You’d be forgiven thinking Honda built the first production 4-cylinder motorcycle in 1968, when they introduced the CB750 and changed motorcycling forever. Nobody had previously built an inexpensive, reliable, high-performance ‘four’ in history; it was a magic trifecta, but in truth, Honda had plenty of four-pots to study, and copy, when designing the immortal CB line. From the earliest days of the motorcycle (and auto) industry, it was understood that more cylinders for a given engine capacity meant higher rpms with less stress, and more horsepower with smoother running, at the expense of increased complication and production costs. The motorcycle press from the ‘Noughts onward dreamed of fours as the ‘ideal’ machine, an exciting vision of the future, which indeed became a reality by the 1970s.

The first known four-cylinder motorcycle was this remarkable watercooled flat four built by Col. Capel Holden in 1899: an example currently lives in the London Science Museum archives [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The first four-cylinder gasoline-powered motorcycle was manufactured in Britain between 1899 and 1902, by Colonel Capel Holden, who’d built his first 4-cylinder steam motorcycle in 1895. The Holden was a water-cooled flat four of 1100cc, and a few examples still exist, notably in the London Science Museum. Like most 4-cylinder motorcycle dreamer/designers, Holden went on to do amazing things, like designing the Brooklands race track in 1906. The Belgian Fabrique Nationale (F-N, still an arms manufacturer) claimed the next viable, serially built 4-cylinder in 1904: it was truly the world’s first production inline four, which laid the pattern of most fours until the 1920s. The FN motor was designed by Paul Kelecom with a 350cc capacity, ‘atmospheric’ inlet valves over the exhaust valves, a single-speed shaft drive to the rear wheel, and a top speed of 40mph. By 1908 there were FN dealers in the USA, and local factories thought they could do better.

A 1905 FN, one of their earliest machines from the Belgian arms manufacturer [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The first to try was the Pierce Motorcycle Co, founded by Percy Pierce, son of the Pierce automobile’s founder George N. Pierce. In the grand American tradition, Percy beefed up the FN motor to 707cc, added a positively-operated inlet valve for hot performance, and designed a radical frame of very large tubing to hold the gas and suspend the motor. The Pierce 4 of 1909 was America’s first 4-cylinder motorcycle, and was a hot potato with a 60mph top speed. Today they’re at the top of most collectors’ list, not simply for being first, but for their dramatic style, and the Pierce auto connection.

A Pierce four-cylinder in 1911, embarking on a 5-day endurance ride in San Francisco, which he won with a total of 1770 miles ridden. The extra-large acetylene headlamp was for night riding sections, and not a Pierce accessory [The Vintagent Library]
While the Pierce was the bedrock of American fours, it was William Henderson who established their true dynasty. Henderson was the grandson of the Winton automobile family, and son of the Thomas Henderson, Vice-President of Winton. Young William dreamed of two wheels though, and ran dozens of drawings for a new four-cylinder motorcycle past his father for approval. Years of back-and-forth ended with a blueprint Dad couldn’t criticize, which became the prototype Henderson Four in 1911. Production by the new Henderson Motorcycle Co began in 1912, and was an immediate international news item, as Charles Stearns Clancy set forth on his Henderson to become the first motorcyclist to circle the globe.

A 1918 Henderson Four, still with extra-long wheelbase, and sophisticated construction [National Archives]
While the Henderson was known as the ‘Deusenberg of Motorcycles’ for its elegance and beautiful finish, money troubles forced Henderson to sell his design to Ignaz Schwinn in 1917, and the Excelsior-Henderson 4 was born, living through 1930. Henderson couldn’t be suppressed, and founded the Ace Motor Co in 1919, with a wholly new design that didn’t infringe on any previous patents. The new Ace Four was the fastest production motorcycle in the world, and a specially-tuned Ace racer, the XP-4, was timed at 129mph in 1923. Like most 4-cylinder motorcycle manufacturers, Ace struggled financially, as the magic trifecta – speed, reliability, and low price – seemed impossible for ‘fours’. Ace was sold to Indian in 1927, and the Indian Four is perhaps the best known American 4-cylinder motorcycle, produced from 1928 – 1941, when Briggs Weaver’s deep-skirted streamline design was the last American four-cylinder motorcycle built, until the Motus MST of 2014.

This 1909 Laurin et Klement four-cylinder used FN practice in a novel chassis [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Europe was another matter entirely, and a host of manufacturers experimented with four-cylinder motors in line with the frame, across the frame, as vee-fours, flat fours, square fours, opposed double-twins, and inlet-over-exhaust, sidevalve, overhead valve, overhead camshaft, double overhead camshaft, and supercharged versions of nearly all the above! Britain kept a robust four-cylinder industry, with Matchless producing the futuristic, narrow-angle OHC v-4 Silver Arrow, and Ariel producing the Square Four from 1931 – 1959, initially in OHC form, then pushrod from 1933.

The 1928 Brough Superior Four with inline sidevalve engine built by Motosacoche under the direction of Bert LeVack [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The ‘Rolls Royce of Motorcycles’, Brough Superior, built a sidevalve v-4, an inline air-cooled 4, a water-cooled inline 4 (using a hotrod Austin 7 engine, with twin rear wheels!), and a flat opposed double-twin called the Dream…all from a company that produced only 3000 motorcycles from 1919-1940. Their only ‘production’ four, the BS4 with Austin engine, was a luxury machine par excellence, with peerless style and road manners, and a reverse gear inherited from its Austin heritage, which proved useful when hauling a sidecar, as most did.  Not all, though, and journalist Hubert Chantry was well-known for riding his 3-wheel Brough around Picadilly Circus in London, backwards!  His machine was unearthed a few years ago in appalling condition, sold at Bonhams for $490k, and is now once again a magnificent runner.

