Another aspect of the history of motorcycles that I would like
to cover is the evolution of motorcycle racing during the early
years. As one writer suggested the first race probably occurred
the very first time two motorcyclist happened upon each on the road
while out for a spin. While not the first official race, I can just
imagine those two brave souls astride their pride and joy, and then,
after a moment of eying each others machines and wondering which
was the fastest, twisting the throttle wide open to go roaring off
down the road, reaching a speed several times faster than any horse!
Given the first machines, their lack of suspension, and the conditions
of the roads at the time, I'm sure it must have been a most exhilarating
Photo by Daniel K. Statnekov
As for recorded events the records are somewhat clearer, though here
again we find an area of history that has more than a single claim as
to where and when the first race involving just motorcycles took place.
From the site of Motorcycle.com we find this in an article by Glenn Le
Santo, "The earliest claim I unearthed was at Sheen House, Richmond,
Surrey, [England] on November 29, 1897. The race distance was over one
mile and was won by Charles Jarrot in a time of 2 minutes and 8 seconds
on a Fournier." Prior to that there was the European Paris-Rouen
event where both cars and motorcycles raced side by side as early as 1894,
though the motorcycles involved were mostly three wheelers. As with most
of the early racing accident rates were very high for both cars and motorcycles,
safety devices or apparel unheard of, and the races were as much a test
of shear endurance of machine and operator as they were of speed and/or
In 1904 during the Paris Car and Bike Show, there occurred the first
meeting of the Federation Internationale de Motorcycles Clubs and it agreed
to base its operation in Paris. The first European Grand Prix was held
a few years later in Patzau, Austro-Hungary on July 8, 1906.
In America motorized racing was also being introduced. On June 1, 1896
Sylvester Roper showed up at a bicycle board track riding a one of his
steam powered two-wheelers. When the young racers discovered it was Mr.
Ropers intention to race this contraption on the indoor 1/3 mile track
against the bicyclists they just laughed. Imagine a 73 year old man aboard
this outlandish machine claiming to not only be able to keep pace with
them, but to actually win. So the race was on and at the end of the three
lap event Sylvester not only bested the other racers but did so at a pace
of some 30 miles an hour. He then tried for even faster speeds, but unfortunately
the front wheel started to come loose and he was thrown off the track
and into the sand surrounding it. When the spectators rushed up it became
evident that Mr. Roper was dead. It was later determined that he had died
of heart failure, not as a result of the accident itself. Thus ended the
first entry of a motor bicycle in American racing history.
Right around the turn of the century Charles H. Metz, president of Waltham
Enterprises began experimenting with a motorized tandem trainer for pacing
his team of bicycle racers. Encouraged by his success he soon developed
a commercial one-man motor bicycle which he introduced at the Charles
River Race Track in July of 1900. He entered his "Orient" in
what was to be the first recorded motorcycle speed contest and it turned
in a time of 7 minutes for a 5 mile run. Soon the Orient appeared for
sale to the public and quickly gain popularity.
Photo by Daniel K. Statnekov
A little less than a year after the introduction of the Orient,
the first American motorcycle only race took place in May of 1901
at a 1 mile horse racing track in Las Angeles. Ralph Hamlin aboard
an Orient won the completion against 3 other entries by completing
the 10 lap race in 18 and half minutes. A very respectable time
considering the track conditions and technology of the times.
In May of the following year the first road race took place in
the US between Irvington and Milburn NJ with an Orient again winning
with an average speed of 31 mph. By this time motorized two-wheelers
were cropping up everywhere and racing was well on it's way to claiming
a larger and larger audience. In the same year Glenn H. Curtiss,
later of airplane engine fame, made a name for himself by turning
in the fastest time at a Labor Day race in NY on a machine of his
own design and build.
Photo by Daniel K. Statnekov
He then gained additional notoriety by winning the first American hill
climb, and setting a land speed record Providence RI at 63.8 mph over
a one mile course. His greatest claim to fame came in 1907 when he set
a land speed record of 136.36 mph on Ormond beach, FL on an experiential
8 cylinder, shaft driven motorcycle. Unfortunately he failed to set an
"official" record as the rear drive broke apart on the return
run. None the less his record stood for some years. With the ever growing
popularity of motor sport racing, both 4 and 2 wheeled, a number of road
racing events sprang up across the country. These mostly consisted of
distance races between cities using public roads. As a consequence of
its popularity, more and more manufacturers begin designing and building
machines specifically for the racing circuit. This naturally lead to many
improvements in motorcycles, which in turn found their way into the machines
built for the general public.
Prior to road racing on private courses and while public roads
were still being used, board tracks were also gaining popularity
among the motorcycle racing fans. Although originally designed for
bicycle racing they lent themselves well to the first motorcycle
races in the US. While the early races were held on the "standard"
bicycle tracks, as the speed of motorcycles increased larger and
sturdier tracks were built for the motor circuit. The first of these
was opened in 1909 in LA by John S. Prince and was named the Coliseum
Motordrome. At 3.5 laps per mile it was twice as long as the standard
bicycle track or Velodrome (named after the first bicycle) and could
accommodate higher speeds and more machines per race than was previously
possible on the Velodrome tracks.
As more and more motordromes began to spring up around the country the
American public went wild at the spectacle of men racing at break neck
speeds on two wheels. The machines being designed for board tracks lacked
brakes or throttles, and were meant to be run flat out at full throttle
for the entire course, thus adding to the already present element of danger.
