Motorized Bicycle - History


For history of the bicycle in general, see History of the bicycle
For history of the electric bicycle, see Electric bicycle
See also Timeline of motorized bicycle history

The two-wheeled pedal powered bicycle was first conceived in Paris in the 1860s. By 1888 John Dunlop's pneumatic tire and the chain drive made possible the safety bicycle, giving the bicycle its modern form.

The origins of the motorized bicycle or motorbike can be traced back to the latter part of the 19th century when experimenters began attaching steam engines to stock tricycles and quadracycles. The first true motorized bicycle is generally considered to be the French Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede of 1868. The Michaux-Perreaux was followed by the American Roper steam velocipede of 1869, built by Sylvester H. Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Roper demonstrated his machine at fairs and circuses in the eastern U.S. in 1867, and built a total of 10 examples. These early attempts at propelling a bicycle by means other than the human body were not successful, either practically or commercially. It was not until the 1890s, with the advent of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE), that the motorized bicycle could be considered a practical machine.

One of the first gas motor-assisted bicycle designs was the Millet motorcycle developed by Félix Millet in France in 1892. Millet's designs had both pedals and a fixed-crankshaft radial engine built into the back wheel.

In 1896, E.R. Thomas of Buffalo, New York began selling gasoline engine kits for propelling ordinary bicycles. After forming the Thomas Motor Company, he began selling complete motor-assisted bicycles under the name Auto-Bi. The Auto-Bi is generally considered to be the first production motorized bicycle made in the United States.

The 1900 Singer Motor Wheel was a wheel incorporating a small ICE powerplant that could be substituted for the front wheel of a bicycle. A later design, the 1914 Smith Motor Wheel, was attached to the rear of a bicycle by means of an outrigger arm, a design later taken up by Briggs & Stratton.

In Belgium, the Minerva company, later known for luxury cars, started out manufacturing standard safety bicycles in 1897, before expanding into light cars and "motocyclettes" from 1900. They produced lightweight clip-on engines that mounted below the front down tube, specifically for Minerva bicycles, but also available in kit form suitable for almost any bicycle. The engine drove a belt turning a large gear wheel attached to the opposite side of the rear wheel as the chain. By 1901 the kit engine was a 211cc unit developing 1.5 hp, comfortably cruising at 30 km/h (19 mph) at 1,500 rpm, capable of a top speed of 50 km/h (31 mph), and getting fuel consumption in the range of 3 L/100 km (94 mpg; 78 mpg). These kits were exported around the world to countries including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and other British territories of the time.

As engine power increased, frame ruptures became increasingly common, and by 1903 Minerva had developed an in-frame design with the engine mounted above the bottom bracket, while still also offering the clip-on kit. From 1904 Minerva began focussing more on car production, and while development and production of the Minerva motorized bicycles continued through to about 1909, they became increasing a less significant part of the company.

In England, the Phelon & Rayner motorized bicycle was introduced in 1901, and was sold through 1903. The original Phelon & Rayner machine used a 260cc, 1.75-horsepower gasoline engine mounted to a standard 28-inch bicycle frame.

In the United States, the California Motor Company was formed in 1901 to sell complete gasoline-engine motorbikes in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The company began with a 200cc single-cylinder, 1.5-horsepower, four-stroke engine designed by R.C. Marks. Mounted to a standard bicycle frame, the California could reach speeds of approximately 25 mph (40 km/h). The California weighed around 75-80 pounds, and featured a leading-link front fork, a leather spring saddle, a front Duck roller brake, and an Atherton rear coaster brake. A leathern belt-drive directly connected the engine output shaft to the rear wheel. During the summer of 1903, George A. Wyman rode a 200cc, 1.5-horsepower California from San Francisco to New York City, becoming the first person to cross the North American continent aboard a motor vehicle.