The 1930 Brough Superior-Austin BS4, as road tested on The Vintagent – read it here [Paul d’Orléans]
While German motorcycles are known mostly for BMW today, from the 1900s onwards hundreds of small and a few large manufacturers filled their roads with interesting machines. BMW didn’t produce a four until 1982 (the K100 with laid-down inline motor), but rival Zundapp built a flat four, the K800, from 1933-44, which became the only 4-cylinder military motorcycle in WW2, most of which were snagged by officers for their personal use. Zundapp had worked with Ferdinand Porsche to build the Auto fur Jederman – the first Volkswagen – in 1931.

The 1928 Windhoff oil-cooled, overhead camshaft Four, as road tested by The Vintagent – read it here [Paul d’Orléans]
A little-known but extremely collectible marque, Windhoff, produced an overhead-camshaft, oil-cooled inline 4 in 1928, with futuristic lines, and no frame per se. Everything bolted to its massive, finned engine casting – the steering head and forks up front, with four parallel steel tubes inserted straight rearward for the shaft drive and rear wheel. This dramatic machine was designed by Ing. Dauben, who parlayed his experience into a job at Mercedes-Benz, helping to design the all-conquering W194-196 ‘Silver Arrow’ racers. Read our Road Test of a Windhoff here.

The magnificent Gilera Quattro Grand Prix racer that took 6 World Championships, adapted from a design of 1924 by OPRA [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
It was the Italians who truly dominated four-cylinder motorcycle design before the 1960s. Their passion for engineering and high performance meant literally dozens of small manufacturers tried their hand at every conceivable arrangement of cylinders, and a rather thick book – ‘Pluricilindriche’ by Ing. Stefano Milani – documents the bewildering variety of Italian one-offs and small batch producers. The most fruitful line emerged from the pen of Piero Remor, who designed a prototype across-the-frame 500cc OHV four in 1923 with Carlo Gianini, which soon became an OHC motor, then a DOHC motor by 1926. Teaming up with Count Giovani Bonmartini for financing, they formed the OPRA research institute, and it was hoped to license this remarkable design to other manufacturers, which was by 1927 water-cooled and producing 32hp at 6000rpm. It was in fact the most advanced, sophisticated, elegant, and best-performing motorcycle engine in the world, but compared to, say, the Henderson four, it required absolutely precise engineering tolerances to manufacture.

The 1937 supercharged version of the Gilera Rondine, developed by CNA, and designed by Piero Remor, the father of the Italian racing DOHC fours of Gilera and MV Agusta [Paul d’Orléans]
There were no takers for this remarkable motor, so Count Bonmartini absorbed OPRA into his CNA aircraft manufacturing business, and stole Carlo Gianini to design his planes. Remor kept his faith in motorcycles, and continued to develop his motor using a built-in supercharger. His first public demonstration of the blown machine was a resounding win in the 1935 Tripoli GP, by which time the engine produced 87hp at 9000rpm. Nicknamed the ‘Rondine’ (Swallow), it soon proved itself the fastest motorcycle in the world, taking the World Motorcycle Speed Record at 152mph in 1937.

What the Gilera Quattro led to: the MV Agusta 750 Monza of 1974, a superb mix of engineering and design, and surely one of the most beautiful motorcycles of all time [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The World Record caught the industry’s attention, and finally Gilera purchased the Rondine design, and brought Piero Remor on board. The Gilera Rondine soon upped the speed record to over 170mph with a little streamlining, and began sweeping the fastest GP circuits like Monza, until WW2 intervened. Postwar, the Gilera 4, now without watercooling or a supercharger, but still under the wing of Remor, won 6 Grand Prix World Championships between 1950-56, when Gilera, along with BMW, NSU, Bianchi, Mondial, DKW, etc, withdrew from Grand Prix racing due to the increasing expense, and worsening motorcycle sales in Europe.

Hondas before the CB750: the 1964 RC164 four-cylinder 500cc racer that dominated Grand Prix racing. Honda’s first four-cylinder racer, a shaft-and-bevel 250cc design raced at Mt. Asama, was raced in 1959, but soon discarded for and improved version [Paul d’Orléans]
Count Domenico Agusta, head of the immortal MV Agusta manufacture of helicopters, boats, and motorcycles, initially agreed to join the exodus from GP racing, but had recently hired Remor away from Gilera to design a new DOHC 4 cylinder racer. Agusta saw little competition for his new machine, and Remor’s new MV Agusta 4GP racer then proceeded to win the next 17 Grand Prix World Championships! It was redesigned into a series of very expensive touring roadsters from 1966 onwards, and was the only DOHC production 4 for 12 years, until Kawasaki revealed the Z1 in 1972. By then, a four-cylinder motorcycle was a common sight on America’s roads, and the hundreds of thousands of CB750s, Z1s, Gold Wings, CB500s, etc seemed to have obliterated the very long history of the world’s Fours from our collective memory. But for 70 years, they remained an elusive dream, and a luxury too few riders could afford.

The amazing Puch V-4 of 1938, the subject of a future road test on The Vintagent [Paul d’Orléans]
In 1928, Georges Roy built a prototype Majestic with a Cleveland four-cylinder motor.  It was the only Majestic built with a four-cylinder motor: for a road test of a Majestic by The Vintagent, read here. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]