“Before the beginning of great brilliance and beauty there first must be a period of complete chaos.”
— I Ching
One could arguably trace the embryonic days of motorcycling back to 1817 and the German ‘hobby horse’ which was in effect a human powered two-wheeler with the locomotive force provided by paddling one’s feet along the pavement. Good for shoemakers, bad for the spine. More efficient cranks and pedals attached to a wheel didn’t appear until 1861 when a Frenchman put it all together. Over the next two decades, a succession of two-, three- and four wheeled steam- and gasoline-powered cycles huffed, puffed and sputtered themselves into existence as the evolution of the motorcycle spawned ever newer, and occasionally better, designs across Europe and America.
Although the above quote from the prophetically inclined I Ching may not pertain to the entire state of the fledgling world of motorcycles prior to 1894, it wasn’t until that year that things began to coalesce. The year brought profound changes, those 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 powerplants.
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. Now they had an engine, but no frame.
It was not exactly back to the drawing board since the H&W team came up with a reworked version of the frame originally utilized by their 1889 steam bike, so all that effort had some pay back after all. The twin-tube, open duplex design nicely accommodated the big four-stroke gas engine. It seemed to be a well-planned out execution including the fuel tank attached neatly to the down-tubes. In any case 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. Now all the four inventors had to do market the fruits of their labor.
They promptly formed a company called, with true Teutonic verbal efficiency, the Motofahrrad-Fabrik Hildebrand & Wolfmuller and built headquarters in Munich. The company’s coffers were well stock with funding and now it was full-steam, rather now full-gasoline, ahead as the entrepreneurs hastened to put their innovative H & W motorcycle into production… and into the history books as literally the first vehicle to be described with the generic term “motor cycle.”
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 90 x 1117 mm.
A closer look at the engine uncovers its steam heritage as the design incorporated long connecting rods that linked, in a steam locomotive style, directly to rear wheel spindle cranks that incorporated an epicyclical reduction gear. The solid rear disc wheel stood in place of a flywheel (a design that would later haunt H &W) while a pair of wide rubber straps facilitated the return stroke of each piston. 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. Yes, an oil-in-the frame, water-cooled four-stroke engine of almost 1500cc displacement built more than a hundred years ago. Such wonders obviously will never cease, but this was a “first.”
It also seems the Munich motorrad 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 who had pioneered the tire design in 1888.
Now, with all the accolades heaped upon the H&W notwithstanding, the machine did have its share, and then some, of shortcomings. The term “spoon” is used to describe the Stone Age-ish contrivance working its friction upon the front tire. When it was applied, it also automatically closed down the throttle, while in the early models, a pedal operated a metal plate to bring it into direct contact with the pavement in a further if desperate effort to slow the bike’s forward progress. It certainly made for an entertaining and startling sight in the dark hours of night with sparks flying all about. At least it would give ample warning for pedestrians to make their escape.
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 by the way…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… well you were off and running to a maximum of 28 mph, all the H&W’s 2 ½ horses could manage at a ripping 240 rpm. Again, these are relative fun-factor figures since we must remember we’re blasting along on 1894 roads, our snarling, spark throwing machine terrorizing man and beast. 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.
The H&W was indeed “wunderbar”, and at first glance a brilliant success, a miraculous machine that caught the fancy of many an adventurous and advant garde customer of the day. 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 an all new factory to be erected on the Colosseum Strasse. Its vast interior would be home to 1200 employees not to mention satellite buildings and the contracting of work from many local engineering workshops. You could say that H&W had brought a boom of more than one kind to the city of Munich.
As part of the promotional activities H &W sent one of their new machines to Paris to test the French Vichy waters. The plans included a public relations fete hosted by bon vivant Pierre Giffard, a newspaper publisher and pioneering motor sport enthusiast, who in fact had hosted the world’s first motoring contest, the 1894 Paris-Rouen race.
Once again it was another glorious outing for the H&W, and as a result the French company of Duncan, Suberbie et Cie signed on as licensed dealers. However, they felt the German name might not be that much of a selling card for their French customers and conjured up the named “La Petrolette” which seemed to translate to something like “small gasoline.” But in any case there was an almost immediate order for 50 of the motorcycles, so the French called in for a hundred just to be safe.
Now the “Duncan” of that French company was an Englishman transplanted to Paris, and he was very bully for the bike, and thought it would be good advertising to stage a race in the lovely town of Lille. So it came to pass in the spring of 1895 that the roar of “La Petroletttes” were to resound in the previously tranquil French countryside. However, Fate made a sudden and foreboding detour in the fortunes of the H&W. A fire broke out in the event’s hotel the night before race day, 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. While the event was canceled, it did not thwart the H&W company’s plans for expanding their market.
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 from the city of Turin to the village of Asti and return, all on the day of May 28, 1895.
Over hill and dale, the slew of pre-1900 cars and motorcycles slid, slipped and surged along the 62-mile course. 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 that glory was short-lived as the next race, the important Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race ended in disaster at the mid-way point as both H&D entries fell victim to what were becoming glaring and dangerous design flaws. The problems lay with the hot tube ignition, and the erratic handling of the rear wheel caused by its poor flywheel effect that in turn caused the rider to lurch around violently on his mount.
When things go wrong, they can go wrong all at once and as if nobody had an inkling until it all too late. Not only were the bikes in need of “recall,” 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 effect, the company was operating in the red. And then it started, the droves of first-time customers, recently acquainted with their new purchases, were writing unpleasant letters about starting problems among other issues.
Worse yet, 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. While the marque became another of the many short-lived and long extinct motorcycles, it had well-earned its niche in the history books. 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.
In all fairness, the Hildebrand and Wolfmuller should be remembered in the context that it represented the pivotal moment when the so-called motor-bicycle entered the public consciousness as the motorcycle. And like many technological introductions, it had a dramatic effect on the cultural psyche. 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.”