ON TWO WHEELS –
Motorcycles From The Beginning

By Bill Dobbins
www.billdobbinsphotography.com

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Early motorcycles were an inexpensive form of transportation. In America, they needed to produce sufficient power for traveling long distances across the vast American landscape.

We live at a time when there are so many people riding motorcycles that younger people probably won’t realize that they were not always this popular and, in fact, there was some social stigma associated with riding them.  For example, back in the 1970s – which I was actually riding a Honda (I had my share of Harleys afterward) – a driver who cut me off got so scared when I pulled up beside him that he brandished a pistol at me.

It was really only after World War II that the “outlaw” aspect of motorcycles was established.  A lot of young men who served in the war decided they no longer wanted a regimented life and began experimenting with alternate lifestyles.  This was when you saw the emergence of surfers, beatniks, bodybuilders – and motorcycle clubs like the Hell’s Angeles and the Boozefighters.

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Eddie Davenport of Tulare, California on a motorcycle, with August “Gus” Deserpa standing behind and left, at 526 San Benito Street, Hollister, California. July 4, 1947 photo by the San Francisco Chronicle’s photographer Barney Petersen. The photo was later discovered to have been staged.

There were all sorts of outlaw motorcycle movies made after this, but the first and maybe the most influential was The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando.  In this film, a motorcycle game takes over a small town and eventually causes a riot.  The movie was based on an actual event that took place in Hollister, CA in 1948.  The motorcyclists involved were the Boozefighters and the riot was not as serious as depicted in the movie.  As a matter of fact, the most famous photo published of the event turned out later to have been staged.

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Honda was a pioneer in promoting the motorcycle as fun transportation for the masses.
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It wasn’t until recently that many women rode motorcycles. Somehow these ladies don’t seem to be dressed for the occasion.

Some years later Honda started marketing relatively inexpensive, user-friendly motorcycles for everyday transportation to a wider public, using the slogan “You Meet the Nicest People On A Honda.”  This was the point at which motorcycling began to become more respectable – as it had been when this kind of machine was first introduced.

First, there was the bicycle and then inventors began finding ways of adding some kind of motive power to them.  This included steam, electric and internal combustion engines.

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The first successful motorcycles were just bicycles with small internal combustion engines.
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An early Harley-Davison motorcycle.
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Of course, once there were two motorcycles together somebody decided to race. Brakes? Who needs brakes?

In the decade from the late 1880s, dozens of designs and machines emerged, particularly in Germany and in England, and soon spread to America.[12] During this early period of motorcycle history, there were many manufacturers since bicycle makers were adapting their designs for the new internal combustion engine.

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The “biker” style emerges. The big V-Twin allowed for traveling long distances across the American landscape.

In 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller became the first series production motorcycle, and the first to be called a “motorcycle” (German: Motorrad).[10][11][13][14] However, only a few hundred examples of this motorcycle were ever built. The first instance of the term “motor cycle” also appears in English the same year in materials promoting machines developed by E.J. Pennington,[15] although Pennington’s motorcycles never progressed past the prototype stage.[16]

Excelsior Motor Company, originally a bicycle-manufacturing company based in Coventry in Warwickshire (England), began production of their first motorcycle model in 1896, available for purchase by the public. The first production motorcycle in the US was the Orient-Aster, built by Charles Metz in 1898 at his factory in Waltham, Massachusetts.

In 1898, Peugeot Motorcycles presents at the Paris Motorshow the first motorcycle equipped with a Dion-Bouton motor. Peugeot Motocycles remains the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. – Wikipedia

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This 1913 Excelsior allowed you to speed along the road propelled by 10 HP. The price was not cheap compared to a bicycle, but a lot less than a car.

This was the period in which the internal combustion engine was being developed for early motor cars, and this type of motor was also adapted for use in motorcycles.   As the engines became more powerful and designs outgrew the bicycle origins, the number of motorcycle producers increased. Many of the nineteenth-century inventors who worked on early motorcycles often moved on to other inventions. Daimler and Roper, for example, both went on to develop automobiles.

At the turn of the 20th century, the first major mass-production firms emerged.

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Harley-Davison has continued to be one of the most iconic motorcycle brands of all time.

