The world's first motorcycle comes up for auction
An unrestored example (top left) of the very first vehicle to which the name ‘motorcycle’ (motorrad in German) was ever applied is to come up for auction in April. The 1895 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller motorcycle sounds like a modern motorcycle in its specification – twin-cylinder, four-valve, water-cooled, 1488cc engine – but it is indeed as unconventional as it is rare. Check out the diagram and you’ll see the rear wheel doubled as a pseudo flywheel and indeed, the piston connecting rods and the pushrods that actuate the valve gear are also attached to the rear wheel, there’s no clutch, no brakes and there’s a lot of work to be done on a machine that’ll cost you GBP40,000 to 60,000 before you start. At the end of it all though, you’ll have a bonafide centrepeice for any transport museum.
Firstly, let’s be clear that the example on offer is in unrestored condition and will probably need to have at least as much again spent on it to restore it to its former glory – though the machine has been in the same family since the 1930s, that is also the approximate point in time at which the motorcycle was last in running order.
Patented in January 1894, H&W’s motorcycle was greeted with considerable enthusiasm and plans were drawn up to build a factory in Munich to produce it. It was also licensed to a firm in France and marketed there as ‘La Petrolette’. Despite some impressive demonstration performances by factory riders, the H&W’s shortcomings became all too apparent once deliveries to paying customers commenced, and early in 1897 both the German and French ventures collapsed. Opinions differ with regard to how many machines were produced, figures range from as low as 800 to as high as 2,000. Survivors are, needless to say, exceedingly rare.
The Hildebrand brothers, Henry and Wilhelm, developed their motorcycle in partnership with Alois Wolfmüller and his mechanic, Hans Geisenhof. Their design was powered by a twin-cylinder, water-cooled, four-stroke engine displacing 1,488cc, which until relatively recent times was the largest power unit ever fitted to a motorcycle. Some more detail can be found on this site. Despite a maximum power output of only 2.5bhp at 240rpm, the H&W was capable of speeds approaching 30mph, an exciting prospect at a time when powered road transport of any sort was still a novelty. Just the same, it must have been a handful to both start and ride as these videos attest. Bonhams regularly auctions motorcycles and will feature the 1895 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller motorcycle at The International Classic MotorCycle Show, Stafford on 25th April 2010.