The first motorcycle race started when the second motorcycle was built. And the first motorcycle advertisement was placed immediately post-finish, crowing the winner’s superiority. Motorcycle ads have a natural ‘hook’ in the lure of Speed, although manufacturers have had mixed feelings about selling what riders really wanted, deep down in their speed-demon souls. From the first days of the 20th Century, builders and buyers of motorcycles have played a complex dance around the subject of Speed, with the Industry anxious to spread a message of respectability and docility for their noisy, horse-scaring moto-bicycles, keeping a low profile about the exhilaration of pulling the throttle lever all the way back. Customers were savvy to the game, navigating the great restrictive forces of Love and Law – parents, spouses, and the police – who could not abide an explicit celebration of the narcotic draw of Competition and its handmaiden, Danger.  It took decades before the public acknowledged that a dangerous, speed-crazed hooligan lurks in the puritan hearts of all motorcyclists, hell-bent on going faster than anyone on the damn road.

Even in 1903, the makers of this Phoenix promoted ‘dropped’ handlebars and a racing crouch…the original Café Racer. [Vintagent Archive]
Strangely, while companies like Indian, Phoenix, and Mars were among the first to sell (and advertise) motorcycles built exclusively for racing, they relied on the vast support system of ancillary suppliers (tires, chains, magnetos, etc) and especially the emerging motorcycle press, to tell the story of Speed. Magazines were desperate to show what it was really all about; tales of speed and racing sold more paper than road tests and club reports. Magazines had no need to veil the magnetic pull of fast riding, as their audience were already under the two-wheel spell, and few non-motorcyclists scoured trade publications. The accessories trade and the press tore the brown paper wrapper from bikes, glorifying competition and competitors in equal measure, and selling, by magical association, the adrenaline high of splitting the atmosphere at lethal velocities. Thus, we see Dunlop tires regularly advertising race wins, Lodge spark plugs documenting bold-type heroic victories, and Castrol, always Castrol, selling oil on the back of a racer flat on the tank, ‘speed whiskers’ streaming from his back.

One of the very first ‘production racers’; the 1906 Mars ‘Renntypus’. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
In the early days of motorcycling, racing had a dual purpose; the simple thrill of competition was justified by the rapid technological development which followed continual failures. If bikes were fast, reliable, and good-handling from the start, the industry would have evolved slowly, but early motos were far from those things, frequently catching fire, breaking their frames, flattening tires, and skidding off the ‘roads’ of the day. Similar to war’s stimulus of new technology – though far less traumatically – endurance trials and racing kept manufacturers’ toes in the fire of continual improvement, even if they didn’t participate. When Indian swept the Isle of Man TT races in 1911, winning 1/2/3 on the new ‘Mountain’ course, the press (and Indian) made quite a fuss over their 2-speed gearboxes, which was exactly one more ‘gear’ than any other maker, beside Scott (who won two years later). Even manufacturers who never supported race teams or offered ‘Race Replicas’, realized the jig was up for the belt-drive, and started experimenting with epicyclic hub gears, twin chains, and proper gearboxes.

1908; Indian’s Charles Gustafson giving his ‘torpedo tank’ some stick, and winning the race. [Vintagent Archive]
The motorcycling press grew hand in hand with the industry, commenting then as now on the whole wide range of Motorcycling, saying what manufacturers could not by reporting on what motorcyclists wanted to read. Given the tiny number of riders who actually prepared their machines and risked their lives on a racing track made of dirt or worse (splintery boards), the early press devoted a huge percentage of copy to racing, and very little to boring but respectable owner’s club or technical matters, because of course, racing is damned exciting stuff. And better still when accompanied by photos…the best possible advertisement for the sport being a small, grainy image of some track hero crouched over his crudely evolved bicycle, kicking up dust from the back tire. Two paragraphs with a shorthand tale of neck-and-neck struggles were enough to stir the imagination of thousands of readers. Racing became the stuff of dreams immediately… even before motorcycles had proper races to themselves.

