The History of American Motorcycles

The History of American Motorcycles

Motorcycles have a very special place in the hearts of many Americans. Even though the first motorcycle was not built in the United States, motorcycles have become just as American as football, blue jeans and apple pie.

Continue reading below to learn about the history of motorcycles in America!

Pedal to Start 

The start of the motorcycle frenzy began with the bicycle craze. Before the bicycle, the primary modes of transportation for most Americans were trains and horses. 

Their options were limited. Consequently, many people were open to new alternatives. 

The Beginnings of Two-wheeled Self-Transport

According to Smithsonian, the core benefits of riding a bicycle in the late 1800s were:

1) It was cheaper and less time-consuming than owning a horse. 

2) Bicycle riders were able to save money they would have otherwise spent on train tickets.

3) Bicycle riders could commute more freely because their time and travel were not constrained by train schedules or train routes.

The bicycle gave people newfound freedom. Sound familiar? Incredibly, this notion of freedom and free-spiritedness has transcended through time from bicycle to motorcycle culture. There were even riding clubs in which men went touring with one another. 

However, touring was a bit different back then. For starters, there were few paved roads. Therefore, bicyclists had to ride over rugged and rocky terrain. Talk about tough!

Safety Concerns

Unfortunately, head injuries became increasingly common, especially amongst those who rode high-wheel bicycles. If they hit an object, they could easily fly over the handle-bars.

Plus, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the closest thing to a bicycle helmet, as we know it today, wasn’t created until 1970. Unfortunately, the head protection created prior to its invention was not particularly effective.

This was primarily due to the lack of availability of certain materials. The protective headgear that was produced was primarily worn by bicycle racers. 

Thankfully, bicycling wasn’t too dangerous as there were not many cars and, of course, automobiles in the late 1800s weren’t nearly as fast as they are today. 

It’s interesting to see the commonalities between the perceived/actual dangers of riding bicycles in the late 19th century and riding motorcycles in the present day. Thanks to advances in science, we now understand the full importance of head protection. 

Helmets have even become an integral part of motorcycle fashion. And, the addition of face shields and visors not only provide additional protection but also add to the cool mystique and badass image of being a rider.

For most Americans, the pros of bicycle riding obviously outweighed the cons. And, people everywhere fell in love with this machine. So much so that it evolved into something even bigger. And, thus, the American motorcycle was born. 

The OGs 

The original motorcycle manufacturers set the stage for those who would follow in their footsteps. These companies delivered exceptional products time and time again. But, it was their connection to their customers that put the icing on the cake. 

To learn about three of the first companies to sell motorcycles in America, continue reading below!

Waltham Manufacturing Company

According to the National Motorcycle Museum, the Orient is most widely known as America’s first production motorcycle. 

The Orient was released in 1899 by a Massachusetts bicycle business named Waltham Manufacturing Company. Charles H. Metz was the inventor of the motorcycle and founder of the company. 

Indian Motorcycle

The above is not to be confused with the first American motorcycle manufacturer, Indian Motorcycle. Indian also started off as a Massachusetts bicycle production business. It was called Hendee Manufacturing Company and was founded by George M. Hendee. 

Indian began producing motorcycles in 1901. Some of the most popular Indian motorcycles today are the Indian Chief and Indian Scout

Harley-Davidson Motor Company

Trailing not far behind was Harley-Davidson. H-D was founded in 1903 by William Sylvester Harley and Arthur Davidson. The two met at Barth Manufacturing, a metal fabricating company, where they both worked. 

In 1901, Harley created the blueprint for a bicycle with a built-in engine. He and his friend/colleague, Arthur, engineered the bike together. And, the rest is history! 

Two of the most popular H-D models today are the Heritage Softail and the Street Glide.

New Kids on the Block

Many of the motorcycle companies founded after Harley and Indian in the early 1900s were unsuccessful. However, by the end of the 20th century, a few strong contenders joined the industry. 

Continue reading below to learn about two of the most popular new school motorcycle brands of the late 1900s.

Big Dog Motorcycles

The company was founded in 1994. And, it was a modest start. Big Dog only manufactured one motorcycle during its first year of business. 

However, by 2007, the company produced over 25 motorcycles per day. And, soon they would become the largest production-custom motorcycle manufacturer in the world! 

