as house style goes, I’m making it up as I go along. The use of English has changed over the decades, the obssesion has not, and that’s what counts. I’m British, as are most of my motor cycles, and much of the source material. If this has led to an Anglocentric bias (and let it be admitted that these islands have had an extraordinary influence on the history of the motor cycle) the rest of the planet certainly hasn’t been ignored. As the story draws nearer to the present the emphasis of the timeline will, of course, reflect the decline of the British industry and the rise of what were once called the Axis powers and latterly the Far East (there’s that Anglocentricsm again. I wonder if enthusiasts in that part of the world refer to Europe as the Far West?).
It’s a big story. What am I saying, it’s an impossibly huge story. The typography on this website would make a comp wince—that’s cheap software for you—but it’s all about the bikes, the riders and the designers. Informed readers will find factual errors as well as typos and, no doubt, prejudices. I fear, to quote Douglas Adams, “it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate”. Corrections, coments and material for additions are welcomed via email@example.com. In conclusion, an apology for the lack of an index. Identifying themes and patterns is a temptation for any obsessive but that is not the role of this timeline. I think of it as a warehouse which I will never be able to fill. Tidying it would take up time needed for shovelling in more stories. For an overview you’ll find Ixion’s wonderfully lucid four-part history on this site; Bob Currie covered the 1930s, ’50s and ’60s in his own delightful way; the intro to Erwin Tragatch’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Motorcycles includes an excellent summary.
There’s a blog on the site where you’ll find updates on what I’ve posted and where. Enjoy.
Isle of Wight, December 2021
A poem about the joys of motor cycling, circa 1910:
Would you like to go a-touring in a manner most alluring,
Here and there,
And employ your well-earned leisure in obtaining health and pleasure
Would you care to go a-flitting, on your saddle calmly sitting
At your ease,
Through the lively crowded highways or the lovely leafy byways
As you please?
Would you like to ride serenely, and enjoy the motion keenly
Of your steed,
Over hills and crests and ridges, under aqueducts and bridges
At full speed?
If you would, try motor biking; ’twill be greatly to your liking.
There’s no sport that’s more beguiling when the sun is softly smiling,
For its joys are keen and many, and within the reach of any
Therefore, if you’ve never tried it, buy a motor bike and ride it,
And your voice you’ll soon be raising, and the pastime loudly praising
To the skies
(A word is quite sufficient to the wise.)