Motorcycles are in a constant state of evolution. Today I will be looking at some of the innovations that transformed the world of motorcycling and made motorcycles what they are today. Before you get disappointed with my list, I know there are bound to be some things I have left out. These are just the 11 innovations that I think are the most important. I know you may think differently and that’s fine. Feel free to share your opinions in the comments section below.
Some things that have been reinforced doing research for this video, is that the answer isn’t always what you think, and the internet isn’t always right. Bear that in mind, and if I have got anything wrong, let me know in the comments below.
The First Motorcycle with an All Aluminium perimeter frame
Now this illustrates my point above straight away. The bulk of the internet credits Antonio Cobas, an ex GP racer,with being the originator of the modern, aluminium frame chassis. However, Nico Bakker had been making frames for himself, Will Hartog, Phil Read, Johnny Ceccotto, Agostini and many others since the 70’s. He was also moving away from steel construction at the time and his first twin beam chassis was used at almost the same time. It was in 1982 that Cobas developed a stronger and lighter aluminium twin-beam chassis to replace the steel backbone frames. Bakker released his the same year. However, the dates seem a little contradictory when it comes to who actually got there first.
When it comes to production bikes though there is more questions. The 1983 RG 250 Gamma had an aluminium cradle chassis which was the first major move to the use of aluminium. But in my opinion it was the 1987 Yamaha FZR750 and 1000 Genesis that were the first production motorcycles with a true aluminium twin spar chassis. Let me know if you know something I have missed.
The First Motorcycle with Telescopic Front Forks AND Water Cooling?
Contrary to popular opinion, google, and even Wikipeadia, the Suzuki GT750 was definitely NOT the first water cooled motorcycle.
In 1908 Alfred Angus Scott released the Scott Squirrel. It had water cooling, telescopic forks, a lightweight duplex frame and a low centre of gravity. Its roadholding was pronounced superb at the time, but the forks had no damping, so you can imagine what the competition handled like.
The sad thing is that Scott didn’t persevere with telescopic forks. Later models of his motorcycles returned to using girder forks.
In 1934, the Danish vacuum cleaner company Fisker & Nielsen (makers of the Nilfisk vacuum cleaner) decided they would build a motorcycle. They called it the Nimbus. It had an oil-damped telescopic fork up front, the first time such an item appeared on a motorcycle.
BMW saw the design and immediately copied it. Then in 1935 they released the BMW R12 and R17. There were rave reviews and much more fan fair than NilFisk had for the Nimbus.
Older than you think
Across the internet, it states very clearly that the Suzuki GT750 “water buffalo” first built in 1971 was the first motorcycle with water cooling. As I have already said, it wasn’t. Alfred Scott designed and produced a motorcycle in 1908 that used a 450cc two-stroke twin-cylinder water-cooled engine.
That is a full 63 years before the GT750. Other innovative features of the Scott included a patented two-speed chain transmission and possibly the first kick start too.
However even Scott weren’t the first. After all my research I discovered that 76 years before the GT750, the first water cooled motorcycle was actually The 1899 Holden. This was a water-cooled flat four 1100cc motorcycle that was effectively the Goldwing of its day. There are even some complete examples still working!
The First Multi Cylinder Motorcycles
Now this one doesn’t have one answer really, as I have considered different engine configurations, so we have several firsts. Technically, the world’s first twin cylinder production motorcycle was the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, which used a straight-twin engine. The cylinders were laid flat and forward-facing, with the pistons connected directly to the rear wheel using a locomotive-style connecting rod, so it wasn’t particularly practical.
The First Vertical Twin
In 1903, the Werner Motocyclette became the second production motorcycle model to use a straight-twin engine and this had vertical cylinders. The Werner engine was 500cc and used cast-iron cylinders with integral heads and side valves. Scott as we know followed shortly after in 1908.
