Monday, June 15, 2015

Automotive Transportation III: Motorcyles

I started this series last summer, I think.  I started this entry on motorcycles months ago, and I'm only just finishing it now.  That probably reflects the degree of my knowledge on motorcycle, or perhaps where I place them in the story of transportation.

Weishaar Winner 100 mi. race, Norton, Kan. Oct. 22, 14. Time 2 hr. 1 1/2 min. World record.
Racing motorcycle, 1914.

Which isn't to say that I despise motorcycles or something.  I don't. And indeed, when I was young I used to occasionally find them fascinating enough that I thought of buying one, and I did know quite a bit about certain ones.  I was fascinated with Harley Davidson's in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in an era when they were still a motorcycle that was associated only with hard core motorcyclists (now they've become sort of the default bike for hard core motorcycle fans and men in their late Middle Age for some reason).  I also once had quite a fascination with BMW motorcycles, and even knew a little about Triumph motorcycles.  I still find Harleys and offroad/street combo BMWs very interesting, but I've gotten over really wanting to buy a BMW or a Harley Sportster.  And that's a good thing.  Motorcycles are really dangerous.

Anyhow, while motorcycle fans would no doubt dispute it, no means of engined transportation has changed less than the motorcycle.  This doesn't mean that they haven't changed at all, they most certainly have, but if you look at a motorcycle from a century ago, it's obviously changed less than the automobile, or about anything else.

Motorcycles were an easy transition from the Safety Bicycle, and even now there's a class of two wheeled vehicle that's a cross between the two. When the internal combustion engine came on, motorizing the safety bike was an obvious thing to do.  Commercial motorcycles arrived as early as cars, and were offered commercially in the late 19th Century.  Royal Enfield, which still makes a motorcycle, albeit in India rather than the UK where it originated, started making motorcycles out of its bicycle shop in 1901.  Triumph had one a year later.  American bicycle racers formed the Indian Motorcycle Company in 1901.  Two years later Indian's big competitor, Harley Davidson, was founded by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson who operated out of a back shop of a friend.  As with automobiles, there were a lot of early manufacturers, which is particularly not surprising with motorcycles, as they were easy to make.

Motorcycles were also comparatively cheap to make and they were fast (and dangerous).  They therefore had, right from the onset, all of the attributes they do now.  They were cheaper than cars (or could be), they were very versatile and could go anywhere. They were fast.  And they were dangerous.  They appealed to many of the same people to whom they appeal now, and many of the same things we associate with them now, even racing, existed from nearly the onset.

They did, however, have a wider appeal in certain quarters than they do now.  This was the case for a variety of reasons, with a significant one being that cars were enormously expensive prior to Henry Ford depressing the price. Even Ford, however, didn't depress the price of cars uniformly and globally, so in some regions of the globe the motorcycle, in spite of its one passenger, open air, two wheeled disadvantages, became competitive with cars.  This was particularly the case in Europe, which caused there to be a lot of early manufacturers of motorcycles in  Europe.

 U.S. Army Harley Davidson's during the Punitive Expedition.

The fascination with motorcycles lead quite quickly to their consideration as a service vehicle, and even before World War One various armies began to experiment with them in this capacity and police forces adopted them as an alternative to horses and cars.  World War One saw widespread use of motorcycles, and while we don't think of the Great War in this fashion, World War One may really be the high point of the military motorcycle, as the vehicle was sufficiently fully developed to offer any advantage then that it would later, which was not true of the automobile. At any rate, all sorts of use, and experimentation, with military motorcycles was seen during World War One.

U.S. Army motorcycle with sidecar in  France, World War One.

Harvard, Military motor cycle squad 
Harvard Military Motorcycle Club

And of course the use of motorcycles by police came fully on in this era, and thereafter, as well.

 Motorcycle policeman, 1923.

Motorcycle policeman, 1932.

