Dec. 6, 1903: MOTOR CYCLE MONSTROSITIES, By H. O. Duncan.

W.E. Cook, winner of the first-ever race at Brooklands in 1907 on an NLG-Peugeot, also raced ‘monsters’ like this much larger NLG-Peugeot. With a 2714cc v-twin OHV motor, the included cylinder angle of 90deg made a perfectly balanced engine, but what a beast!  The machine has since been lost, but was replicated recently by Pavel Malanik. [The Vintagent Archive]
“Picture to yourself a motor cycle fitted with four huge cylinders, long raking handle-bars, exaggerated petrol tanks, hideous silencers, etc., such as made its appearance to compete in the hill-climbing competition at Gaillon last season, not to speak of half a dozen other weird monsters of the same type and similar eccentricities, which also turned up on the same occasion. No one who has even an elementary knowledge of what a motor cycle should be imagines for an instant that the construction of machines of the above kind will help on the evolution of motor cycles for practical use…”

From Aldo Carrer’s wonderful book ‘Gli Albori di Motociclette’ (The Dawn of the Motorcycle). This shot was taken in 1903, with the machine recording ‘over 100km/h’ on the Parc de Princes track in Paris. [Aldo Carrer Collection]
“The 1903 private purchaser will be in total ignorance of the monstrosity that in reality “did the trick,” but the manufacturer has obtained his point on the way of utilising a freak machine which no sensible man would ever purchase, to advertise his wares! In all probability the standard 1 3/4 h.p motor bicycle placed upon the market would not get halfway up the hill without the assistance of laborious pedalling, and in all probability would stick halfway The owner would have to dismount and push, or, possibly, call in the assistance of the small boys, who for a few pence “represent extra horse power for weak motorists” on Sundays and fete days!”

Marius Thé with a Buchet single-cylinder racer in 1903. Marius began racing for Peugeot in 1896! [From Ixion’s ‘Motor Cycle Reminiscences’]
“Taking another view of the situation, what mechanical or commercial value can be placed upon these monstrosities, used as they are upon a straight mile or kilometre, or, what is an even worse test of their efficiency, upon the cemented racing paths. They certainly do harm to the sport, and even more to the pastime, from the mere fact that the spectators, seeing a motor bicycle, perchance for the first time, get quite a wrong impression as to what the ideal machine should in reality be for daily use and for touring purposes. The non-spectators or likely purchasers are apt to be led astray by “ficticious advertisements” which are often the outcome of these competitions. Such machines may produce a “new sport”, but no one can say such monstrosities used in competition do good to the industry in finding out “weak points” in the motor or in the machine, in order that the manufacturers may rectify the defects before the standard model is manufactured.”

This 1903 Buchet racer boast two enormous parallel cylinders, and a difficult riding position! [The Vintagent Archive]
In those early days of motorcycle competition, engines were incredibly inefficient, as ‘surface’ and ‘wick’ carburetors, ‘automatic’ inlet valves, and spotty ignition timing, made for unreliable, slow, and highly flammable racers. Ixion, in ‘Motor Cycle Reminiscences’ (Iliffe, 1921), recounts how often indeed his Pioneer machines would catch fire, and even burn to the ground, due to an unexpected mingling of fuel vapors and loose sparks.

“A typical French small-track racer of 1902 with many interesting features. The ornament on the rider’s waistcoat is the oiling system.”  Also note the ignition coil on the steering head, the rocket-like fuel tank on the other side of the steering head, and the copious cylinder head finning (and none on the barrel). From James Sheldon’s ‘Veteran and Vintage Motorcycles’ (Transport Bookman, 1961),

Racing rules in France and Austria (the only European countries which hosted races at that time) gave no restrictions on engine size; one cure for a weak little engine is to incorporate a much bigger (albeit equally inefficient) motor into a motorcycle. During a beautiful period in those pre-1906 days, a free-for-all developed with designers throwing the most unlikely engines between two wheels. Cylinder capacities of over 1 liter EACH were not unheard of – these were steam engine dimensions, which of course, was the common currency of the day, as trains and boats were the first truly ‘motorized’ vehicles, using steam for motive power since the heady days of James Watt and Robert Fulton.