Two of the early motorcycle companies whose names are still around today were Harley Davison and Indian.  Both these machines used large displacement, V-Twin engines that were powerful and durable enough to travel some distance along America’s fast-developing network of roads.  They were also much less expensive than automobiles so riders didn’t have to spend a lot of money in order to be able to travel from town to town, or even state to state.

The development of motorcycles was also enhanced by their extensive use by the military in World War II and in police forces across the country afterward.

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A big V-Twin motorcycle permitted police to patrol American roads on relatively inexpensive bikes that could go as fast as the automobiles they were trying to catch.
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Armies on all sides have made us of the motorcycle in war time.

Motorcycle producers after World War II, particularly in Europe, were less concerned in the powerful, V-Twin type of biked than designing practical, economical transportation.  You saw the introduction of the motor scooter such as the ones from Vespa.  And then a series of more lightweight bikes from various manufacturers.

The BSA Group purchased Triumph Motorcycles in 1951 to become the largest producer of motorcycles in the world.  The German NSU was the largest manufacturer from 1955 until 1959 when Honda became the largest manufacturer.[36][37]

A 1962 Triumph Bonneville represents the popularity of British motorcycles at that time

British manufacturers Triumph, BSA, and Norton retained a dominant position in some markets until the rise of the Japanese manufacturers, led by Honda, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The role of the motorcycle shifted in the 1960s, from the practical transportation to a lifestle. It became part of an image, of status, a cultural icon for individualism, a prop in Hollywood B-movies.[12]

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The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. The first outlaw biker movie. Brando, by the way, road a Triumph in the film, not a Harley.

By the way, the bike ridden by the “outlaw” played by Marlon Brandon was a Triumph, not a Harley.  Not something you’d see in the various outlaw biker movies made in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond.

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Peter Fonda in The Wild Angeles presented a very clean-up version of the outlaw biker. These biker clubs are now all over the world and are frequently enaged in very serious types of organized crime.
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The characters in Easy Rider finance their new bikes and ride across America by doing a coke deal with now-incarcerated music producer Phil Spector.

One of the most successful of biker movies as Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.  Two long-haired dudes to a coke deal at LAX, use the money to build some snazzy bikes and take off to ride from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras.  Illustrating the paranoia of the 1960s, they don’t make it – but are killed with a shotgun by a redneck in a pick-up truck.

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Before Honda starting promoting motorcycles for everyone, BSA was doing the same thing.
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The Honda 750 was an amazing bike. It was relatively lightweight, powerful, handled well and was virtually maintenance free.
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Back at the beginning, some motorcycle enthusiasts. For the cost of one of these vintage machines in good shape today you could buy a very nice car.

Two things most people don’t realize about this movie.  The first is that the guy in the Rolls Royce that buys the coke was played by music producer Phil Spector, now serving time for murdering a model.  The second is the meaning of “easy rider.”  That is the name for a prostitute’s “fancy man,” the boyfriend she dresses up and spends money on to advertise her status.  The question is whether or not the producers of the movie actually knew what the term meant.

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Actors Kurt Russel and Sam Elliot on Harleys for a biker charity run.  Photo by Bill Dobbins

In any event, there are not only millions of motorcycles in the US and in Europe but in many places in Asia, the number of motorcycles, motorbikes, and scooters seems to be astronomical.  Again, these are mostly smaller, lighter and less expensive machines than the types of sport and racing motorcycles, tourers and cruisers, that you see more often in the west.

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Safety first when it comes to riding. This is dangerous. The young woman should be wearing a helmet.

All im all, a long way from “Johnny” in The Wild One, who when asked what he was rebelling against, replied, “What have you got?

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Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles.  His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)

WEBSITES

BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
www.billdobbinsphotography.com

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www.billdobbinsart.com

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EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com

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We all have to start somewhere. Me and my chopped Honda 450 in 1976.
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I’ve had too many motorcycles, including three Harley’s. This is my Ducati SPS race bike. I found I could afford to own it, but like a Ferrari, it was too expensive to own.
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I’ve been on runs with Angeles. It pays to mind your manners and watch your mouth. These are not boy scouts nor “movie bikers.”  Photo by Bill Dobbins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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