I was chatting recently with a friend about the historical articles we’ve been highlighting in recent issues. He said he enjoyed the insight into previous eras of motorcycling, and the conversation evolved into imagining what it must’ve been like to be a rider in our hobby’s early days around the beginning of the 20th century.
Just firing up a bike from that era can be challenging. Not only do you need to kick it over – or pedal it – you also need to have the mixture and spark timing set correctly. Then there’s the oddly archaic dance of balancing a foot clutch with a hand‑shifter. And if it’s a really early motorbike, you might not even have the “luxury” of a twist‑grip throttle.
Related: Early Rider: 1900-1917
When I grew up in the 1970s, it seemed as if motorcycles always had a hand clutch on the left, a foot shifter on the left side of the engine, and a twist‑grip throttle on the right that rotated toward the rider, but I’ve since learned these devices didn’t always have their locations and operations set in stone – er, metal.
And then there’s the roads during the early days. The crumbling streets filled with potholes and divots that we bitch about today would be lavish compared to the bumpy dirt paths that greeted riders from bygone eras. And depending on where you were riding, there might not be a fuel station for hundreds of miles in any direction. The 80‑mph speeds we regularly cruise at today would seem a futuristic pipe dream to early riders.
Motorcycles began as the cheapest form of motorized transportation, as they required far fewer resources and components to build than cars. But it took less than a decade for Henry Ford to revolutionize industry by innovating assembly lines that dramatically drove down costs of production. Before long, it was cheaper to buy a Model T than it was to purchase a nice motorcycle.
“It’s funny,” my friend mused. “In the old days, only poor people rode horses, while rich people drove cars and rode motorcycles. Today, it seems like only rich people ride horses!”
Roughly 125 years have passed since the motorcycle was invented. Wealthy people are indeed riding horses, and a few deep‑pocketed folks are riding ungodly expensive motorcycles like the ones featured in this issue.
The Combat Motors Wraith and Audette Velos reviewed in our October 2023 issue are among the most extravagant and upscale moto machines we’ve ever seen, rivaling the brilliance of legendary bikes like Brough Superiors, Crockers, and Brittens. They are luscious works of motorized art and are priced that way too.
Meanwhile, in his Unrepentant Curmudgeon column titled Harley-Davidson’s Entry-Level Conundrum, the founder of this magazine discusses the other side of the swank scale. Reg Kittrelle recognizes the void at the bottom end of Harley‑Davidson’s lineup and wonders what will fill that hole. MoCo loyalists will scoff at Harleys made in China or India, but there’s a real need to provide an attainable step into the H‑D fold. Will it come from overseas?
While we might fantasize and lust over upscale Wraiths and Audettes – or equines like the revered Golden Akhal Teke – the U.S. motorcycle market also needs a few modest American Quarter Horses for day‑to‑day riding. An electric starter, at least, would be nice to have. Oh, and a twist‑grip, please.