Just as with cars, motorcycles took a hit during the Great Depression, although that is somewhat surprising given that they were cheaper than cars. Also following World War One, and into the 1920s and 1930s, the American motorcycle began to take on a family form that it retains to this day, in so far as big street bikes are concerned.  Harley introduced its teardrop shape gas tank in 1925, and it's retained the look ever since.  Big V Twin engines became a feature of American bikes, with Harley introducing its 45 cubic inch V twin in 1929, where as other options were explored elsewhere. BMW, for example, introduced its legendary horizontal opposed twin engine bike in 1923.  BMW also introduced dampered forks in 1935, a true advance in the motorcycle which oddly wasn't copied in bicycles for decades.
 1922 Harley Davidson with sidecar.  Note that in 1922 Harley s had not yet acquired the archetypical appearance that they would shortly have.

World War Two once again saw a lot of motorcycle use, although its somewhat misunderstood.  The U.S. Army did use motorcycles, for example, as did the British, but it was really the European armies that were transportation challenged that made large scale use of them. The Germans, for example, were heavy users of motorcycles, but they were also heavy uses of horses.  The Soviets used a lot of them too, and in both armies they were really an alternative to horses or, in the German case, bicycles.  The Germans used motorcycles, really, as they didn't have the production capacity to make something like the Jeep in sufficient numbers.
German, or perhaps East German, motorcycle and side car of the type used by the Germans during World War Two.  This design is unusual in that the sidecar had a powered axle.  This motorcycle was a hugely successful design and not only saw civilian application, but it was copied by the Soviets who made a basically identical version.  The same motorcycle was made in East Germany in a former BMW plant, under the BMW name, after the Soviets relinquished control of the plant.  A lawsuit ultimately caused the East German BMW to become EMW.

 Military Harley Davidson on display at the Pacific Aviation Museum in Oahu.  This type was widely used by the US Army during the war, but motorcycles have never seen the same extent of use in the U.S. armed forces that they have in other armies.

American motorcycles being used by the Australian army, 1943.  Its not immediately clear to me if these are Harley's or Indians.

Following World War Two when civilian production resumed, some interesting things began to happen. For one thing, and for the first time really, motorcycles in the US became associated with gangs. This was actually a direct byproduct of World War Two, as the early motorcycle gangs were made up of restless returning servicemen.  Indeed, the initial early appearance of the gangs reflected this, as surplus Army Air Corps flying jackets were pressed into service as motorcycle jackets.  The creation of the gangs proved to be enduring, and of course they are still with us.

Following the war, Harley Davidson dominated the American market for some time.  Indian ran into financial trouble immediately post war, and in 1950 it quit offering bikes.  Harley had the entire field to itself for a long time, in terms of American production.  It wasn't without competition, but the competition that did exist simply didn't offer a motorcycle that was really comparable.  Triumphs, for example, were imported into the US, but they weren't a heavy bike like the Harley Davidson.
Triumph cafe racer, probably of 1970s vintage.  Harley Davidson also made a cafe racer, but you very rarely see them.

In the early 60s, however, a revolution in motorcycles occurred when Honda began offering their really light and really cheap motorcycle in the US.  A global standard, and aimed at the bottom dollar, the Honda really took off in the US as it was so affordable.  Purely a town bike, the bike inspired an immediate follow8ing and even an enduring popular song by a band named after the company and which was covered by the Beach Boys.

I'm gonna wake you up early
Cause I'm gonna take a ride with you
We're going down to the Honda shop
I'll tell you what we're gonna do
Put on a ragged sweatshirt
I'll take you anywhere you want me to

First gear (Honda Honda) it's alright (faster faster)
Second gear (little Honda Honda) I lean right (faster faster)
Third gear (Honda Honda) hang on tight (faster faster)
Faster it's alright.

The song pretty much nailed the Honda's appeal.

It's not a big motorcycle
Just a groovy little motorbike
It's more fun that a barrel of monkeys
That two wheel bike
We'll ride on out of the town
To any place I know you like

The Honda was the Anti-Harley, and its appeal was huge.  Soon thereafter the Honda was joined by other cheap Japanese motorcycles, and Harley found itself competing in the American market with motorcycles that were originally aimed at an impoverished Asian market.  Harley took a pounding and by the 1970s it was in serious financial trouble.

