What was the first motorcycle made? The answer is frequently debated based on how a “motorcycle” is defined. The first definition is — “a motorcycle is a two-wheeled vehicle that is mechanically propelled by any type of engine.” Based on this definition, the title of the “first motorcycle” goes to two different machines since the date of manufacture is uncertain- the steam powered Michaux-Perreaux, made somewhere from 1867-1871 and the steam powered Roper, made somewhere from 1867-1869.
The second definition is — “a motorcycle is a two-wheeled vehicle mechanically propelled by an internal combustion engine.” I am going to stick with this second definition of a “motorcycle” and this would make the first motorcycle the Daimler Reitwagen, which translates to “riding wagon.”
In the pictures you will see that there are two outriggers with wheels on them, so a natural question is, “Don’t these two extra wheels change this from a two-wheeled ‘motorcycle’ to a four-wheeled car?” My answer is, “No”. I consider them as auxiliary stabilizers and not two additional wheels since they are in contact with the ground for only limited and random periods of time.
With the definitions out of the way, let’s talk about the Daimler Reitwagen. It was built in 1885 by Gottlieb Daimler, who founded a number of companies, including Mercedes Benz and Wilhelm Maybach. Interestingly, they did not plan on creating a motorcycle, but were interested in creating motorized four-wheeled carriages/automobiles. They only made the Reitwagen because it was the easiest vehicle they could design to test their small, patented “grandfather clock engine” prototype for automobiles.
Daimler and Maybach converted an old greenhouse in Stuttgart into a workshop to create the horizontal test engine featuring a hot-tube ignition system. The upright engine had a float-metered carburetor and an enclosed aluminum crankcase with an air-cooled vertically-mounted cylinder. The 264 cubic centimeters motorcycle weighed 132 lbs., produced about 1/2 hp at 650 rpm and had a top speed of 7 mph. There was a twist grip on the handlebars that when twisted in one direction actuated the brake and when twisted the other way, it tensioned the belt drive, which created power.
In 1885–1886, there were upgrades to the Reitwagen, but by 1886, it was abandoned as Daimler’s and Maybach’s prototype engine had been tested enough in the motorcycle and they were ready to start building four-wheeled vehicles. Although the Reitwagen was lost in a fire in 1903, the replicas seen in the pictures and video are very accurate and give a good idea of what the first motorcycle looked like and how it ran.