A 1909 ad for NSU, with Eddie Lingenfelder aboard, after winning several races at the Los Angeles motordrome Board Track. A built-for-racing v-twin of purposeful design. [Vintagent Archive]
The earliest days of motorcycling are beholden to the bicycle in ways not obvious; yes, we inherited two wheels from our pedaling brethren, but more significantly, the first truly visible motorcycles were used as ‘cycle pacers’, allowing bicyclists on banked tracks in the US and Europe to ‘draft’ the noisy, exhaust belching monsters, wobbly and prone to crashing in the heyday of cycle bowl racing of the late 1890s. The fascination of the press helped promote the idea of motorized two wheelers as fast and worthy of further development, independent of bicycles. Its no accident that many of the first production motorcycles were built by former bicycle racers, race team managers, or the bicycle companies themselves…they were already using ‘pacers’ on the track, and pretty soon, the pacers left the pedalers behind and raced each other, developing their machines into proper motorcycles. With competition already in their blood, it was natural they wanted to race their newfangled machines as well.

Brooklands racing in 1910: a Triumph leads on an already ragged-looking track surface. [Vintagent Archive]
In 1909, while Indian was selling its first ‘torpedo tank’ racing motorcycles to the public, making a name across the globe, in Italy a group of radical artists were creating a completely new approach to the romance of Speed and the impending mechanization of the world. The Italian artist Filippo Marinetti published his wild and deliberately provocative Futurist Manifesto on the front page of France’s respected newspaper, Le Figaro, on Feb. 20 1909: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed….A roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” This from an age when automobiles and motorcycles were only recently freed from repressive 20kph speed laws on the horrid, unpaved roads of the day, and when vehicles were slow and unreliable in the extreme… the Futurists stood on the edge of a promontory, shouting about what was to come, way ahead of the curve.

Futurist Mario Sironi’s charcoal drawing ‘New Man’ of 1918. The Futurists were the only Modern Art movement to embrace motorcycles. [Vintagent Archive]
Being by self-definition an excitable bunch of Italians, the Futurists had plenty to say, and invested their artistic energy in new forms of typography and layout, attempting to capture movement via the pattern of words and images on the page. Their aesthetic impact rippled around the world, creating a new vocabulary of motion; graphic artists took note, and gradually the fussy late 1800s Beaux-Arts style of busty, corseted goddesses floating on clouds near parked two-wheelers gave way finally to ‘speed whiskers’, urgent movement, and the adrenalin romance of Speed. Big-breasted goddesses would return, but not until the 1960s!

The old Beaux Arts style of depicting motorcyclists, in this case an 1898 poster for Comiot. [Vintagent Archive]
By the ‘Teens, motorcycles were good enough to use as basic transport, even a strictly utilitarian object, but each country had a ‘tipping point’ when cars outnumbered motorcycles on the road, and bikes gradually evolved into pleasure objects (or even luxuries) rather than necessary transport. In the United States, that change happened earliest, thanks to Henry Ford, whose Model T – so basic, yet surprisingly complicated to drive – suddenly rendered ‘exposed transport’ semi-obsolete. Initially costing and enormous $850 (1909), by the early 20’s the price had fallen to $290, which was little more than the price of a new Harley-Davidson, and much less than the best of motorcycles, such as the Henderson 4-cylinder ($435).

Accessories suppliers were free to advertise our inclinations to speed; ‘Clincher’ motorcycle tires of 1917. [Vintagent Archve]
Motorcycles were still terribly exciting though, and the liberation of bikes from ‘labor’ or necessity was akin to casting off the yoke of a burdened horse…suddenly, it was fun to ride for its own sake. Of course, it had always been fun, the little secret amongst bikers, but with the liberation of motorcycles from work, fewer excuses were necessary. Manufacturers and advertisers were freed to tell a more true story of the pleasures of two wheels, while ‘Grapes of Wrath’ author John Steinbeck had a few words to say about the Model T: ” Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford [ignition] coil than about the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.” Bikers may not know their constellations while out on a clear night, but without a roof they see can those stars twinkling on high, riding swiftly to demonstrate knowledge of their lady love’s anatomy…

Proper ladies enjoyed the comforts of a zeppelin-style sidecar attached to a speedy flat-tank Norton! [1926 Norton catalog]
The Model T and its international cousins (the Austin 7, the Peugeot Bébe, the BMW Dixi) changed motorcycling itself, freeing two wheels to be what they are best at; delivering an erotic injection of Life to the rider, providing thrills, excitement, prestige, and danger in equal measure. Very few automobiles, no matter how sexy, deliver the all-senses stimulation of a motorbike; the nature of all but the most sporting automobiles is to insulate the driver from the assaults of Nature and the road, whereas the motorcyclist embraces all these as the essential appeal of a vulnerable, sensate Life. The mundane and inexpensive car increased the public’s desire to travel, they saw value in being taxed to improve roads and infrastructure, which of course benefitted motorcyclists as well; while smoothing the way for good citizens to drive to work, newly paved highways meant the increasingly fast bikes of the 1920s could leave long black streaks on those roads.