At about the same time, the Japanese strongly entered the field with the "dirt bike", a type of motorcycle designed just for off road use. Hugely popular, Harley's attempt to enter the field failed, even though a Spanish manufacturer, Bultaco, was successful at the time.  The dirt bike gave rise to the Enduro, a type of dual use bike.  In recent years, BMW and Triumph has expanded this concept into a new type of motorcycle that can be used for absolutely everything.

 All purpose BMW. Street, touring, off road, it does it all.

Just as with automobiles, the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers were not content to allow Harley to dominate the big vehicle market and by the 1970s Honda had introduce a really large touring bike. The Super Glide found itself competing with the Golden Wing, and it still does today.  

Since the 1970s, Harley has gotten back on its feet, and in doing so it operated to attempt to shed itself of an outlaw image that it had never courted.  It now not only makes its classic cruisers and street bikes, but it competes with the Japanese under the name Buell with their style of motorcycle. The really cheap motorcycle era has ended, save for Royal Enfield which really produces for the Indian market but which imports into the United States.  All of the major players since 1950 are still around and some new ones are as well, so Harely, which is doing well, now competes once again against some American manufacturers.

Technologically, motorcycles  bear a striking resemblance to the original product, although there have been advances in the engines and a belt  has replaced the chain, and there have been other changes as well. Still, they very closely resemble the original products.



But wait, you didn't touch on motor scooters!  Aren't they motorcycles?

Modern motor scooter

I think they are, but as sort of a distinct category of the bike, apparently a lot of people don't.  At least in my state, you need a special license to operate a motorcycle, but not a motor scooter.  I have no idea why that's the case, but it is.  Somehow the authorities must not regard them as being as dangerous, although I'm sure they are or at least darned near are.

The scooter is a low powered motorcycle with a unique platform. They're just made for local transportation, not "over the road", as it were.  They date back to the teens, at least, and have a long history we really don't think of much.  

Cushman, a company that specialized in low powered vehicles, introduced a scooter into the American market in 1936.  It went on to produce one, the Model 53, that was designed for use by U.S. airborne troops during World War Two, although the extent to which they were used is something that I have no idea of.  Other Cushman scooters were purchased by the Army for local use in the United States.

Behind this military bicycle, a Cushman scooter is visilbe.

Another Cushman motor scooter, this one also showing World War Two colors for the U.S. Army.

It was really after World War Two, however, when we start to really think of scooters.  This is partially due, at least, to the introduction of the Vespa after World War Two. Somehow, a major reconsideration of the Italian culture in the US occurred in the 1950s, and the Italians went from being considered backwards and destitute to being the coolest thing ever.  This must have been a very odd experience for Italians, who went from being treated as cowardly peasants to the global standard setters for style in less than a generation, and who found that they were suddenly admired on everything, and this included their vehicles.  Vespas, a light scooter, were regarded as very cool.

Not too surprisingly, the Vespa craze died off, but it's revived in recent years and the popularity of scooters with it.  Now, once again, scooters are very common.  A while back on  a trip to Denver they were literally everywhere, although I'd personally live in fear of driving one in that big city.

While mentioning scooters, I probably ought to conclude with the other species in this genus, and there are  few.  Minibikes are one. These are simply miniature motorcycles that were designed for children.  These tiny motorcycles were hugely popular in the 1970s, but they've passed by the wayside now, and even though they still exist, they aren't as common as they once were, and I'm glad. They always struck me as really dangerous.

"Trikes", motorized three wheeled vehicles are also closely associated with motorcycles, probably because they were often originally built from one.  They're offered commercially now and you see variants of them around.  They're a vehicle I know very little about, other than that they've been around for quite awhile and are popular to some degree with those to whom motorcycles appeal, but who don't want a two wheeled vehicle.


Related threads:

Automotive Transportation I:  Trucks and Lorries.

Automotive Transportation II:  Cars.

Air Transportation.


Riding Bicycles.

Rail Transportation

The Rise and Decline of the SUV

Water Transportation


No comments: