On this date in 1885 Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach received a patent for the Daimler Petroleum Reitwagen (“riding car”) or Einspur (“single track”). It is widely recognized as the first petrol driven motorcycle. Daimler is sometimes called “the father of the motorcycle” for this invention. Even though three steam powered two wheelers preceded the Reitwagen, the Michaux-Perreaux and Roper of 1867–1869, and the 1884 Copeland and can be considered to be motorcycles, the Reitwagen remains, nonetheless, the first petrol driven internal combustion motorcycle, and the forerunner of all vehicles, land, sea and air, that use its engine type. Daimler, of course, moved on from two-wheelers to four-wheelers.
The Reitwagen’s status as the first motorcycle rests on whether the definition of “motorcycle” includes having an internal combustion engine. The Oxford English Dictionary uses this criterion, but even by that definition, the use of four wheels instead of two raises doubts. The Reitwagen had two outriggers with small wheels, affixed like training wheels, because it was not properly stable due to the front wheel fork lying vertically under the handlebars instead of at an angle (the principles of “rake” and “trail”). I’m not sure why the front fork wasn’t raked because the principle was well understood in cycling by that time. A raked fork makes steering much easier.
Daimler visited Paris in 1861 and spent some time observing the first internal combustion engine developed by Etienne Lenoir. These observations were helpful later when he joined Nikolaus August Otto’s company N.A. Otto & Cie (Otto and Company). By 1872 Daimler had become the director of N.A. Otto & Cie, the world’s largest engine manufacturer. Otto’s company had created the first successful gaseous fuel engine in 1864 and in 1876 finally succeeded in creating a compressed charge gaseous petroleum engine under the direction of Daimler and his plant engineer Wilhelm Maybach (Daimler’s long-time friend).
Otto had no interest in making engines small enough to be used in transportation. After some dispute over the direction design of the engines should take Daimler left Deutz and took Maybach with him. Together they moved to the town of Cannstatt where they began work on a “high speed explosion engine.” This goal was achieved in 1883 with the development of their first engine, a horizontal cylinder engine that ran on Petroleum Naptha. The Otto engines were incapable of running at speeds much higher than 150 to 200 rpm and were not designed to be throttled. Daimler’s goal was to build an engine small enough that it could be used to power a wide range of transportation equipment with a minimum rotation speed of 600 rpm. This was realized with the 1883 engine. The next year Daimler and Maybach developed a vertical cylinder model which they called the Grandfather Clock engine and achieved 700 rpm (and soon 900). This was made possible by using a hot-tube ignition, developed by an English engineer, instead of an electrical ignition system (which at the time was unreliable). The hot tube ignition was a platinum tube running into the combustion chamber, heated by an external open flame. The engine had a float metered carburetor, used mushroom intake valves which were opened by the suction of the piston’s intake stroke. It could also run on coal gas. It used twin flywheels and had an aluminium crankcase.
Having achieved the goals of producing a throttling engine with high enough rpm, yet small enough to be used in transportation, Daimler and Maybach built the 1884 engine into a two-wheeled test frame which was patented as the “Petroleum Reitwagen” (Petroleum Riding Car). This test machine demonstrated the feasibility of a liquid petroleum engine which used a compressed fuel charge to power an automobile. The first motorcycle was created along the way to Daimler’s real goal, a four-wheeled car, and earning him credit as the inventor of the motorcycle in spite of himself. Daimler’s and Maybach’s next step was to install the engine in a test bed to prove the viability of their engine in a vehicle. Their goal was to learn what the engine could do, and not to create a motorcycle; it was just that the engine prototype was not yet powerful enough for a full-sized carriage.
The original design of 1884 used a belt drive, and twist grip on the handlebars which applied the brake when turned one way and tensioned the drive belt, applying power to the wheel, when turned the other way. Roper’s velocipede of the late 1860s used a similar two way twist grip handlebar control. The plans also called for steering linkage shafts that made two right angle bends connected with gears, but the actual working model used a simple handlebar without the twist grip or gear linkage. The design was patented on August 29, 1885.
It had a 264-cubic-centimetre (16.1 cu in) single-cylinder Otto cycle four-stroke engine mounted on rubber blocks, with two iron tread wooden wheels and a pair of spring-loaded outrigger wheels to help it remain upright. Its engine output of 0.5 horsepower (0.37 kW) at 600 rpm gave it a speed of about 11 km/h (6.8 mph). Daimler’s 17-year-old son, Paul, rode it first on November 18, 1885, going 5–12 kilometres (3.1–7.5 mi), from Cannstatt to Untertürkheim. The seat caught fire on that excursion. The engine’s hot tube ignition (which was very hot), being located directly underneath. Over the winter of 1885–1886 the belt drive was upgraded to a two-stage, two-speed transmission with a belt primary drive and the final drive using a ring gear on the back wheel. By 1886 the Reitwagen had served its purpose and was abandoned in favor of research on four wheeled vehicles. But the motorbike was here to stay.
For several years the “Hairy Bikers” produced a cooking show on BBC television which involved them traveling around England and Europe on their motorbikes. Here’s an episode they made traveling around Germany, including the region where Daimler worked. Pay special attention to the Black Forest cake.