Wheel Life Experiences

The Art of the Motorcycle


Harley Davidson

Hell's Angels


Is it true, as the old joke has it, that you can tell a happy motorcyclists by the number of bugs caught in his teeth? We don't know about that, but we do know that plenty of riders say that they feel the most alive when riding: the wind blowing against your face, the motor roaring through your bones, the road skidding beneath you as a Jeep Cherokee thoughtlessly cuts you off....

Wheel Life Experiences

Most motorcyclists live a certain contradiction: They swear they're just law-abiding folk who like to ride...but at the same time cherish the biker gang image that transforms CPAs and computer nerds into exciting weekend outlaws. From the first experiments with steam engines, putting a small motor on a bicycle was a logical idea. The problem was getting the engine small yet powerful enough to make it possible. When that happened first has still not been nailed down, but the earliest known evidence a park scene showing several three-wheeled steam-powered motorcycles puffing along was drawn in 1831.

Still, there were some problems with the steam-powered bike, including a lack of power, a tendency to explode now and again, and having to constantly reach down and insert water and lumps of coal into the hissing, smoking engine. Inventors looked for other approaches. One, the "Cynophere"; invented by M. Huret of Paris in 1875, was powered by two dogs running inside the two rear wheels.

Finally, the internal combustion gasoline engine came into being, built by N. A. Otto of Germany in 1876. Nine years later, his former assistant, Gottlieb Daimler, fathered the first modern motorcycle. Not that it was perfect yet the spark plug hadn't yet been invented, and so Daimler used a bunsen burner to heat up a metal tube that extended into the engine's cylinder to ignite the gas and air mixture. The problems, of course, were that the flame occasionally ignited the rider, blew out in the wind, or, in the event of dumping the bike over, ignited the spilled gasoline.

Finally 1895 brought the miracles of both electrical ignition and the inflatable tire. Up until then, "motorcycles"; were just bicycles with motors added. Finally, in 1901 a French company actually designed a motorcycle in which the engine was not just a clip-on, but an integral part of the design. So confident were they that their motor would dependably propel the cycle that they even left off the bicycle pedals.

It was this first motorcycle that the world copied. First the Europeans, then the Americans (see HARLEY) and finally, in 1908, the Japanese. Still, it wasn't until after World War II that Soichiro Honda started his own company and unleashed an explosion of Japanese bikes.

Honda's piston company had been bombed back to the stone age by Allied bombers, and he decided to go into a new line of work at age 41. Deciding that motorbikes might be useful in postwar Japan, he bought 500 army-surplus generators and attached them to bicycles. They sold quickly, However, there were no more generators available, so he designed his own motorcycle. It took another decade before he started exporting motorcycles to the United States with the slogan (meant as a slap at Harley and its biker-gang customers) "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda."

Nowadays, Japanese motorcycles account for more than half of the US market.

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