A 1914 NUT (Newcastle Upon Tyne) ad, after a good run at the Isle of Man TT on a 500cc v-twin. [Vintagent Archive]
During the 1914-18 ‘Great War’, the only advertising with speedy motorcyclists showed dispatch riders (a new feature of war) high-tailing it across shelled fields, narrowly avoiding burst bombs and certain death. Motorcyclists have always understood the rest of the world holds lethal threats – the road, the car, the dog- but in WW1, they were literal moving targets…”just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to kill you!” After the madness of the Great War, the market was flooded with ex-military machines painted to civilian colors, while factories needed a moment to transition away from military production, and introduce new models to a public eager to forget the horror.

By 1921 NSU ads were aggressively modernist and nearing abstraction…but still looked fast. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
In prosperous England and the US, and eventually the rest of Europe, the late ‘Teens became the ‘Roaring 20s’, which were exactly that, echoing with the blast of powerful engines from increasingly reliable motorcycles and cars. While lightweight bikes dominated European roads and much of the English market, they nearly disappeared in America, which grew its own heavy-duty branch of the motorcycle tree. Even in countries crowded with fizzy, smoky little two-strokes, all eyes were on the big machines, winning important international races and setting World Speed Records. Motorcycle advertising, which had its ear bent by the Futurists, was soon treated to a one-two punch of graphic design; Art Deco and the Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus comes to two wheels: a BMW brochure from 1930; roaring past obstacles at a time of economic chaos in Germany. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Art Deco began to change the ‘look’ of bikes in the 1920s, with general prosperity reflected in shiny nickel, and pressed-metal shapes of mudguards and tanks which were suddenly ‘styled’, rather than collections of well-arranged boxes. Deco also transformed the visual representation of motorcycles in advertising, as graphic artists competed to out-style each other in presenting two-wheelers as geometric, hurtling masses, slanting towards the horizon – in imitation of Jacques Henri Lartigue’s large-format camera distortions of racing cars of 1911 onwards, his accident of the lens (created by a slow horizontal shutter plus a panning camera motion) inspiring generations of designers.

Cunning use of a slow horizontal shutter and panning camera motion invented the ‘oval’ racing wheel distortion. Jacques Henri Lartigue, 1912. [Vintagent Archive]
Such imagery changed how motorcycles inhabited people’s thoughts, by planting visual clues that motorcycles were now chic accessories for well-paid, or merely aspirational new owners. The very concept of advertising, which can be stretched to cover industry press coverage, is an attempt to change the perception of the public towards material goods, in order to make them appealing enough to part with hard-earned cash.

Ernst Henne on the fearsome BMW WR750 supercharged 750cc record-breaker with which he recorded 150.73mph at Tat, Hungary, in 1932. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
As the 1920s progressed, the development of German Bauhaus typography and graphics integrated both the Futurist and Deco languages, codifying the ‘modern look’ of advertising, and much of the publishing world as well. The spare and balanced geometry of the Bauhaus, its love of color blocks and collaged photos and paper, led to a Golden Age of motorcycle brochures and posters. Probably the best example is closest to the source; BMW, whose very logo could have been lifted from a Bauhaus instruction book, and whose bikes rapidly evolved from their first (1923) rather pokey models, to the sleek, fast, and elegant machines of the late 1920s, as the factory grew into devotees to the cult of Speed to a degree matched by none other in the industry.

