When Motorcycles Mattered
by Armand Ensanian
There was a time in Western civilization when the motorcycle was accepted as an important innovation to serve society. The marriage of the bicycle and small petrol fueled internal combustion engine in the late 1800s launched an exciting era of affordable personal transportation. Even though automobiles were common at that time in Europe and the US, they were far beyond the means of the average working family. Most were hand crafted specials requiring costly expert maintenance. The much less expensive motorcycle was quite standardized by the early 1900s and was mechanically simple and affordable to repair.
The motorcycle represented a technological paradigm for a modern world, one that allowed self-determined mobility, exploration, and employment far beyond walking distance from home. A motorcycle with side car offered families an inexpensive means to travel together without the costly burden of keeping a horse and buggy. It consumed fuel only when it served, whereas a horse needed hay and oats regardless of duty. Many a newborn were brought home in a side car. The benefits of a motorcycle outweighed any inconvenience created by rain or snow. Early 20th century folks were a hardy bunch.
So popular was the motorcycle that scores of makers handcrafted machines in hopes of establishing their brand. The most popular in the US was Indian Motorcycle, launched by Springfield, Massachusetts bicycle maker George Hendee in 1901. Harley-Davidson soon followed in 1903 and prevailed without interruption to this day. Brands like Thor, Pope, Excelsior, Ace, Henderson, Cleveland, Pierce, Merkel, and countless more have all been lost to all but a loyal following of enthusiasts that keep many fine examples running to this day.
Motorcycles were modest machines, producing the one to three horsepower required to propel rider and cycle effortlessly down America's rugged roads. But with time came technical innovation and more power. By 1910 racing motorcycles were capable of exceeding 80 miles per hour. This caught the attention of opportunist backed by enthusiastic investors. Massively large oval motordromes were constructed of wood to serve as coliseums for a new type of thrilling spectacle…board track racing. Young men were recruited with promise of fame and fortune to ride high-powered machines on steeply banked tracks at speeds approaching 90 mph. Tens of thousands of spectators, many with family, watched in amazement at this new technology. Twenty-four such venues were built throughout the US during the teens; some as long as two miles in circumference.
The thrills and spills of motordrome racing soon came into disfavor as young men and spectators were killed in significant numbers. The most fatal event was a horrific crash in 1912 at Newark’s motordrome, killing several well-known riders and four spectators. Board track racing soon gave way to safer venues. Motorcycles took to the soft dirt horse tracks found at county fairs throughout the country.
It did not take long for the motorcycle to regain its social standing. World War I called as many as 70,000 motorcycles to duty, most used to dispatch messages between units and command centers, while others resupplied ammunition and medical supplies They were rugged and light enough to make it through the muddy trails between posts.
Dispatch riding inspired a pair of young sisters from New York to make a strong social statement in 1916. Augusta and Adeline Van Buren were determined to prove to the Army that women were just as capable of serving the armed forces as dispatch riders as men. The Army rejected that notion, prompting Gussie and Addie to set out on a couple of Indian motorcycles on a 5,500-mile transcontinental trip across the US to prove their point. This can be considered a major feat today given the weight and spartan nature of the machines they rode, but even more remarkable in that most of America’s roads were dirt and gravel. Despite their success, the sisters were not granted permission to serve. They did however inspire many women to continue the fight for recognition and the right to vote.
Things in the US were different. The large surplus supply of military motorcycles provided the adventurous a cheap vehicle for sport and exploration on the expanding roadways of America. Families however had a better choice; the Model-T Ford. Henry Ford’s mass production methods allowed these inexpensive automobiles to be manufactured by the millions; reducing their cost to that of a motorcycle with side car. The choice was obvious. For around $350 in 1919 a family could buy a Model-T with four wheels and a roof. Motorcycles had to find a new purpose.
The answer was found in something the motorcycle was already good at; low-cost utility work. Police forces started replacing horses with motorcycles to reduce overhead, whereas store owners saw fantastic opportunity in offering deliver services to their expanding base of customers. Not quite the Amazon model of drone delivery, motorcycle package vans did revolutionize retail.
Today the motorcycle has found new social responsibility. Small low-cost motorbikes offer millions of people in lands far away the only means of affordable transportation, allowing families the opportunity to travel farther to seek work and education. Motorcycles still matter very much.