Classic and Vintage Motorcycles Through the Decades

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The Early Years of Motorycycles

Marsh 1905. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

In the early part of the twentieth century, motorcycles were little more than cycles with a motor. As each decade saw new technology introduced, the machines of the 1980s were similar in name and concept only.

In the early part of the twentieth century, motorcycles were little more than cycles with a motor, hence the name. Although the engines were relatively low powered, the light-weight chassis helped to give these machines reasonable performance—for the time. The 1905 Marsh above could reach a top speed of 35 mph. The 290-cc 4-stroke engine produced 1.5 hp. The company produced their first motorcycle in 1899.

02
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1900s Motorcycles

1913 Flying Merkel. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

By 1913 motorcycles were offering considerably improved performance. The Flying Merkel pictured above was capable of 60 mph, double the speed of the 1905 Marsh! Manufactured in Middletown Ohio, the Flying Merkel had a 60.89 cubic inch (997-cc) 4-stroke engine.

03
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1920s Motorcycles

1928 Norton Model 18. Cathy Barton

In the ‘20s motorcycle development had continued apace, many bikes now sported internal expanding drum brakes, as seen on the Norton pictured above, to slow the machines down properly. Many of the bikes produced in the ‘20s still supported the Flat Tank style of fuel tank and the sprung single seat. Passenger comfort was often restricted to a pad bolted onto the rear fender.

04
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1930s Motorcycles

Left is a 1930 BSA 250. Right is a 1933 Flathead Harley Davidson, the company introduced these vivid colors to stimulate sales. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

The ‘30s started with global financial troubles and ended in the Second World War. Profit margins were squeezed at all motorcycle manufacturers until large orders were received for military machines. Company's such as Harley Davidson, Triumph, BSA, NSU and BMW all benefited from military sales.

Further reading:

Triumph

Harley Davidson

05
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1940s Motorcycles

1947 Gilera Saturno San Remo. The 499 cc motorcycle produced 36 HP at 6000 rpm giving a top speed of more than 100 mph. The 265 lbsmachine was available in race, touring and trail versions. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

After the Second World War, motorcycle companies produced machines that met the mass transit needs of the returning troops. With the cessation of hostilities, motorcycle racing began to flourish again. Many riders used their machines to commute to work in the week before using them in competition at the weekends.

06
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1950s Motorcycles

Left is a 1954 Ariel square four. Right is a 1955 Velocette Viper. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

During the 1950s most motorcycles used coil over spring damper units at the rear and oil damped telescopic front forks. Many of the suspension designs could be traced back to the Second World War and aircraft, particularly those used on aircraft carriers where heavy landings necessitated good impact resistance qualities from their suspension. To make motorcycles more appealing to the general public who were by now buying more cars, the manufacturers often added panels to cover engines etc., a typical example is seen above on the Velocette Viper.

07
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1960s Motorcycles

Left is a BSA Café racer. Right is a 1963 Vespa Scooter. John H Glimmerveen licensed to About.com

The ‘60s was all about Mods, Rockers, Cafés and Café Racers. Manufacturers throughout the world began to compete not only on the race tracks but also on the streets, offering faster machines with each new sporting model. Besides being ridden by the British Mods, scooters were very popular in Europe. Parent company Piaggio had sold more than one million Vespa’s by 1956.

08
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1970s Motorcycles

1971 BSA Rocket 3. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw major changes to the motorcycle industry. Japanese manufacturers began to dominate the market with relatively inexpensive high technology motorcycles. In particular, Japanese multi-cylinder bikes became unbeatable for power and performance. In an attempt to keep market share, the British BSA group produced the three cylinder Rocket Three and its sister bike the Triumph Trident. But Japanese domination of the motorcycle markets was in full swing. From superbikes to cruisers, to mopeds, the Japanese manufacturers had taken over in so many ways. Their machines were winning most forms of motorcycle competition too.

09
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1980s Motorcycles

Yamaha RZ500, 1984. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

In the 1980s, manufacturers had imposed (voluntarily in most countries) a performance limit. The arbitrary figure of 125 bhp was adapted to meet the growing criticism that the bikes were too fast for street use. The ‘80s also saw the gradual demise of the 2-stroke as more stringent emission laws were introduced in most countries to offset the effects of global warming. The Yamaha RZ500 V4 shown above was loosely based on the factory TZ racers, as was the RG 500 Suzuki. These four cylinder 2-strokes, water cooled machines were every bit as sophisticated as their Grand Prix cousins.

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Glimmerveen, John. "Classic and Vintage Motorcycles Through the Decades." ThoughtCo, Jan. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/classic-and-vintage-motorcycles-by-decade-4122743. Glimmerveen, John. (2017, January 13). Classic and Vintage Motorcycles Through the Decades. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-and-vintage-motorcycles-by-decade-4122743 Glimmerveen, John. "Classic and Vintage Motorcycles Through the Decades." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-and-vintage-motorcycles-by-decade-4122743 (accessed November 21, 2017).