Global domination, anyone? A 1938 BMW brochure depicting the soon-to-be all-conquering BMW RS255 Kompressor, with which Georg Meier would win the ’39 Isle of Man TT. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Not just fast, but Fastest; BMW obsessively pursued the World Motorcycle Speed Record with single-minded vigor, and was among the first adopters of superchargers on motorcycles, bolting on blowers a mere two years after the founding of the company in 1923; these supercharged toddlers wobbling at first, but gaining in strength and confidence over a short few years. It was BMW against the world in the ultimate speed stakes of the 1930s, opposed only by rag-tag, privateer British teams using comparatively outdated, oversized, supercharged JAP-engined v-twins, which were also surprisingly fast. After taking the Land Speed Record 6 times in 7 years, BMW was crowned with the ultimate speed laurels on both racetracks and record books…at which point they promptly declared war on the whole world. Their ads might have been a warning of certain imperialistic intentions…

Shades of JMW Turner: a 1935 Velocette poster proof, for an Isle of Man victory that never came. [Vintagent Archive]
A parallel branch of graphic advertising was less stylized, less avant-garde, and rebelled against the geometric tendencies of modernist design, embracing the very counterpoint of abstraction, hewing closer to the Expressionist artists of the ‘Teens and Twenties, true heirs to those first attempts at capturing mechanical motion by JMW Turner and the Futurists.

The French OSA concern used expressionistic, Futurist painting techniques in its ads. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The Expressionist motorcycle artists, best exemplified by the fantastic French painter Geo Ham, used gouache as their medium rather than photography, and depicted romanticized motorcycles and riders hurtling through moody, multicolored fogs, towards victory, or eternity. Tension in the world of fine art, between the competing schools of disegna and colori, had been the story of Art since the Renaissance – those who loved tight design and draughtsmanship versus those who needed an emotional impact… Raphael vs Michaelangelo, Manet vs Monet, Classicism vs Romanticism.

‘Rain, Steam, and Speed’, 1844, JMW Turner; 23 years before the invention of the motorcycle, a train of the Great Western Railway in England crosses the Maidenhead railway bridge crossing the Thames river, out of London. A small hare can be seen running on the left side of the painting, terrified of the dark and noisy monster approaching. [Wikipedia]
The root stock of all Expressionist motorcycle painting was JMW Turner’s incredible ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed’, the first successful attempt of a Fine Artist to grapple with mechanized motion (in the form of the Great Western Railway). The entire Futurist Manifesto of 1909 might be summed up as a cocaine- and alcohol-fuelled dance around this singular painting! Credit for the ‘swoosh’ style of expressionist motorcycle advertising can be laid directly at Turner’s doorstep, not because motorcyclists are particularly fond of his painting, but the graphic artists hired to sell bikes had all been to art school and had their noses rubbed daily in the Masters. 80 years after Turner painted ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed’, his moto-acolytes were churning out homages – ‘Wheels, Smoke, and Speed’ – exhibited on posters and the pages of Moto Revue. The cat was fully out of the bag now, and the allure of Speed itself became the favored sales tool.

The Swiss Motosacoche firm used fantastically abstract and dramatic imagery in the 1920s and ’30s. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
In this Golden Age of moto-advertising, manufacturers competed with each other to hire the finest artists and graphic designers, each giving their client a distinctive ‘look’, all of them seeking to out-Turner or out-Bauhaus each other. We are left with a body of exquisite graphic works from the period, dozens of offerings to the gods of Speed. Distinctive regional styles emerged by the late 1920s, with artists from the United States heavily influenced by the naturalistic school of American Scene Painting and the Social Realists. Advertising for Harley-Davidson motorcycles were highly romanticized, but rejected European modern art tendencies, following instead the lead of Grant Wood and Norman Rockwell. While their paintings and drawings still celebrated speed, the unwholesome, messy passion of the of the Futurists was scrubbed away, and riders are generally rosy-cheeked, squeaky clean gents in tweed suits.

A 1930s Harley-Davidson magazine ad: exhaust like thunder, blasting through clouds, a missile on the road. [Vintagent Archive]
While they still ‘split the air like a rocket’, to quote the H-D ad, the American riders weren’t possessed by demonic spirits or seeking to transform the world into tidy geometric shapes, although these were fabulous metaphors for the developing political situation in Europe in the 1930s.

The clean-cut, well dressed Harley riding fellow, still beating hell out of town on his 1929 machine. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The finest American moto-art almost universally depicted civilians in street attire, even when hauling ass down the road; a distinct contrast to the helmeted, square jawed, battling heroes on the cover of European catalogs. This aesthetic dialogue between the international community of motorcycle manufacturers can be read like a deck of tarot cards, portending the future, as an obliviously civilian America would shortly be drawn into militarized conflict, the madness of Fascism, and war in Europe.

