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ADV NewsA Look Back: World’s First Production Motorcycle

A Look Back: World’s First Production Motorcycle

With a 30mph top speed, the 1500cc 2.5 HP bike offered a thrilling ride for the time.

Published on 02.16.2023

A lot of interesting motorcycles have crossed the world’s auction stages lately, but none, perhaps, of more historical importance than this 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller model that went for €195,500 ($215,656) at the recent Bonhams event in Paris, France. Never heard of H&W? Many haven’t, even though the brand holds the honor of building the world’s very first production motorcycle. 

In fact, this machine was the first powered two wheeler to be officially named a motorcycle, or in Germany where it was sold, a motorrad.  

And yes, in 1885 there was Gottlieb Daimler’s famous Reitwagen, or “Riding Car,” the first-ever gasoline powered two wheeler, though that occurrence is said to have been more about Daimler’s quest to refine his internal combustion engine for use in automobiles more than it was about creating a powered two wheel vehicle. Around the same time there were many steam-driven bicycles, including Sylvester Roper’s Steam Velocipede, a bike that foresaw many modern motorcycle elements such as a twisting handgrip that controlled throttle.


So, nope, it was two German brothers, Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand, both steam engine engineers, that hooked up with inventor Alois Wolfmüller and his mechanic, Hans Geisenhofand, and got serious about building the first powered “motorcycle” for the masses. 

The Hildebrands had already developed a steam powered bicycle, but like their rivals, eventually eschewed the design over concerns for safety and practicality. So the new partners instead created a two-stroke combustion engine, and then the water-cooled, four-stroke parallel twin we see in this recently auctioned unit, “Frame no. 619, Engine no. 69,” which is thought to be one of only a handful of 1894 H&Ws in existence. And according to its seller, this bike is presumed to be the unit with the lowest serial number that is in completely original condition (aside from replacement of rubber elements), despite some 2,000 units being sold back in 1894.

The parallel twin that powered the machine was a relatively massive  1,488cc and it worked similarly to a steam locomotive with horizontal cylinders and long connecting rods that utilized wheel rotation to turn the crankshaft. So basically, the bike’s solid rear wheel served as a flywheel. Another long-since abandoned innovation — thick, adjustable rubber bands — were employed to return the pistons back up into the cylinders to achieve the compression and exhaust strokes. Despite its mass, the big twin produced just 2.5 hp at 240 rpm, though its top speed of nearly 30 mph was undoubtedly exciting in its day. 

The bike also lacked a clutch, a kickstarter or even pedals to assist starting and so needed a massive push to get the engine going, all while the rider coaxed the throttle via a rotating thumbscrew.

Fuel was fed from the cylindrical tank to a carburetor and since this engine predated spark plugs, the platinum “hot tube” system invented by Daimler in 1883 was used for ignition. Cooling was achieved using water that was retained in the bike’s huge rear fender, while engine oil was held in one of the frame tubes. 

According to the auction footnotes, the tires that were originally on the bike were manufactured under license from Dunlop by Veith in Germany, and were the first of the pneumatic variety ever fitted to a motorcycle. The machine was slowed by a very primitive spoon braking system that used wooden blocks applied directly to the rubber of the front tire.

While this machine hardly resembles the motorcycles we ride today, there can be no doubt it was an adventure to ride. And how cool to see the OG motorcycle in all of its original glory, which somehow makes it more relatable than the perfectly restored versions you can see at Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum or the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama. 

The identity of the collector who scooped up the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller Frame no. 619 Engine no. 69 hasn’t been identified, though we know the bike went for a chunk more than the auction guide price of €110,000 – €170,000. 

Hopefully the high price translates to passion, and this time capsule will continue to be preserved in all its patinaed glory. 

Photos courtesy of Bonhams

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge

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