The motorcycle has entered its third century, and the two-wheeler has come a long way from its origins as a bicycle with an engine. It’s now celebrated in museums and is revered as a symbol of rebellion and freedom. With the meteoric rise in gas prices in the first decade of the 21st century, many former riders are returning to motorcycles to save on gas and to create less impact on the environment.
The first motorized two-wheeler was built by Sylvester Howard Roper of Massachusetts in 1867. The inventor demonstrated his steam-powered motorbike at fairs along the East Coast. It featured handgrip twist throttle and a two-cylinder engine fired by coal. It did not catch on.
The German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach produced the Reitwagen (“riding car”), the first gas-powered bike, in 1885. The German company Hildebrand & Wolfmuller debuted the first bikes for sale to the public in 1894.
All the major motorcycle brands that are still around today were founded in the period of 1902 to 1955: Triumph (1902), Harley-Davidson (1903), Honda (1946), Suzuki (1952), Kawasaki (1954) and Yamaha (1955).
Motorcycles are classified as either street or off-road. Off-road bikes are built to withstand the vagaries of traveling over unpaved terrain. There are three basic types of street motorcycle. A standard bike usually doesn’t have the room for lots of luggage or accessories, and the rider is positioned upright with his knees below his waist. Cruisers are larger, with lots of room for baggage and other extras; the cruiser rider usually sits low in the saddle, reclined back a little, arms extended farther to the handlebars. The third category, the sport bike, usually has plastic fairings and is much lighter, faster and more maneuverable than standards and cruisers; the riding profile is a lean toward the handlebars. Each of these categories has sub-categories of specialized motorbikes, including the sport tourer, which has more room for luggage and a more upright rider profile.
Motorcycle sales worldwide grew by 6.5 percent during the economic downturn of 2008, according to Bloomberg.com. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that motorcycle registrations in the United States grew by 51 percent between 2000 and 2005.
Fatal accidents involving motorcycles are far higher than for cars. Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2005 Fatality Analysis Reporting System report (the latest available as of this writing) indicates there were 18.62 car crashes resulting in a fatality per 100,000 passenger cars in that year, compared to 75.19 fatalities per 100,000 registered motorcycles. The biggest causes of motorcycle rider fatalities are passenger vehicles making an illegal turn into the rider and riders taking turns too wide and going off the road.
The United States government does not require fuel emissions standards for motorcycles, and the industry does not have a standardized method for computing miles per gallon. Modern motorcycles average around 50 miles per gallon.