Prototype HRD-Vincent Series B Rapide as painted in 1946 By RC Reyrolles…bobby sox and rolled jeans, although the man’s petite red scarf reveals the artist to be French! [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
After those 6 years of war, conscription, rationing, and fear, the immediate postwar period saw motorcycles depicted as vehicles of liberation. Freedom to roam the countryside, freedom to seduce women, freedom to blast down the road on “the fastest standard motorcycle in the world – that’s a fact, not a slogan”, or so said the Vincent HRD brochure. The first brochures and posters of the late 1940s followed the prewar patterns, although Bauhaus geometry was a painful association, and Modernist tendencies were dropped in favor of the old ally of Turner’s moody speed…but wait, the solitary knight of the prewar days has been joined by a hot girlfriend, as our hero hurtles down the road to prove he is no Model T owner…thus the Baby Boom begins in earnest.

RC Reyrolles’ 1946 paintings, as used by HRD-Vincent in their first postwar brochures. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The early 1950s were a mix of, once again, the necessary yoke of utility for most machines, as much of the world struggled to rebuild lives and jobs, combined with an increasingly frantic focus on making ‘range leader’ bikes bigger and faster. America, un-bombed and un-rationed, had an insatiable hunger for fast motorcycles, and skewed the world’s production towards its peculiar landscape of vast open spaces, and blossoming competitions on the sands of Daytona, the dirt of Laconia, or the desert of California.

If you happen to be the importer of Norton Manx racers, why not put yourself on the brochure, racing one? [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Brochures and advertising focused almost exclusively on racing machines, and romantic paintings were less common, increasingly replaced by photographs of racing heroes on the latest model, flat out at the Isle of Man TT or leaping dirt humps in the Catalina Island Grand Prix. Our old friends the artists were still employed at times to give an emotional push, to make bikes look faster, and when they painted, the old regional artistic tendencies still showed, with Rockwellian Americans gunning their new Sportster in blue jeans and a windbreaker, while the Brits might still morph into hurtling, helmeted hulks, at one with their fire-breathing Turner-cycles.

This 1963 ad for the Norton Atlas (showing a production racing event) definitely harks back to JMW Turner…[Vintagent Archive]
As the 1960s progressed, a potent mix of the Joint and the Pill meant clothing, sexual mores, and advertising went through radical changes. While ‘swinging London’ had laconic, miniskirted babes draped over Nortons and Triumphs, Harley preferred to show clean-cut, wholesome couples having fun on their bikes, and downplayed speed as a sales element. H-D was grappling with a serious image problem in the States, as the exploits of a few hundred ‘1%’ bikers in patch clubs drew media attention completely out of proportion to their actual influence. Of course, press attention being another form of advertising, tales of wild bikers fueled a craze for customization in homage to the Outlaw machines, which the crewcut squares in H-D management tried desperately to avoid.

The 1962 James Superswift needed a bit of sex appeal, although the unfortunate model on the right found herself re-touched out of this ad…[Hockenheim Museum Archive]
And suddenly, an entirely new gang of bike makers burst onto the global scene, from Japan and Europe. The infamous unthreatening sex-neutral ‘nicest people’ Honda advertising campaign of the 1960s brought many thousands of new riders to the fold, and mimicked the Harley philosophy of showing young, healthy riders out for some good clean fun, and not too fast please. The other Japanese makers showed not-so-nice riders actually using their bikes for what they did best, with speed whiskers and moody landscapes replaced by speed-blurred photography, capturing unfocused dragstrip launches, peripheral-vision wheelies, and moto-babes in sharp detail.

Fantastic 1968 Kawasaki Mach III ad…no more Mr. ‘Nicest’ Guy…[Vintagent Archvie]
The Kawasaki Mach III did “the quarter mile in 12.6 seconds. You know what you can do with your Honda.” Ouch. The pattern was set, and hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years; colorful photography and clever by-lines touting drag strip times and top speeds, as increasingly specialized motorcycles are divided into camps; touring, naked, dirt, and sport. The motorcycle press is in love with wheelies, stoppies, smoky burnouts, and stunters, but there’s little Romance left in the selling of Speed.

Finally, after nearly 100 years, images of women who ride began appearing, the start of another thread of advertising entirely…[Hockenheim Museum Archive]
This article originally appeared in the Dec.2011 issue of the French Café Racer magazine.


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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