However, it was in 1938 that the Triumph Speed Twin was released. This was the motorcycle which led to straight-twin engines becoming more widely used by other brands. The engine was designed by Edward Turner and Val Page, and was initially used in the 1933 Triumph 6/1 sidecar hauler (which won the International Six Days Trial silver medal and the 1933 Maudes Trophy. During the development of the engine, it was found that a 360 degree crank angle was better suited to the use of a single carburettor than the original 180 degree crank so it was changed.
The First V-Twin
The earliest V-twin engined motorcycle I can find was produced in November 1902 by the Princeps AutoCar Company in the United Kingdom. The following year, V-twin motorcycles were produced by Eclipse Motor & Cycle Co in the United Kingdom, Glenn Curtiss in the United States, and NSU Motorenwerke in Germany.
The first Eclipse machine was exhibited at the Stanley Show in 1903. It had a variable-speed gear, engine-driven rear wheel and free-wheel clutches. In 1904 A wide-angled V-twin was added to the range. The engine fitted into a loop frame with braced forks and conventional belt drive. There is little further information.
Peugeot, which had used Panhard-built Daimler V-twins in its first cars, began producing its own V-twin engines in 1904. This Peugeot engine powered the Norton motorcycle that won the very first Isle of Man TT race in 1907.
The First Flat Twin and the First V4 were British
Joseph F. Barter’s Light Motors Ltd, was one of Douglas Motorcycles customers. Barter developed the Fée bicycle engine system in 1904. The Fée’s 200cc flat-twin engine was mounted in-line with the frame. Barter founded Light Motors Ltd. to build the Fée system, and Production began in 1905; the Fée’s name was anglicized to Fairy shortly afterward. Then In 1916 The Motor Cycle magazine states clearly that the 1904 Fée was the earliest flat-twin motorcycle engine.
Douglas made castings for Light Motors and took over the manufacturing rights when Light Motors went out of business in 1907. From 1907 a 350cc Douglas version went on sale. It was similar to the Fairy, with the engine in-line and mounted high in the frame, but it had a chain driven countershaft beneath.
At the 1907 Stanley Show Douglas attracted a lot of attention with a V4 engined motorcycle. This had automatic inlet valves, and 2-speed drive. Unfortunately the V4 never made it to production and by the 1908 show it was only the updated in-line twin that was on show, now lighter and with a lower engine position.
The First 4 cylinder motorcycle
The FN Four was the world’s first production inline-4 motorcycle, manufactured in Liége by Fabrique Nationale from 1905 until 1923. It was also the world’s fastest production motorcycle from 1911 until 1912.
The motorcycle was developed in 1904, tested late that year, and had its public debut at the 1905 Paris Motorcycle Show. It was a commercial success upon release, with production increasing over its twenty-year run.
I will give a quick mention to an obscure air-cooled inline-four developed in 1903 by Charles Binks of Nottingham, England, but never produced commercially, but there is almost no information about this motorcycle.
Both were actually preceded by a boxer 4 manufactured in 1897 by Henry Capel Lofft Holden, This would become the first four-cylinder gasoline-powered motorcycle and was manufactured in Britain between 1899 and 1902. The Holden was a water-cooled flat four of 1100cc, and a few examples still exist, notably in the London Science Museum.
The prototype of the American Henderson Four was built in 1911 and production started in 1912. It sparked the imagination of the international media, as Charles Stearns Clancy set out to be the first motorcyclist to circle the globe on his Henderson.
A Step Forward
A special mention here goes to Gilera. Although not the first, this motorcycle marked a major development of the engine technology that had been improving since the early 1900’s.
In 1935 a water-cooled, supercharged, double overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine, developed by Italian firm Rondine, was fitted across the frame of a Gilera race bike. It revved to over 8500rpm and produced about 60bhp which was a huge improvement over almost any other engines of the time. It propelled the little Gilera to 155mph.
In 1937, the Gilera took the world motorcycle speed record, at 170mph, and after World War Two it lapped the Isle of Man TT course at 101mph – without its supercharger.
