How Far We’ve Come

Story by David Booth//
April 25 2023

A little more than a month ago, an example of the world’s first gasoline-fuelled production motorcycle sold at a Bonhams auction. This particular 1894 Hildebrand and Wolfmüller, engine number 69, is thought to be the earliest example of a motorcycle that you or I — or, more accurately, our ancestors — could have bought just by walking into a shop. It sold for almost £200,000, or more than CDN$300,000.

Now, the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller is not the world’s first production bike. There were some — I wouldn’t say plenty — steam-powered two-wheelers operating as much as 30 years earlier. Nor was it the first gas-fuelled motorcycle, that honour belonging to the famous Gottlieb Daimler’s gasoline-engined Einspur built in 1885. But that was a one-off.

The Hildebrand and Wolfmüller — with estimates of its entire production being anywhere between 800 and 2,000 — was the first fossil-fuelled production motorcycle. In other words, it’s the perfect foil to look back at how far we’ve come, lo these last 129 years.

The first thing you should know is that the world’s first gasoline production bike was a four-stroke, not a two-stroke ring-a-ding. A four-stroke twin, in fact, its displacement a hefty 1,488 cubic centimetres.

That doesn’t mean it was a powerhouse. Hildebrand and Wolfmüller boasted just two horsepower. Even more incredibly, its redline was barely 240 rpm. As we’ve recently covered, you can walk into any local Kawasaki store today and, with less than CAD$10,000, buy a little ZX-4R, which, if you Woolich ECU-flash its silly restrictions, will spin to 16,000 rpm. Our idle is five times yesteryear’s redline, and even a cheap little tiddler can spin almost 70 times as high. If you’re looking for the shortest possible synopsis of piston-powered modernity, you need read no further.

That’s not all its pre-Mesozoic absurdities. Transmissions, clutches and chain drives not yet invented, Hildebrand and Wolfmüller bypassed the whole “powertrain” shebang and just connected the pistons directly to the rear wheel. Indeed, the rear wheel is both the crankshaft and the flywheel. You see, the connecting rods go all the way from the horizontal cylinders to the rear wheel, where there’s a slight offset arm — the crank “journal” that creates the “stroke” — that connects to the rear axle which, as I said, works as a crankshaft proper. That, as I mentioned, means the solid rear wheel also doubles as the flywheel. And, no, there’s no clutch. One presumes that, at the dawn of motoring, there were precious few stoplights and the few interruptions to forward travel could be handled by doing donuts until the obstruction passed.

The other thing that intrigues about this most ancient of production bikes is its hot-tube ignition system. Before the advent of the first spark plugs — and the magnetos that triggered them — combustion was initiated by what was essentially a Bunsen burner. Yes, you read that right. That most primitive of heating devices, the ones that were included in the “ages 3 to 6” chemistry sets of my youth, is that which ignited the fuel mixture on the compression stroke.
Essentially, said Bunsen burner heated up a tube, usually made of platinum, protruding into the cylinder wall. Start-up required firing the Bunsen burner with methylated spirits, shutting down the system literally required blowing out the burner and the placement of the tube in the cylinder wall determined ignition timing. Said timing was, no imagination needed, neither rapid nor accurate; hence that redline of 240 revs.

Nor was it particularly reliable, the ignition systems of the day requiring frequent repair. Thankfully, that required little more than replacing a wick or, in a pinch, the entire platinum tube. Occasionally, one of the asbestos washers that sealed the tube-cylinder wall interface — you wouldn’t want to lose any of the meagre compression the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller boasted, now would you — would fail. But you could diagnose that by — don’t try this at home, kids — by pouring gas into the cylinder and then lighting a match near the suspected leak to see if the spewing gas caught fire. Ah, the good ole days; when men were men and mechanics self-immolated!

The Hildebrand and Wolfmüller wasn’t all crudity. The engine, for instance, was liquid-cooled, a technology that would not become fully commonplace until at least a hundred years later. Better yet, the rear fender served as radiator, a weight-savings even the latest superbikes haven’t yet mastered. And the oil was carried in the frame. Yes, despite Erik Buell’s claim to innovation, the world’s very first production motorcycle used its frame tube as an oil reservoir. Ignition systems may have come a long way, baby, but oil tanks, not so much.

Nonetheless, top speed was limited to 50 km/h and braking accomplished by a wooden block rubbing against the front tire. Startup was pushing the bike fast enough for the combustion process to be initiated and then hopping aboard. In other words, the starting line procedure of early Grand Prix racing.
We live in a golden age of internal combustion motorcycling, the lowliest of production bikes far beyond even the imagination of the earliest engineers. Let’s hope that the electric motorcycles that are claimed to be our future progress at an even faster pace.


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