Motorcycle Features

From penny farthing to motorcycle


While trapsing around Tasmania we came across the Penny Farthing Championships in Evandale. This annual festival attracts old-bicycle afficiandos from around the world and got us thinking about the evolution of the motorcycle.



It all started with the velocipede and that term was probably first coined by Karl von Drais to describe for the French his German-designed ‘dandy horse’, which he had developed in 1817. Velocipede is today mainly used as a collective term for forerunners of the mono-wheel, unicycle and bicycle that were developed between 1817 and 1880.

All these early designs had pedals, powering front wheel cranks, before the development of chain and shaft drives.

Mid-1800s machines earned the name of ‘bone shakers’, because of the harsh ride that resulted from wooden-spoke wheels shod with iron tyres, running on cobblestone roads. Ride quality was improved slightly by putting a long leaf spring between the frame and the bike seat.

As roads became smoother there was a greater need for speed and bicycle makers worked out that a bigger front wheel provided more wheel speed per revolution of the pedal crank. Coincidentally, a larger front wheel – then with thick wire spokes and rubber tyre – rode much better as well.

The nickname penny farthing was appropriate in the UK, where the comparative wheel sizes mimicked the difference between a penny and a farthing (quarter penny).

The downside of a very large front wheel, as on the final development of the penny farthing bicycle, was a very high seating position. Falls were common and rider injuries were often serious.



At the 2023 Penny Farthing Championships in Evandale, Tasmania, we witnessed the speed of the big-wheeled bikes as appropriately-attired riders threw caution to the wind and pedalled furiously around the town streets. The keen competitors had newly made bicycles with strong, lightweight frames and aluminium rims.


A 2022 penny farthing racing model


One of the events was the ‘slow race’ where the aim was to keep moving as slowly as possible over a short course. We witnessed some falls in the process, where riders were protected from head injury by helmets.



The first bicycle to be called a ‘safety bicycle’ were designed by the English engineers Thomas Humber in 1868 and improved further by Harry John Lawson in 1876. The wheels were the same diameter and the rider’s feet were within reach of the ground.

The pedals powered the rear wheel and while the original models used treadles to transfer power to the rear wheel, the later models used chain drive that had previously been used on tricycles.



The first internal combustion, petroleum fuelled motorcycle was the Daimler Reitwagen (riding car). It was designed and built by the German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1885. However, it had zero degrees of steering axis angle and no fork offset, and thus relied on two outrigger wheels to remain upright while turning.

It was designed as a lightweight, easily serviced testbed for their new engine, rather than a true prototype vehicle.


In 1894, Hildebrand & Wolfmüller produced the first series production vehicle to be called a motorcycle (Motorrad).

Excelsior Motor Company, originally a bicycle manufacturing company based in Coventry, England, began production of its first motorcycle in 1896, followed by Triumph in 1898. The first production motorcycle in the US was the Orient-Aster, built by Charles Metz in 1898 at his factory in Waltham, Massachusetts.


1902 Orient motorcycle – David McEddy


The Triumph Model H is regarded by many experts as the first modern motorcycle. Introduced in 1915, it had a 550cc air-cooled, side-valve, four-stroke engine with a three-speed gearbox and belt transmission. It was so popular with soldiers during WWI and with post-War civilian users that it was nicknamed the Trusty Triumph.

The rest is history!


Stay informed and receive our updates

From Jim Gibson & Allan Whiting directly to your inbox

You have Successfully Subscribed!