Monday, November 26, 2007

Two-Wheeled Time Machine Week

Since I started working at Vespa Ridgfield/Branchville Motors, I've realized my knowledge of the history of two-wheeled vehicles is sorely lacking. Similarly, I've been itching lately to do some artwork of Steampunky scooters and motorcycles, as I mentioned in a previous post.

The above image was lifted from a thread on Brass Goggles that discusses how Steampunk aesthetics seem to dovetail quite nicely with early and vintage two-wheeling. There have been some other threads on the quintessential Steampunk Forum on this overlap, and it's something that has been occupying my mind quite a bit recently. Retro-Futurism is a blade that cuts two ways, for it isn't simply nostalgia and kitsch, it is a kind of refractive looking forward. One looks ahead through a rearview mirror which is angled to reflect a mirror further back which looks forward.
(Are you still with me? Because I almost lost myself there...)
To continue the mirror- time/space metaphor, the refractive process of Steampunk imagining provides us a perspective in which our own position as well as the road ahead seem much smaller and distant. It allows us to view ourselves with an outsider's detachment, which is always useful. But perhaps more importantly, it grants us a vision of the larger vista in which we are placed. We are permitted to view where we are, were, and possibly will be all at once.

So, besides this strained metaphor of rear-view mirrors, what does Steampunk and Retro-Futurism have to do with cycling? Go to a motorcycle dealership, or flip through a motorcycling magazine and ask yourself that question. Break it down, "Retro" and "Futurism". I think you will find that the motorcycling world is rife with it. Currently available bikes can almost all be pigeonholed as vintage-evoking nostalgic day-dreams, and day-after-tomorrow techno-gadget wet-dreams. Many are trying to be both. This is especially true in the United States, where a motorcycle is much more of a fetish-object, than other parts of the world where they are practical daily transportation first, and their role as lifestyle accessory is secondary or tertiary, if it exists at all.

Whew... it's getting a little deep here. How about we just look at some bikes for a bit:

Above is a TRUE Steampunk two-wheeler,the Michaux-Perreaux Steam Bicycle. Built in Germany in 1868-1869, it was supposedly capable of 19mph. (You can also view a different, larger photo here.) This was actually a Velociped, as the pedals are fixed to the front wheels. That's right boys and girls, the first motorcycle was in fact, a Steampunk Moped. The Swarm-And-Destroy Moped Army kids will be serving up heaping helpings of crow-stuffed humble-pie to every Harley rider who ever ranted too long about the heritage of their hawg.

Coming in second (though some count it first) in the history of motorcycles is Stanley Roper's Steam Velocipede. Beautiful! This design is from 1869, and Roper continued tinkering with steam powered bikes right up to his death from a heart attack. And as was chronicled in this blog about a year ago, I mean RIGHT UP to his death.

Next we come to the first internal combustion engine powered two-wheeler. (Well, if you want to split hairs, I guess it did have two dinky training wheels on the sides.) Though fueled by gasoline, this four-stroke steed was steamy indeed, with its wooden frame and large brass gear. Built in 1885 by Gottlieb Daimler, the Reitwagen is considered by many to be the first "true motorcycle." Boy, one look at that seat explains why many bikers and scooterists still refer to them as saddles. Cool stuff.

All these previous bikes have the added Steampunk credentials of being experiments and prototypes, the products of mad inventors pushing the boundaries of the possible. The above design from Hildebrand & Wolfmüller in 1894, has the distinction of being the first production motorcycle available to the general public.
Oops! Did I say "motorcycle"? That definitely looks like a step-through frame to me, which would make it... that's right, a scooter.
And what a scooter it was, with a two-cylinder, four stroke, water-cooled engine that weighed in at a staggering 1488cc's! Of course it didn't have a clutch and only generated slightly more than 2 horsepower. Still it marks quite a milestone in motorcycling history, and as it remains to my knowledge, the largest displacement scooter ever, quite a forgotten milestone in the history of scooting.
Yep, that's right kiddies, not only did Harley, son of David, not invent the motorcycle, but neither did Piaggio invent the scooter with his wasp-like beauty.
Next time we'll explore the boggling plethora of scooters which existed in that misty time before Vespa "invented" the scooter.
Stay tuned.


LEROYER said...

Pourquoi associer le nom de Michaux à celui de Perreaux ??? Je possède toutes les photocopies des brevets d'invention de Perreaux et ... je vous certifie que le nom de l'inventeur de la pédale Michaux n'apparaît à aucun moment !!!

Honky-Tonk Dragon said...

Loose translation of Leroyer's comment:

Why to link the name of Michaux to that of Perreaux??? I have all photocopies of the patents of Perreaux and I certify you that the name of the creator of the pedal Michaux appears at no instant!!