As early as 1903, motorized bicycles were being fitted with larger and heavier loop frames designed to specifically accommodate larger displacement engines, which produced higher speeds. These new motorbike frame designs soon incorporated a new riding position which no longer centered the rider over the pedals, but instead moved the rider's feet forward, where they rested on pegs or platforms. The new riding position was designed to increase rider comfort and control when using the motor for propulsion, and soon owners began relying on the gasoline motor for all but emergency use. Front suspension and (on some machines) rear suspension increased control at high speeds. By 1915, some manufacturers were omitting pedal propulsion entirely, resulting in the introduction of the first true modern motorcycle.

At the same time, purpose-built motobikes like the Derny and VéloSoleX, with stronger frames and sometimes with only token ability to be wholly human-powered were introduced in France. Many years later, manufacturers would re-introduce this concept as the moped, a small motorcycle fitted with pedals that can be used as a starting aid but which cannot, practically, be ridden under pedal power alone.

In France, the gasoline-powered motorized bicycle, known popularly as the vélomoteur or vélomoto was popular during the 1930s, and continued to be widely sold in early postwar years as a means of transportation during a period of gasoline shortages and limited automobile production.

In the 1930s, the United Kingdom and its former colonies also developed “clip-on” motors for bicycles (35 to 49cc), followed by the “Autocycle” with a purpose-built frame incorporating pedals and a two-stroke engine (often a 98cc Villiers engine), but without a gearbox (e.g. the Malvern Star). Autocycle manufacturers were well established in countries such as Britain and Australia before World War II.

In 1939, the American bolt-on Whizzer gas-engined bicycle kit was introduced, utilizing a 138cc side-valve four-stroke engine and belt drive. Despite some initial engine reliability issues, the Whizzer enjoyed modest popularity during World War II due to fuel and automobile shortages, and was used by war plant workers and others with priority for transportation. After the war, the Whizzer became popular with youth who desired faster speeds from their heavy cruiser-framed Schwinn bicycles. In 1949, the company introduced a complete production bike, the Pacemaker. Sales of the Whizzer conversion kits continued until 1962. In the United Kingdom, the motorized bicycle saw a resurgence of popularity and such bolt-on motors as the Cyclaid and the Cyclemaster motor wheel saw brief periods of immense popularity. The Cyclemaster, which was a hub motor which could be fitted to an ordinary bike, started at 25cc (painted black), but later the size went up to 32cc (painted grey).

Elsewhere in Europe the motorized bicycle continued to be popular, particularly in France and Italy. An Italian manufacturer, Vincenti Piatti, designed a 50cc engine for driving portable lathes and this was also used to power a bicycle frame in the form of the Mini Motore. Piatti later licensed the design to Trojan for production in Britain as the Trojan Minimotor. In West Germany, a compression-ignition (diesel) engine kit using an 18cc variable head engine made by Lohmann was produced during the 1950s. In France, where postwar reconstruction, taxes, and fuel shortages limited automobile access, motorized bicycle kits and complete models were produced by a variety of smaller manufacturers, often using a two-stroke gasoline engine mounted above the front wheel. In 1946, production of the very successful French VELOSOLEX commenced, continuing until 1988. The VéloSoleX was a mass-produced motorized bicycle, which used a tire roller (friction drive) to the front wheel. After French production ceased, the VELOSOLEX continued to be produced in China and Hungary. An in-wheel gasoline engine was used on the Honda P50 moped which ceased production in 1968. The velomoteur and motor scooter enjoyed a second renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s as a new generation of youth discovered they could ride a motorized vehicle without need of a driver's license. Other countries had relaxed licencing requirements e.g. lower age limits for motorized bicycles, which increased their popularity.

During the 1960s, the moped craze arrived in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries. Mopeds had been produced for years in France and Italy, but were largely unknown in other countries. The moped's surge in popularity was motivated by the arrival of new machines produced in Japan by Honda, Yamaha, and other manufacturers, which could be operated without a driving license and with a minimum of effort to meet existing regulation by the authorities. The new moped designs were really low-powered motorcycles, equipped with pedals largely to meet legal requirements. Most could only be pedaled with difficulty over short distances on level ground.

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