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Column: Once upon a time...

2010-09-17 11:43

One of the first motorcycles may have looked like this - mostly wooden with some highly flammable elements.

Dave Fall

Just imagine for a moment what must have been going through inventor Gottlieb Daimler’s clever brain back in the late 19th century when he invented the first recorded motorcycle known to man.

On August 29, 1885, a Prussian gentleman by the name of Gottlieb Daimler took out a patent for a motorcycle that could “whoosh” through the German countryside at 12km/h, while frightening horses and little old ladies! His first efforts were nothing short of brilliant because back then pneumatic tyres for those wooden rims and even the simple sparkplug for the engine hadn’t even been thought of — they were still a few years distant.

He couldn’t have ever seen a motorbike before but knew instinctively it had to have two wheels and an engine. Patent number 34926 still stands at 125 years old and if you look at the picture of the mostly wooden motorcycle that accompanies this article there must have been many problems encountered before he actually got the bike “running”.

Just imagine, there was no instruction manual to refer too, either. Riders who came from near and far to sample Daimler’s new fangled machine before considering buying one wouldn’t even have known about the four components necessary for the machine to proceed under its own free will: it needed oil, methylated spirits, petrol and a naked flame — but it had to be in that order!

Mostly wooden - with a leather strap

Oil — the quality was incidental — was provided by a drip-feed lubricator and was burnt up inside the engine before dripping out onto the road (total loss). Use of the methylated spirits was vital — Bosch and Lucas again hadn’t even been thought of so a glow-pipe system for Daimler’s motorcycle was implemented, while the meths provided the burner. Petrol, low in octane at around 60, was fed through the simple carburettor, spluttering and diffusing into the air around the engine … not a safe place to be, methinks.
And what about that naked flame? It was needed to ignite the meths, wait a while, crank the engine while regulating the amount of air at the carb and stand back! Assuming you had a sensitive hand and a trained ear the bike would readily start its “Otto cycle” of suck, squeeze, bang and blow.

Though, looking at this image I found on the web, Gottlieb's earliy ideas live on in the USA - a chip off the old block.

The intrepid rider, now straddled across Gottlieb's original would reach across and jerk a wooden toggle in front of the handlebars to tighten a leather strap that will (again hopefully!) transmit power to the rear wheel. Want to stop after your jaunt through the countryside? Not a problem: pull up the brake lever, a block of wood skids over the rear wheel and slowly brings the machine to rest. That would be in a perfect world; if it was raining, pas op!
Look closely at the supporting wheels alongside the rear axle. They would have been most useful while taking corners — remember there was no “tyre” on the rim, just a metal strap to glide you over the cobblestones.

Those small wheels might have instilled the nervy rider with a certain amount of confidence, but for the experienced rider this support would have shown up as a defect because leaning into a corner couldn’t really be achieved and everything would have become a risk. But isn’t that perhaps what life’s all about?
Engine specs:
Air-cooled, one-cylinder, four-stroke, automatic intake valve, 264 cc Rated power: 0.5 hp at 600 rpm (external lubrication)
Carburettor: One surface type, contents approx. 1 litre of petrol
Ignition: Glowpipe
Fuel: Methylated spirits
Transmission: Driving belt, two gears, changeable at standstill only.
Frame: Wood, without suspension
Wooden spoke wheels with wood rims and steel protection, mechanically-operated shoe brake with direct effect on the rear wheel.
Max speed: Max 12 km/h — if you’re feeling brave!


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