Unfortunately, when the Great Recession hit in 2008, and the company was forced to slow production. The aftermath was difficult for many businesses to recover from. 

Sadly, Big Dog had to stop production from 2012 to 2014. The company went back to the drawing board. — Literally. In the midst of it all, Big Dog began to design new models. They reevaluated their business strategy and took this as an opportunity to get back to their roots. 

A few years later, Big Dog was back in business. Their hard work and determination had paid off. 

The most notable features from their 2017 lineup were the updated and redesigned electronic systems, bulletproof transmission and largest motor thus far on the chassis of a Big Dog motorcycle

Victory Motorcycles

The company was founded in 1997, which was nearly 100 years post the creation of America’s first production motorcycle. 

Victory is a brand that was created by the company Polaris. Polaris was based in Minneapolis. They originally only manufactured snowmobiles. 

The company saw an opportunity in the motorcycle industry and jumped on it. They sought to offer an alternative to Harley-Davidson.

Indeed, the company had initial success. They garnered a loyal fan base and created an owner’s group. According to Forbes, The Victory Motorcycle Club had 100+ chapters and over 22,500 members. 

Victory Motorcycle’s first bike was the V92C. To debut the new brand and new bike, Polaris partnered with Indy Car driver Al Unser, Jr. He rode the V92C into the ever-popular Planet Hollywood restaurant at the Mall of America. Talk about iconic!

In 2011, Polaris acquired Indian Motorcycle. According to Forbes, along with Indian’s growing success came brand confusion. 

Consumers had difficulty seeing the two separate value propositions of each motorcycle brand. Polaris attempted to create division between the two companies and market two distinct brand identities but seemingly, to no avail.

Unfortunately, in 2017, the company closed its doors. This decision would hopefully improve Polaris’ profitability and help maintain the company’s competitive stance in the industry. 

Nevertheless, the company wasn’t giving up on motorcycles. They would continue to focus on the growth and development of Indian Motorcycle. 

Back to the Future 

The definition of a motorcycle has evolved over time. Some would argue that a vehicle is not a motorcycle unless it has an engine and is powered by fuel.

A piece of history many do not know is that before the creation of the fuel-powered bicycle, there was a steam-powered bicycle. This was the first self-propelled transportation device with two wheels. 

It was created by a man named Sylvester Roper. According to the American Motorcyclist Association, it made its debut in 1869 in Roper’s hometown, Roxbury, Massachusetts. (So many motorcycle innovations have come from this state!)

Currently, electric-powered motorcycles are the talk of the town. Despite mixed feelings from many in the riding community, there are individuals who love the concept. 

Due to this new wave in technology, numerous electric-only motorcycle brands have emerged. Many of which are headquartered along the west coast. 

Even so, electric motorcycles aren’t just being manufactured by new companies. Harley-Davidson has even created its own electric model, the 2020 Livewire. 

Moreover, two of the most popular American electric motorcycle brands are Zero Motorcycles and Brutus Electric Motorcycle.

Continue reading below to learn more about these two brands that are changing the motorcycle game!

Zero Motorcycles

This company was founded in 2006 in Santa Cruz California. Zero’s founder is Neil Saiki. The company describes him as a “motorcycle enthusiast, aeronautical engineer and innovator.”

Their goal is to create motorcycles that have aspects riders love about traditional motorcycles and combine them with new school flair and technology. 

Brutus Electric Motorcycle

The original Brutus model was developed for two years. It made its debut in 2011. Brutus is a brand of electric motorcycles created by Bell Custom Cycles. 

The company was founded by Chris Bell and is headquartered in Henderson, Nevada. Their goal is to create innovative motorcycles with fresh designs that go against the grain.

In Conclusion 

Many companies have come and gone. There is record of at least 40 more American motorcycle companies that we didn’t get a chance to talk about today. Most of which were only able to remain in business for a few years.

Unsurprisingly, running a successful motorcycle manufacturing company is no easy feat. But, all of the successful motorcycle brands that have stood the test of time seem to have at least three things in common: dedication, innovation and heart.

Are you a fan of the two most popular American motorcycle companies to date? If so, check out our blog posts on the history of Harley-Davidson and the history of Indian Motorcycle

If you could go back in time, what old school model would you ride? Let us know in the comments below! 

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