Then, in 1968, Honda launched the CB750. This was the first four-cylinder road bike of the modern era. It had great road manners and was sold at the same price as the British twins of the day. This motorcycle is often described as the first superbike and the format lives on to this day. The 1973 Kawasaki Z1 rammed home the potential of the inline 4 as an engine format for performance motorcycles, and it continues to be the popular choice for high performance motorcycles.
The First Motorcycle to use Mono-Shock Rear Suspension
In 1972, Yamaha introduced Mono-Shock single shock absorber rear suspension, on their Motocross race bikes. The suspension was designed by Lucien Tilkens, and became so successful that the other Japanese motorcycle manufacturers quickly developed their own single shock absorber designs.
Honda called theirs the Pro-link, Kawasaki built the Uni-Trak system and Suzuki launched the Full-Floater system.
The first single-shock appeared on a production bike in Yamaha’s 1974 YZ250 and 360. The “Monoshock” was tucked right up under the fuel tank and was mounted to a rigid traingulated cantilever swingarm.
The First Electric Lights and Starter
In 1914, Indian launched the world’s first motorcycle with electric lights and starter. The Indian Chief was at the top of their range and the introduction of electric lights was a major jump from the use of Acetylene and oil lamps. It also had an electric start as an optional extra, but the system was poorly designed and very unreliable.
Harley Davidson added electric start to the Servi-Car in the early sixties and then the Electra Glide was released in 1965, making it the first production motorcycle to be fitted with an electric start.
Then, in 1968 electric start became a more standard feature. The 1968 Honda CB750 heralded a new era of motorcycling. After that, many of the Honda street models were fitted with electric start and the other manufacturers were forced to adopt the technology, which all riders loved.
The First Induction Valve 2 Strokes
The earliest two-stroke engines were not very efficient and manufacturers tried many ways to improve fuel flow and efficiency. Some of these included stepped and shaped pistons but the results weren’t great. It was the introduction of induction valves that led to a serious improvement in the efficiency and power delivered by two-strokes engines.
In East Germany at D.K.W.’s pre-war home, the small MZ race team, under the guidance of Walter Kaaden, had been patiently developing two-strokes with Zimmermann-type rotary inlet valves since 1953. Their best engine was at the forefront of engine design producing over 200 b.h.p. Per litre. The engine was a 124 c.c. single that produced 25 BHP. at 10,800 r.p.m. It took rider Ernst Degner on to win the East German, West German and Italian grand prix’s that year. Degner did a deal with Suzuki, stole the plans of the engine, and soon after most Japanese 2 strokes were using it.
By 1973 the 350cc class was very popular in the USA. This was a huge market for the developing Japanese motorcycle companies and the RD350 was built to cash-in on the popularity of the class. The air-cooled RD350 was a development of the YR5, which had an identical frame, as well as sharing some running gear and engine parts. However, the new motor featured a different head and cylinders from the YR5. It had seven transfer ports instead of five, 28mm carbs and an over-square 64 x 54mm bore and stroke. The new RD350 pumped-out around 40bhp at 7500rpm and its newly developed reed valve induction system gave it a more punchy and flexible power delivery than any other two-strokes of the day. This made it much more usable in everyday riding conditions. It became the benchmark by which other motorcycles performance was judged.
The First Motorcycle with Electronic Ignition
By 1966, Kawasaki had gained a foothold in the lucrative American market with the W1. However 1969 marked Kawasaki’s entrance as a major manufacturer. This was the year they launched the 500cc, 3 cylinder 2-stroke H1 Mach III. This was the fastest motorcycle in its class. It was the first multi-cylinder street motorcycle to introduce a capacitor discharge, or electronic, ignition system rather than the traditional contact breaker ignition system commonly called points.
Moto Morini began using CDI’s in 1973, Ducati and Moto Guzzi used it for the first time in 1977. BMW first used it the the late 70’s on the R100 models. By the late 70’s it was used by Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda on pretty much all their larger models and many of the smaller ones too.
The First Motorcycle to use the Engine as a Stressed Member of the Chassis
Stressed member engines as a concept were first patented in 1900 by John Carver Phelon and his nephew Harry Rayner. They were pioneered as early as 1916 in Harley-Davidson’s 8-valve racer, and incorporated in the keystone, or diamond frame of the full production Harley-Davidson Model W built in 1919.
