Which Came First, the Motorcycle or the Car?

This likely isn’t a question you’ve asked before, but it’s a good one. Just like the chicken and the egg, you might be curious as to the origins and history of the car and the motorcycle. If so, buckle up. We’re about to take a trip back in time to the late 1800s, before the Ford Model T, to when gasoline engines were first introduced.

Benz Patent Motor Car: The World's First Automobile
Benz Patent-Motorwagen, 1886. Originalgetreue Rekonstruktion. Studioaufnahme von rechts vorn. Benz Patent Motor Car: The World’s First Automobile | Daimler

The first automobile was patented in 1886 by Carl Benz

The short answer to the question is that the car came before the motorcycle, but there’s a much longer answer intertwined. The first Benz Patent Motor Car (creative name) ran in 1885, but didn’t get patented until 1886.

It had a one-cylinder engine with 58cc of displacement that Carl Benz had built-in 1879. And because of a custom-built wooden bench, the automobile could only manage 10 mph. For perspective, most mopeds of today have 49cc, and can hit speeds of 30 or 40 mph. In other words, technology has evolved quite a bit, especially for Mercedes.

It produced a wheel-spinning .75 horsepower, but even with that low power output, this wooden wagon marked the birth of the automobile. However, this wasn’t the first time a gasoline motor had been strapped to a vehicle.

The first motorcycle with a gasoline engine was built in 1885

Daimler Reitwagen First Gas-Powered Motorcycle
Daimler Reitwagen First Gas-Powered Motorcycle | Daimler

Now, this is where things get fuzzy in the motorbike world, as the first gas-powered motorcycle isn’t technically a motorcycle. It had supporting wheels on either side rather than just two wheels. In other words, it was just a bike with some power, similar to electric bikes you might find in city centers.

Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach built their own gas-powered engine, then stuck it on a bicycle, and patented the whole thing before Benz patented the automobile. It was called the Daimler Reitwagen, or “riding car,” and is the earliest example of a gas-powered motorcycle.

The Daimler engine only had .5 horsepower. And despite being smaller, the bike could only get up to around seven mph. At that point, you might as well walk, or briskly jog, to your destination.

What’s interesting, however, is that Daimler, Maybach, and Benz all shaped modern-day transportation in some way. And now, they’re all intertwined in the Daimler Automotive Group. But when it comes to motorcycles, there were even earlier concepts powered by… steam.

The Roper Steam motorcycle is the first motorcycle ever built

In comparison to the Reitwagen, the Roper is actually closer to a motorcycle on account of it only has two wheels. And it had twist grips that controlled the bike’s acceleration, like many modern motorcycles today. But above all else, it beat Benz, Daimler, and Maybach by miles, being built in 1869. That’s 10 years before the first gasoline combustion engine would be built.

Granted, you probably wouldn’t want to ride any of these motorcycles. At least not on modern roads. They’re akin to motorized bikes, but are forever stamped in time as the vehicles that shaped transportation. After all, it’s fun to know that motorbikes started because of some maniac that strapped a steam boiler to a bicycle.

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