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Classic & Antique Motorcycles: Ride like the wind
Girls may have swooned over Marlon Brando in the classic 1953 film The Wild One, but guys were more likely to be interested in Brando’s ride: a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle. Actually, people are still swooning over the bike and other classic and & antique motorcycles just like it.
It’s ironic that the Triumph Thunderbird, a British motorcycle, became one of the symbols of classic America riding machines. Perhaps that’s because there’s still debate over who invented the first motorcycle, an American or two Europeans!
According to Wikipedia, a motorcycle is “a single-track, two-wheeled motor vehicle powered by an engine” (also called a motorbike, bike or cycle). They come in many designs intended for long-distance travel, zipping around urban traffic congestion or zooming through sports or racing events.
Some historians claim the first motorcycle was designed and built by German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1885 near Stuttgart. It was essentially a motorized bicycle, although Daimler and Maybach called it the “Reitwagen” (riding car). However, some claim that the first motorcycle was invented in America by Sylvester Howard Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Roper added steam propulsion to a two-wheeled bicycle in 1867 and demonstrated his invention at fairs and circuses. It wasn’t until 1894 that the first publicly available motorcycle, the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, came on the market.
Early motorcycles were still basically bicycles trying to accommodate the new internal combustion engine. As the engines became more powerful, however, motorcycles outgrew their bicycle heritage. Until World War I, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world was Indian, producing more than 20,000 bikes a year. By 1920, this honor went to Harley-Davidson, whose motorcycles were sold by dealers in 67 countries. In 1928 DKW took over as the largest manufacturer.
In the 1930s Harley and Indian dominated motorcycle sales. Bikers had to be really tough to ride a 1931 Indian Four – you could burn yourself on the hot pipes, or you could get a pretty good shock from four spark plugs lined up between the pipes. Later Harley came out with the 1936 EL V-twin in an effort to unseat Indian as the top manufacturer. The EL V-twin had a flathead engine, front and rear brakes, foot clutch, tank shift and suspension built into the seat. Company historians regard this model as the first truly modern Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Although Japanese motorcycle makers Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki are the top worldwide vendors today, Harley-Davidson remains first in the hearts of many American bikers. Elvis Presley bought a 1956 Harley-Davidson KH model just before the release of his film Heartbreak Hotel. The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee has the original sale documentation for Presley’s first bike. Elvis had a number of big Harleys thereafter, and rode a motorcycle in many of his movies, especially Roustabout.
Another storied producer of “the world’s fastest motorcycles” was Vincent Motorcycles, which produced bikes in the United Kingdom from 1928 to 1955. Vincent’s Black Shadow was one of the most famous high-performance motorcycles of the 1950s, while the Vincent Black Knight was immortalized in the 1995 film Batman Forever. Sadly, Vincent stopped motorcycle production in 1955 because of heavy financial losses.