Hildebrand & Wolfmuller – World’s First Production Motorcycle

It wasn’t until1894 (the same year the world’s first motoring contest, the Paris-Rouen race, was held) that things began to coalesce. The year brought profound changes from advances synthesized from German, French and British designers and manifested in one of the seminal machines of motorcycling: the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller.

The stage was set: Munich, Germany, 1894. Not far away in Russia, Nicholas II, the last of the pre-Soviet czars had ascended the throne while further east China and Japan were at war in Korea.

However, politics and empire building were of little interest to brothers Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand. They were busy revolutionizing human transportation. True, their initial focus had been on building steam-powered machines in an effort to conquer the steep inclines of their beloved Bavarian hills, but it was a start, if a hot and bubbly one.

After a period of steamy experimentation, Heinrich and Wilhelm discovered that a bunch of hot air could only take you so far. Being bright and industrious lads, the Hildebrands decided to join forces with two nimble-minded engineers Alois Wolfmuller and Hans Geisenhof, both residents of nearby Langsberg, a few kilometers from Munich. Geisenhof brought some extra clout to the party as he had been a member of the Benz automobile group and knew his way around engines.

The Hildebrand & Wolfmuller went into production in 1894.

The Geisenhof/Hildebrand early efforts resulted in a rather anemic and unreliable two-stroke gasoline-fed engine, a powerplant that did not reach their level of expectations.

But then it was Wolfmuller’s turn to try his hand. He met the challenge, designing a much more robust four-stroke engine of parallel-Twin design. Unfortunately the sheer mass of metal that went into his creation proved too burdensome for the spindly bicycle “safety” frames of the era. In fact, very shortly after implantation, the weight of the engine snapped the frame.

The H&W team came up with a reworked version of the frame originally utilized by their 1889 steam bike. The twin-tube, open-duplex design nicely accommodated the big four-stroke gas engine. It all managed to hold together well enough for the clerks at the Munich patent office to grant their official state stamp of approval.

Thus, as of January 1894, the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller motor cycle was a legitimate, and thus saleable, product. It went into the history books as the first vehicle to be described with the generic term “motor cycle.”

The Hildebrand & Wolfmuller was powered by a 1498cc parallel-Twin, liquid-cooled, no less.The H &W was also remarkable for several other firsts. For one, it featured the largest engine ever successfully fitted into a two-wheeled production vehicle in the 90-year history of two-wheelers with a displacement of 1498cc from a pair of horizontal cylinders with a bore and stroke of 90mm x 117mm.

It must be remembered that carburetors as we know them today were not even a figment of someone’s imagination back then. But borrowing from the Daimler auto people, the H &W utilized a platinum hot tube as a means of igniting the fuel that found its way from the gas tank to a surface-type carburetor. The inlet valves themselves were automatic, while long rods and a cam on the rear wheel actuated the two exhaust valves.

Yet another technological development borrowed from other designers was the combination rear fender/water tank configuration. First innovated by the Englishman Edward Butler and the Frenchman Georges Richard, the fender served not only to keep the rider tidy, but also served as a reservoir for a supply of water used to cool the engine. In addition, one frame tube took the place of an oil tank.

So, more than 110 years ago, liquid-cooled, an oil-in-frame four-stroke engine of nearly 1500cc existed! This was a real “first.” And it was the first motorcycle to come equipped with pneumatic tires, the air-filled rubber treads built by the German company of Veith via the British Dunlop company which had pioneered the tire design in 1888.

The starting procedure for the H&W required grit, grip and cardio-vascular integrity. Gripping the machine you flung it and yourself forward, your legs pumping as fast as they could go until you heard the pop and crack of ignition – there was no clutch. And then you would leap aboard and make all effort to quickly find the thumb-screw operated throttle and then turn it just the right amount to maintain an equal supply of fuel. In other words, athletic ability akin to Olympic bobsledding and the dexterity of a brain surgeon were helpful.

But the rewards were big. You were off and running to a maximum of 28 mph, all the H&W’s 2.5 horses could manage at a ripping 240 rpm. The world would have to pass in a blur, since even the steam-powered trains of the day, riding on nice safe steel rails, could only manage twice the bike’s speed.

Orders flooded the company’s offices to the tune of 2,000,000 Deutschmarks. Such was the public demand and the money in hand that Hildebrand and Wolfmuller ordered up architectural plans for a new factory. Its vast interior would be home to 1200 employees.

Sales seemed ready to continue booming. However, fate intervened. A fire broke out the night before the staging of a planned race, the flames ravaging the three bikes intended for the demonstration. Moreover, adding insult to injury, the loud sounds of the exploding Dunlop tires fed rumors that the gasoline-powered machines were inherently dangerous.

Looking for the proper venue to highlight his product, Wolfmuller himself transported two bikes to Italy where he and Giovanni-Battista Ceirano, an automobile enthusiast, would ride them in another history-making event, the country’s first combination car and bike race.

The machines would speed the 62-mile run from the city of Turin to the village of Asti and return, all on the day of May 28, 1895. By day’s end, the two stalwart H&W’s with Wolfmuller and Ceirano covered in dust and glory, crossed the finish line in 2nd and 3rd place, bested only by a Daimler automobile.

But when things go wrong, they can go wrong all at once. The bean-counters back in Paris and Munich finally figured out that the cost of making the machines was more than their price tags. In addition, customers were writing unpleasant letters about starting problems among other issues and many wanted their money back. Sadly, by 1897 and after producing approximately 800 machines, the German and French companies imploded, and the H&W was no more.

As the first production motorcycle, H&W had brought together many innovations and the genius of several nations, and in so doing carved yet another stepping stone on the long, often rocky road of the motorcycle’s evolution, the pivotal moment when the so-called motor-bicycle entered the public consciousness as the motorcycle.

An English test rider of the day, after riding the H&W responded, “I have never forgotten the first sensation of riding a bicycle propelled by its own power. The feeling of traveling over the ground without effort was delightful. From that moment I became a staunch believer in the motor-bicycle and predicted a great future for it.”

In 1895 the wealthy French count Albert DeDion and engineer Georges Bouton teamed up in Paris to build first steam- then gasoline-powered engines, plugging one of 138cc powerplants into a motorized tricycle. Their Dion-Bouton engines, sold in large quantities and let loose the floodgates of numerous motorcycle enterprises around the globe, including the U.S.

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