The World's First Motorcycle: Timeline and Features

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
A slim figure in black clothes and a red helmet rides a red motorcycle through desert terrain.
The motorcycle saw significant evolution between the Michaux-Perreaux steam-powered velocipede and this image of a woman riding through the desert. BROOK PIFER / Getty Images

The late 19th-century debut of the first motorcycle marked a significant milestone in motorcycle history, propelling the development of the diverse range of two-wheel vehicles we see today. From iconic brands like Harley-Davidson to the ongoing evolution of electric motorcycles, this breakthrough invention continues to shape the world of two-wheeled vehicles.

With their varied styles and capabilities, motorcycles embody the values of freedom, adventure and the pursuit of innovative design and performance, reflecting the visionary spirit of their inventors.


Timeline of the First Motorcycle

The invention of the first motorcycle resulted from a series of events and technological advancements. In the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, driving innovation and advancements in various industries, including transportation. During this time, engineers and inventors experimented with different forms of propulsion.

  • 1860s: In the late 1860s, the Michaux-Perreaux steam-powered velocipede showcased the potential for self-propelled transportation. Despite limited speed capabilities, it laid the groundwork for future advancements.
  • 1876: Nikolaus Otto patented the four-stroke engine in 1876, marking a crucial milestone in engine technology. This breakthrough provided a reliable and efficient power source for vehicles. Inspired by these advancements, engineers began exploring the idea of adapting the internal combustion engine to power two-wheeled vehicles. Among them was Gottlieb Daimler, a talented German engineer known for his contributions to the automotive industry.
  • 1885: Less than a decade later, Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach made a significant impact with their collaboration on the first gasoline-powered motorcycle, the Daimler Reitwagen. With a top speed of 10 miles per hour, this revolutionary machine featured a wooden bicycle frame, a single-cylinder engine, a steerable front wheel, a rear-wheel drive system and a simple handlebar for steering, marking a breakthrough in motorcycle construction.
  • 1900s: The turn of the century saw the outbreak of World War I, which drove significant developments in motorcycle technology. The two-wheeled marvels played vital roles in military operations, solidifying their reputation as versatile and agile vehicles.


Who Invented the First Motorcycle?

The Daimler Reitwagen, the first motorcycle, was a collaborative creation by German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. In 1885, they jointly patented this groundbreaking machine, although Daimler is primarily credited as the inventor. His visionary ideas and engineering expertise played a pivotal role in conceptualizing and designing the motorcycle.

While Maybach's technical prowess and contributions were instrumental in refining the key components of the motorcycle, it was Daimler's inventive spirit that drove its invention. Together, they formed a formidable team that blended innovation and technical know-how.


Their pioneering efforts laid the foundation for the establishment of the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in 1890, marking a significant milestone in their collaborative journey.

Under the DMG banner, Daimler and Maybach continued to push the boundaries of automotive technology, developing groundbreaking vehicles that shaped the future of transportation.


What Was the First Motorcycle Made Of?

The Daimler Reitwagen revolutionized transportation with its distinctive features:

  • "Riding car" design: The Reitwagen's overall design resembled a small carriage, earning it the nickname "riding car." This design choice aimed to provide a more stable and comfortable riding experience than a basic bicycle.
  • Wooden bicycle frame: The Reitwagen's frame was crafted from sturdy wood, resembling a traditional bicycle. This frame provided the necessary structural integrity and support for the vehicle.
  • Gasoline-powered engine: At the heart of the Reitwagen was the groundbreaking, one-cylinder, Otto-cycle engine. This engine, fueled by gasoline, allowed the motorcycle to generate power and propel itself forward. It marked a significant advancement in the use of internal combustion engines for transportation.
  • Spray-type carburetor: To ensure efficient combustion within the engine, the Reitwagen employed a spray-type carburetor. This carburetor precisely mixed the fuel and air in a spray pattern, optimizing the fuel-air mixture for improved performance and power output.
  • Two-wheel configuration: The Reitwagen featured a configuration with two wheels aligned in a similar manner to modern motorcycles. This design provided stability and maneuverability, allowing riders to navigate various terrains with relative ease.
  • Iron tread wheels: The motorcycle's wheels were equipped with iron treads, providing enhanced traction and durability compared to traditional wooden wheels. Iron-tread wooden wheels allowed the motorcycle to handle rough surfaces and uneven terrain more effectively, before the pneumatic tire came into play.
  • Dual outrigger wheels: The Reitwagen incorporated two outrigger wheels, also known as stabilizer wheels, with one positioned on each side of the bike. These auxiliary wheels provided additional stability during the initial stages of riding and at low speeds, compensating for the motorcycle's inherent balance challenges.

It's important to note that, unlike contemporary motorcycles, the Reitwagen did not feature foot pedals. Instead, it relied solely on the power generated by the engine to propel itself forward. This eliminated the need for manual pedaling and emphasized the motorized nature of the vehicle.


By eschewing foot pedals and embracing gasoline power, the Daimler Reitwagen pushed the boundaries of early motorcycle design.


The Mystery of the First Rider

The identity of the first rider of the Daimler Reitwagen is a captivating mystery that ignites spirited discussions among motorcycle enthusiasts. Some accounts attribute this historic feat to Daimler's son Paul, who fearlessly embraced the revolutionary machine. Others believe that Gottlieb Daimler himself took the bold leap.

While the truth may elude us, one thing is certain: Both Daimler and his son played pivotal roles in shaping the early days of motorcycles.


Trailblazing Legacy and Enduring Impact

The invention of what is widely considered the world's first true motorcycle, the Daimler Reitwagen, marked the beginning of a new era in motorcycle history, transforming the concept of mobility on two wheels.

The first motorcycle's creation laid the groundwork for the development of modern motorcycles, dirt bikes and other motorized cycles that we see today. It sparked advancements in engine technology, chassis design and riding dynamics, fueling a passion for motorcycles and revolutionizing the way people commute, explore and experience the thrill of the open road.


The pioneering spirit and innovation behind the first motorcycle continue to shape the dynamic and ever-growing world of two-wheeled transportation.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.