History of the Motorcycle Part III

By Jeffry L’H. Tank

Early Racing

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 experience!

History of motorcycles
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 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 distance.

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.

History of motorcycles
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.

History of motorcycles
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.

History of motorcycles
Photo a still from only known film of board track racing still existing, dates from 1919-20 from

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 the race.

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 only machines.

History of motorcycles
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 the track.

The following photos are courtesy of Bert Knoester. Visit his web site at

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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.


Scott 1905
Scott, 1905
Deronziere 1907
Deronziere, 1907

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 its area.

Harley Davidson 1907
Harley Davidson, 1907


Harley Davidson Model 7 1911
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 sidecare 1915
Harley Davidson Model 11J w sidecar, 1915


Flying Merkel Model V 1911
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 factory.

7 hp Twin, 3speed tank shift, twin 6 volt batteries $325 new. First electric start motorcycle.

Indian V-twin - 1914
Indian V-twin, 1914


Indian Boardracer - 1920
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 track racing.

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.

Iver Johnson Model 15-7 - 1915
Iver Johnson Model 15-7, 1915



© Jeffry L’H. Tank

Part I | Part II

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