It is thus not surprising that these early racers where considered to
be such dare devils! Unfortunately, as speeds increased so did rider fatalities
and several motordromes were closed by local and state officials.
One of the first measured course races in the US took place through the
streets of Venice, CA. As it, and other measured courses races gained
popularity, companies such as Harley Davidson began to sponsor racing
teams to promote their products, and soon road racing started coming into
it's own. Prior to this, most road races where more in the form of "endurance"
races between distant cities, some being 400 or more miles. As competition
became more and more fierce the major motorcycle companies began to spend
significant amounts of money in an effort to build ever faster machines
for the racing circuit. In the 1915 event, at Venice, CA., then promoted
by Paul "Dare Devil" Durkum, the course included not only standard
road surfaces, but also wooden banked turns he designed specifically for
Dirt track, or speedway, racing was also gaining some popularity, though
they seem to have been limited at first mostly to fair grounds. There
does not seem to have been the popularity for this form of racing as with
board track, which seems to have enjoyed the greatest following in the
early years of racing. No doubt there were any number of unofficial races
held throughout the country, and certainly the popularity of country fairs
in those days would have lent themselves to these "amateur"
races. When the Federation of American Motorcyclist formed, they became
the regulatory agency for racing in the US, just as the FIM was in Europe
and The FAM, forerunner of the AMA, began to sponsor many of the events.
Meanwhile back in Europe, the Isle of Man TT race was becoming ever popular.
By 1910 it was considered to be "the" race in all of Europe.
A good showing there almost guaranteed success in marketing the winning
company's machines to the general public.
Unfortunately the advent of the coming world war turned America's,
as well as much of Europe's, attention to other matters and most
motorcycle manufacturers gave up their interest in sponsoring race
teams until after the war ended. After the war, all but the big
three in the US, namely H-D, Indian and Excelsior, were, for the
most part, out of picture in terms of sponsoring teams or building
machines specifically for the racing circuit. The same seems to
also hold true for the European manufacturers, only the larger companies
could afford the cost of sponsoring racing teams or building race
Photo from Lee Allen courtesy of Melena Schneider
In the twenties hill climbing also became more popular as a form of competition
in the US, especially as the machines gained ever increasing horsepower
and the hills chosen for these events became ever more steep. Until the
depression era dampened Americas spirit for racing, when there just wasn't
the money to support motor racing, motor sports enjoyed an ever widening
audience. There is no doubt that many of the advances in machine design
can be directly attributed to those early years of motorcycle racing and
all though many motor sport fans and historians feel that the "golden
age" of racing came to a close in the late 20's, it continues to
enjoy a popularity among those who truly appreciate the thrill of speed
and the daring of those who continue to push for ever faster times on
Now here is an interesting machine! Twin cylinder, two-stroke water
cooled, as were all Scotts, it also had a two-speed gearbox. Notice
the rocker pedal just above the footrest, this shifted and acted
as a clutch for shifting between gears. Scott latter won fame starting
in 1910 at the famous Isle of Man TT races by being the first two-stroke
winner. In 1911 it gained the title of fastest average speed for
the next three years as well as wining in 1912 and 1913.
This incorporated a single cylinder 282 Cm, single speed belt drive,
equipped with front suspension with rigid rear frame. Weight, 45
Kilograms with a top speed of 45 km.h .
1907 HD single, single speed belt drive. Note the hand operated
"clutch" that placed tension on the belt thus engaging
motor to wheel. This was the year HD incorporated, added additional
employees for a total of 18 and expanded the workshop to double
Harley Davidson, 1907
Harley Davidson Model 7, 1911
The factory offered four singles with either 26- or 28-inch wheels
(wheels were measured from the outer edge of the tire back then),
and either battery or magneto ignition. These were referred to as
the Model 7. Single cylinder, single-belt drive, battery ignition,
4.34 HP, 35 c.i., 28-(or 26) inch wheels.
Model 11J - twin-cylinder, twin-chain drive, generator, 8.68 HP,
60.34 c.i. equipped with sidecar.
Harley Davidson Model 11J w sidecar, 1915
Flying Merkel Model V, 1911
50 cubic inch Inlet Over Exhaust V-twin. 6 hp with a top speed
of 60 mph. Last year this model was produced in the Pottstown, PA
7 hp Twin, 3speed tank shift, twin 6 volt batteries $325 new. First
electric start motorcycle.
Indian V-twin, 1914
Indian Boardracer, 1920
Here we have a typical Board Track Racer from Indian. This is an
Indian 8 valve twin. Note that while there is a rear brake, it has
been disconnected, as brakes and throttle were not used in board
Personally I find this one a particular stunner. While it is very
similar to other machines of the time, there is something about
this machine that just plain grabs me. Perhaps it the way the cylinders
seem to merge with the curvature of the frame, or the clean nickel
alloy sheen of the machined parts, the subdued color scheme. This
is a truly awesome machine, and indeed lives up to the company's
claim of "Mechanical Perfection". It did incorporate a
rather advanced mechanical design in that it had two crankshafts
thus allowing both cylinders to reach top end simultaneously and
thereby providing a smooth power stroke to the rear wheel. Specifications:
31 c.i., twin cylinder, chain drive, with pedal start and hand operated
three speed gearbox.