There are two reasons that the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller German brand of antique motorcycles is notable in the history of motorcycles. First, they were the world’s first production motorcycle. Second, they were the first to use the term “motorcycles” – motorrad in German translates into the word motorcycles in English.
As with many of the early pioneers in motorized two-wheeled and three-wheeled vehicles, the Hildebrand brothers, Heinrich and Wilhelm, started off using steam engines in bicycle frames. After they saw Gottlieb Daimler’s internal combustion engine motorcycle, they decided to move from steam-powered engines to internal combustion engines.
The brothers teamed up with the German engineer Alois Wolfmuller and his mechanic, Hans Geisenhof, to produce their internal combustion motorrad. In early 1894, they were granted a patent for their creation under the name Motofahrrad-Fabrik Hildebrand & Wolfmuller.
The Hildebrand & Wolfmuller engine design was a water-cooled, four-stroke parallel 1,488cc twin-cylinder. This was a gigantic engine for this era. Just consider that Harley-Davidson did not have an engine with this much displacement until the Twin Cam 95ci over 100 years later! The engine put out 2.5bhp at 240 RPM and with the motorcycle weighing only 110lbs, it could reach a top speed of almost 30mph, which was fast during the infancy of a non-railed motorized vehicle.
The power was transferred to the rear wheel via the flywheel, which was problematic because it caused the power to be erratic. It used locomotive-style pushrods that were linked directly to the engine’s pistons. The pushrods were returned to their starting position by two large rubber straps on each side of the motorcycle.
Two of the motorcycles were raced in Italy in 1895 in the Turin-Asti-Turin motorcycle and car race. They finished second and third behind the Daimler car. Although this served as a good showing for the performance of the bikes, the next race they entered into showed some of the design’s weaknesses. In the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris, they both were only able to complete about half the race.
There were a few other reasons the company went under. First, there were no clutch or pedals, which meant the rider would have to push-start the bike and jump on the moving motorcycle once the engine turned over. Also, without a clutch, this meant that the bike would have to be turned off and restarted each time it needed to make a stop, which was not attractive for an average rider. Two other viability issues of the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller’s were relatively high price and lots of competition.
In 1897, both the German and French ventures collapsed. Estimates of upwards of two thousand of the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller’s were made from 1894 until when the factory closed in 1919, but there are only a very limited number of surviving motorads. Let us know what you think on social media.