The motorcycle is an old concept.  The first recorded image of a two-wheeled vehicle with an engine dates back to 1818, and the first known functional motorcycle, Sylvester H. Roper’s ‘steam velocipede’, dates back to 1869.  Several other steam-powered motorcycles were built in France and the USA in the 1870s and 1880s, but the first motorcycle to be built on an industrial scale was the Motorrad built by Hildebrand and Wolfmüller from 1894-1897.   Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand were steam engineers, and the initial (1889) prototype of their Motorrad was steam-powered, but they teamed up with Alois Wolfmüller to produce a gasoline-powered version in 1894.  One look at the construction of the Motorrad reveals its steam heritage, and makes it unlike any other motorcycle: the engine’s cylinders have exposed connecting rods that act directly on the rear wheel hub, in the same manner as a steam train, making the rear wheel effectively the flywheel of the motor.   A rubber strap helped rotate the rear wheel on the ‘return’ stroke, and can be seen laying on the ground in the illustration below. With no clutch possible in such a direct drive, the Motorrad is a push and go starter, with no bicycle pedals as with other early gasoline motorcycles, as the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller chassis had nothing whatever to do with traditional bicycle design.

Technical details of the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller Motorrad from 1894. [Wikipedia]
Moto-historian Dennis Quinlan sent this charming account of the first motorcycle witnessed in Australia, on March 26 1896.  While not mentioned, the accompanying photograph clearly shows a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller Motorrad.  Other ‘moto cycles’ may have been made in Australia prior to this event, but we have no record.  Interestingly, the first motorcycle documented in Japan was also a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller: the company made around 2000 over three years, and they clearly made their way around the world.   Enjoy this account from Down Under:

The Moto Cycle: A Wonderful Invention

Sydney Daily Telegraph, March 26 1896

Yesterday afternoon the Cycle Austral Agency gave a public exhibition in George Street of the motocycle, which is causing such a great deal of public interest throughout the world.  Since the advent of this machine in England, France, America, Germany, and other countries, it has caused an enormous amount of newspaper controversy. The machine has been attached to carriages and different kinds of vehicles, and many of the London and provincial papers have published illustrations purporting to show that in the course of a few years, carriages drawn by horses would be rarely seen. Already races have been held, for a few months ago a race took place from Paris to Bordeaux and back for motocycle, or horseless carriages, as some choose to call them, and it proved to be very successful. Fully 100,000 people witnessed it. A race has also been held in America. The Prince of Wales has had several rides in one of them, and the mail which arrived in Sydney on Tuesday brought word that His Royal Highness had ordered one, so that it is likely to become very popular.

The illustration atop the article clearly shows a Hildebrand and Wolfmüller. The illustration was likely provided by the importing Austral Cycle Agency for publicity, as this bicycle importer branched out to motorcycles. [Sydney Daily Telegraph]
The motorcycle yesterday was a complete success. Long before the time fixed for the exhibition, people began to congregate round the Austral Cycle Agency in George Street, and when the machine was brought out at 4 o’clock there must have been fully 5000 people present. In fact George Street was completely blocked, and it took the services of a number of police to clear enough of the road to allow the buses to pass. Mr. H Knight Eton, belonging to the agency, had charge of the machine, and he rode it down the George Street to the Circular Quay and back. Mr. WJC Elliott led the way to clear the track, and Messrs. Lewis and Davis on a tandem followed, but they were unable to pace it, so fast did the machine travel. The machine is driven by benzol, and will run at a speed of 40 miles an hour on good roads. Mr. Eaton has ridden it at 32 miles an hour, and when at full speed the engine develops a 3-horse power. The weight of the machine is 250 lbs, and the machine itself is on the same lines as the bicycle, except that there are no pedals. The benzol gas mixed with air is carried to the cylinders from a tank fitted above the engine, near where the sprocket wheel is on a bicycle.  It is then compressed into hollow nickel tubes fitted into the base of the cylinders and these are kept heated by a benzol lamp specially made for the purpose.  Gas is exploded in the nickel tube supplying the power to the engines. Both cylinders are single-acting, and as one is filling the other is driving.  The filling of the cylinders is regulated by valve gearing specially constructed, which is worked by an eccentric running on the driving wheel of the machine, which of course is the back wheel. The exploded gases are carried away under the machine so that there is no smell or annoyance to the rider.  The machine is controlled by a lever fitted with a cone screw attached to the right of the right handle bar, and by this the speed is regulated.  Two gallons of benzol will run the machine 200 miles, and Mr. Eaton has already travelled many hundreds of miles.

The machine is to be exhibited at the Agricultural Show, and Mr. Henslow, on behalf of the league, last night concluded arrangements with Mr. Elliott, the manager of the Austral Cycle Agency, to give an exhibition of pace on the Agricultural Ground on April 25th, at the race meeting which is to be given to Mssrs. Lewis and Megson prior to their proceeding to England. The machine will pace probably Lewis or Megson a mile, and then will run 5 miles at its top speed, under the care of Mr. H Knight Eaton.

A Hildebrand and Wolfmüller was also the first motorcycle seen in Japan, in 1896. [Iwatate]
Back in 2009 I encountered an original, unrestored 1895 Hildebrand and Wolfmüller at the Deutsches Zweirad Museum Neckarsulm, which was ‘in between engagements’ in a storage attic [the museum would like to note that they have totally changed their layout, storage facilites, and curatorial standards since this video was taken!]. It was a rare opportunity to examine a historic machine that had not been molested or restored, and represented 1890s handiwork.  A remarkable machine!  Enjoy this vide of my hosts demonstrating how it works: the then-curator of the museum, Peter Kuhn, with Wolfgang Schneider translating:

A few more photos with interesting details:

As first seen: a picture full of intrigue. What is this incredible thing doing here? [Paul d’Orléans]
The rear wheel is the crankshaft and flywheel of the Hildebrand and Wolfmüller, just as with a steam train.  The connecting rod at bottom works on an eccentric crank attached directly to the axle, with a rubber band ‘return spring’.  The wheel is held in place by three frame struts bolted to the rear hub housing. [Paul d’Orléans]
A view from the top of the fuel tank, showing the air vents, and just the top of the motor. Note that the engine has overhead valves in a semi-lateral configuration. [Paul d’Orléans]


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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