Bike Life / Motorcycles: The best vehicles on the planet

The history of motor vehicles has always fascinated me. It’s amazing how quickly transportation technology has advanced and helped this industry to where it is today in just over 100 years, considering that for the previous 2000 years there were only horses, donkeys, camels and elephants to transport us.

From their very humble beginnings, motorcycles have been a brilliant invention. Bicycles were already an incredible step up from horses, but they were still quite power-hungry and limited to easy terrain. Luckily for us, the internal combustion engine arrived and we got the bike.

The father of the modern motorcycle is considered Gottlieb Daimler, a German engineer who pioneered internal combustion engines. In 1885, along with another engine designer named Wilhelm Maybach, he created the first gasoline-powered motorcycle, and since then advancements in the motorcycle industry have taken the two-wheeled world into new realms.

Daimler’s first motorcycle. Do you think users have complained about the handling of the wood? Photo: Dmitry Eagle Orlov/Shutterstock.com

There were others who had managed to evolve the bicycle concept, attaching a steam engine to the main frame, but that idea never really took off.

Soon after, in 1894, the German manufacturer Hildebrand & Wolfmüller launched the first production internal combustion motorcycle with little success. But thanks to the First World War, many companies shifted to the war industry, beginning to create motorcycles to replace horses in their wartime communications and reconnaissance roles, and as transportation for the police. Harley-Davidson was a pioneer here, devoting more than 50% of its production to the production of war parts.

Many companies like Piaggio, Ducati and MV Agusta that started producing parts for the war effort (planes, boats) shifted their production to motorcycles once hostilities ended. Meanwhile, Triumph was building its Type H, considered by many to be “the first modern motorcycle”. It had no pedals and was fitted with a true 500cc four-stroke engine.

I believe that the effective use of motorcycles during the war made their advantages very clear to the public: motorcycles are fast, easy to use, and very useful in moving a person from A to B.

No pedal assist and a four-stroke engine. The Triumph Type H paved the way for modern motorcycles. Photo: Ross Mahon/Shutterstock.com

Fast forward 40 years, motorcycle design and technology have taken a big leap forward. In the 1950s, streamlining became an increasingly important element in motorcycle design. In 1957, NSU and Moto Guzzi were at the forefront of this development. Their different yet eye-catching designs would forever change the way we think about motorcycles. However, after several riders were injured racing on these radical machines, the two companies eventually abandoned their respective innovations.

In the 1960s-70s European manufacturers lost their edge and the motorcycle industry was instead dominated by motorcycles produced in Asia. The Japanese bikes were better than the competition in almost every possible way. As a result, European and American brands have had to reassess their approach to all aspects of their business, and much of the us versus them attitude is a result of this era.

In 1990, a new era of visual experimentation began, adding a futuristic twist to the already streamlined shapes of modern motorcycles. After the Ducati 916, all motorcycle brands changed their designs, sharpening their fairing edges for a more aggressive and modern look.

Bikes like the Kawasaki Z1 900 were faster, cheaper and more reliable than their established competitors. Photo: Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock.com

For the past 20 years, the industry has been ruled by motorcycle “empires” based primarily in India and China, although this development has been ignored by the West until recently. The ability of these countries to mass-produce everything has changed the price and availability of motorcycles in many markets, where they are now an affordable means of transportation for people who could only dream of owning a vehicle in the past.

The percentage of bicycle owners per capita in the world has increased in proportion to the world’s population in recent years; currently, there are about 600 million motorcycles in the world (mainly in Asia), compared to about one billion cars. For obvious reasons, motorcycles are more common in areas where the climate favors their use. A bicycle makes more sense in Singapore than in Siberia.

Over the years, motorcycles have proven to be not only the fastest and cheapest form of personal transportation, but also the best way to travel the world. A motorbike is not only a cheap way to avoid traffic jams and park in the city. Around the world, motorcycles are seen as the extreme expression of freedom and adventure, a status symbol. Motorcycles are cool, and unlike cars, they give their rider credibility on the street. If you own a nice Porsche or Ferrari, no one assumes you’re a badass – they say you overcompensate for, uh, physical deficiencies. But it doesn’t matter if you are old, short, fat, poor, dirty and with torn clothes. Riding a bike makes you look cool. And the grungier you look, the cooler you are. It’s the opposite of cars.

Long ignored by Western media, companies like Hero are now making a big impact through their exports. Photo: Heroes

Motorcycles are the ultimate adrenaline rush, having evolved from steam engines to top speeds of over 200 mph. And yet, they are still affordable, not only in terms of their purchase price, but also their ongoing running costs. The Honda CT110 postie bike can travel 100 kilometers on just 1.5 liters of fuel. While bigger bikes are more thirsty, you can find fuel siphons if you look around. The Honda NC750 can go 38 miles on a liter of fuel (around 90 mpg!), while also performing as a handy commuter. And, you’ll save money on ferry fees, bridge tolls, insurance, parking and taxes… you get the idea.

Nowadays, motorcycles are also “reconnecting” with their non-motorized ancestors. Both bicycles and motorcycles are moving towards electric powertrains. This new trend (or perhaps the evolution) creates a new sector of hybrid vehicles, capable of being used in multiple ways, specialized for purposes ranging from daily commuting to agricultural tasks and everything in between.

Practice? Cool? Quick? There is no doubt: motorcycles are the means of transport par excellence.

Earnest L. Veasey