The next step in development came during early testing of the 1983 Kawasaki GPZ900R. Twin down-tubes were originally used, creating a full cradle. However, the down-tubes were found to carry little load, so they were removed. The final design relied entirely on the combination of the steel backbone and engine to give improved chassis rigidity.
The First Disk Brakes on a Motorcycle
The first use of disc brakes on a motorcycle was another Douglas. The 1923 Douglas RA dirt track race bike. The ‘RA’ came from its unique braking system which was developed and patented by the British Motorcycle and Cycle-Car Research Association. It was not what we think of as a disc brake system today though.
Instead of having calipers with pistons inside to squeeze the disc to slow it down, a cable-actuated RA brake pressed onto the edge of the rotating disc. The front and rear discs did increase the stopping power of the Douglas race bike. However, they were prone to grabbing. The experiment was scrapped and by 1925 Douglas went back to fitting drum brakes to all of its bikes.
Several racing teams developed disc braking systems for their bikes, but it would be another 40 years before disc brakes were fitted as standard to a mass production motorcycles.
It was MV Agusta that released the first road going motorcycle to be fitted with disc brakes. In 1965 they used a disc brake system on their 600cc touring motorcycle. It used a mechanical brake linkage. However, it would be Honda’s seminal CB750 which would be remembered as the first motorcycle to use hydraulic disc brakes as we know them today. These early mass produced systems were often not as effective as a good drum brake set-up, especially in the wet. However, the technology improved quickly and spread across the ranges of most manufacturers larger capacity bikes.
The First Overhead Camshaft Motorcycle Engine
The Peugeot 500 M was a French racing motorcycle designed by Ernest Henry in 1913. It was the first motorcycle ever designed with a dual overhead camshaft. It also used a multi-valve cylinder head, with four valves per cylinder.
Undoubtedly though, the bulk of the development work for OHC engines was done during the 1920s in the UK. Although Norton often get the credit, it was Velocette who were ahead of any other British manufacturers at the time. Velocette were a small, family-owned firm and were renowned for the quality of its products. They sold almost as many hand-built motorcycles during their lifetime, as the giant BSA and Norton companies mass-produced in their factories.
Velocette realized that in order to grow as a company, they needed a new motorcycle and they developed an overhead camshaft 350cc engine, which became known as the ‘K’ series. It was introduced in 1925 and after a year of teething troubles, Velocette entered the ‘K’ models into the Isle of Man TT and Brooklands races, A 350cc OHC Velocette won the 1926 Junior Isle Of Man TT. This was a year before Norton won with their OHC engine in the Senior event.
The reliability and performance of the new engine gave Velocette a long string of victories. It led to the introduction of a production racing model, called the KTT. This motorcycle was built for 21 years between 1928 and 1949. The 1929 KTT was also the first production motorcycle to feature a positive-stop, foot-actuated gear-change.
The First Anti Dive Forks on a Motorcycle
Honda developed a mechanical anti-dive system for the front forks in its race bikes in the 1970s. The Honda ‘Torque Reactive Anti-dive Control’ or TRAC system seen on a number of Honda’s race bikes. It was eventually fitted to some of their production bikes in the mid eighties. These were the CB1100, CB900 and even the VFR750 of 1986. However, it was seen first on the 1985 CB700SC. The Nighthawk S was only released in the USA.
The system worked by using a brake caliper that was hinged behind the fork leg on a pivot-link. When you pull the brake lever, the caliper pivots slightly and presses against a valve inside the fork leg. This restricts the flow of oil, making the suspension stiffen up and to reduce dive.
Well thats it for now, I’m sure you will add some of the firsts you think were more important below. Do feel free to point out if I am wrong too. I hope you enjoyed the video. I know there’s probably going to be some disagreement and I’d love to hear from you below in the comments.
Let me know what you think the most important innovations are in motorcycle technology and engineering.
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Ride Free Everyone.