Monsters across the Atlantic! Glenn H. Curtiss at Florida’s Daytona/Ormond beach in 1906, on the occasion of his epic 136mph one-way run aboard his home-made V-8 record-breaker. [Scientific American]
Ixion wrote: “The Parc de Princes track in Paris maintained a large programme of events, and men like Cissac thought nothing of evolving leviathan motorcycles, sometimes of a 20hp rating (4000cc). Occasionally two or three of these monsters would visit England, but our tracks were too gently banked for them…At this time [ca 1900] the French manufacturers and riders easily headed the industry.” Racing on public roads was banned in England at this time, and not until the Brooklands track was completed in 1907 did any real race track exist in England. The French and Austrians held the major International competitions, which had incredible weight restrictions (ie, maximum weight of 108 or 120lbs!), thus forcing development of the racing machines in some very odd directions.


Artist’s rendition of an early ‘monster’ race, from an old postcard put out by Continental Tires, 1921. Taken from ‘Motorcycling Through History During the Golden Age of Postcards’, Jerry Hooker, 2004

H.O. Duncan decried them as ‘Monstrosities’, setting a poor example for the public, and arguments such as this have altered the course of motorcycle evolution in the past 100 years in significant ways. When, in the course of racing development, designers have reached for extreme measures in the quest for advantage (ie, enhancements which bore no relationship with ‘utility’), the forces of Rationality and Production-Based competition have raised the alarm and banned them. Thus, initially, engine capacity was restricted in racing to standardized formulas. In some areas, ‘Works’ machines were restricted – racing had to be conducted with ‘same as you can buy’ motorcycles. Then, as supercharging came to the fore, it was banned as well. When the number of cylinders grew to six and more in GP racing, restrictions on engine complexity were enacted. When the number of gears on lightweight racers reached 12 or more, gearboxes were limited to 6 ratios. Most recently, when the world no longer drove two-strokes, GP racing moved to four-stroke engines.

‘A French rider at a race in England’ – the same setting/race as the Marius Thé photo above. [The Vintagent Archive]
The impact of these ‘corrections’ was certainly felt in the design studios, and focussed the industry on the betterment of the Motorcycle per se. As the public justification for racing has always been to ‘improve the breed’, these restrictions have kept us true to our word at least (although we know that racing is fun regardless of any purported Greater Good!).

Henri Cissac, July 27, 1905, 16hp (2500cc) Peugeot, 110lbs, 87.32mph. From Gerry Belton’s ‘All the Years at Brooklands’ (Centenial, 2007). 

Of course, it wasn’t just the French who built Monsters; the American Glenn H. Curtiss installed an experimental 40hp (6,000cc) V-8 aircraft engine of his own make, into what may have been the earliest duplex-loop frame. In 1907, he took his shaft-drive machine to Ormond Beach in Florida, and clocked 136.8mph one-way, making him the fastest man in any vehicle at the time. The shaft broke on the return run, and Curtiss had a heck of a time wrestling the beast to a stop without crashing, but such was his luck (he never crashed his pioneer airplanes either!), he finished the course, and was satisfied.  His record remained unbeaten for 23 years, and the machine now sits in the Smithsonian Institution.

Count Dionigi Albertengo of Monasterolo, Turin. 12hp Marchand, top speed 124km/h. From Aldo Carrer’s wonderful ‘The Dawn of the Motorcycle’ (Gli Albori di Motociclette) [Collection Aldo Carrer] 
Henri Cissac on a Velodrome (bicycle racing Board Track) in France, from Aldo Carrer‘s ‘The Dawn of the Motorcycle’ (Gli Albori di Motociclette). [Collection Aldo Carrer]
Glenn H. Curtiss with his remarkable dirigible-engine V-8, with a motorcycle built around it. Likely the world’s first double-loop frame, among other things. [The Vintagent Archive]


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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