Top 10 Strangest—and Most Ground-Breaking—Production Motorcycles
Here in the 21st century, we have become accustomed to the general concepts of contemporary motorcycle design. The seating position, engine, fuel tank, chassis, suspension, drive systems and so on are pretty familiar and typical. Variations exist, of course, with some bikes having the fuel tank under the seat instead of up top, e-bikes entering the fray as an alternative to fossil-fuel burning piston or rotary engines, shaft, belt and chain final drive options available and so on.
On the way to this comfortable, predictable state of affairs, there have been a lot of experiments with the design of motorcycles. Some pre-date the very term, “motorcycle.” Some have been pretty strange, even by the standards of their day, but many were ground-breaking designs that were actually brought into mass production with varying degrees of success in the marketplace. Some influenced motorcycle design of their time with their influence extending to this day.
Thanks to some amazing motorcycle history books, we’ve had the opportunity to take a look at nearly every production motorcycle ever built. The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Motorcycles is the primary source for information about bikes featured in this piece (read our review of The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Motorcycles).
Top 10 Strangest Motorcycles of All Time:
Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velicipde
It seems only fitting to begin this look at the ground-breaking production motorcycles with the very first known to have been mass-produced. Created by Louis Guillaume Perreaux, a small commercially-available steam engine was fitted to a Michaux bicycle frame. Several hundred of these steam-powered machines were produced each year from 1868 to 1871 in France, making the Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velicipde what is believed to be the world’s first “production motorcycle.”
Built in Germany from 1921 to 1925, the Megola had one of the most unorthodox power train designs ever successfully offered in a production motorcycle. Its 640cc, five cylinder air-cooled, side-valve radial four stroke engine was mounted directly at the front wheel, eliminating the need for clutch and gearbox. A single carburetor mounted on the right side of the fork fueled the engine. It had a fuel tank in the riveted and welded monocoque frame, but that acted as a reserve; fuel had to pumped into a smaller tank mounted above the carburetor on the front fork for operation.
With the front wheel up on the center stand the bike could be started by spinning the front wheel and idle in place, or with the wheel down, the rider could simply bump start it and be off. There was no front brake, but it a dual rear brake system. Versions with bucket seats or saddle-type seating were built and the front fork had leaf spring suspension. Racing versions could top 85 mph and with excellent handling, the bike was successful in competition.
Another machine that could be had with a bucket seat and featured a low center of gravity and hub center steering was the Ner-a-Car built in both the U.S. and U.K. from 1921 to 1926. Built with a 283cc two-stroke single cylinder engine in the U.S. and 347cc four stroke single cylinder in the U.K., the Ner-a-Car initially had a five-speed friction drive to the rear wheel and later had a three speed transmission and chain drive system.
The clutch was operated with a twistgrip on the left handlebar. The chassis was an automotive-style twin-channel steel item that contributed to its low stance and what was touted as uncanny stability and cornering. The Ner-a-Car became recognized as one of the most reliable machines, as well with Mrs. G.M. Jackson completing an ACU-observed solo 1,000 mile trial without ever shutting the engine off in 1925!
The name “Majestic” was quite popular as a motorcycle marque at the beginning of the twentieth century being claimed by two English, one Belgian and one French manufacturer between 1904 and 1934. It was this French model that pushed the boundaries of styling with its streamlined unit-body look, automotive-style chassis, duplex steering and air-cooled 350cc engine.
Perhaps German engineering and efficiency were never put on display more effectively than in the Imme, built from 1948 to 1951. With advanced features like a single-sided front fork and single-side rear swingarm and cantilevered rear suspension, features that would not find their way into the designs of other brands until many years later, the ultra-light Imme was way ahead of its time. With the engine, driveline and rear end of the bike built as one unit, the single-side swingarm also functioned as the exhaust system. A tiny 98cc two stroke engine powered the early models with a twin cylinder 148cc engine being fitted on later models.
In stark contrast to the wispy Imme design, the Czech Bohmerland built from 1925 to 1939 was built with heavy-duty, hard use in mind. The massive steel double cradle frame housed a 598cc single-cylinder OHV Liebisch four stroke engine and the frame’s top rails extended all the way back past the rear wheel. Twin fuel tanks were mounted at the rear of the frame and aluminum disc wheels were used to save weight on the very long wheelbase machines. Some models were designed to seat three passengers.
As manufacturers sought ways to refine and economize on the manufacturing process, pressed steel monocoque and unit-body style approaches became attractive alternatives to labor-intensive welded tube designs. The English Ascot Pullen was built with pressed steel chassis, front fork and guards from 1928 to 1930. This bike had a 498cc four stroke single cylinder engine with dry sump lubrication.
Having both front and rear wheel drive on a motorcycle was probably thought of by many designers over the last century plus of motorcycle development, but the only successful production example we could locate is the Rokon. Developed in 1958 by Charles Fehn, manufacturing rights were sold to Nethercutt Industries in 1960. In the 1960s, production was moved from California to Vermont and later to New Hampshire. In 1973, automatic transmission was offered. Among all the designs attempted, the Rokon also has the singular feature in that it can be laid on its side in deep water and it will float! More information on Rokon is available at: www.rokon.com/
A more modern interpretation of the Ner-a-Car theme was the Quasar, designed by the late Malcolm Newell built in England from 1976 to 1994. Powered by a 750cc four cylinder Reliant automobile engine and equipped with a four-speed gearbox and full-roof fiberglass body, it offered some degree of weather protection and excellent aerodynamics. Similar design approaches are found in the Swiss Ecomobile and British-built Voyager.
While two-stroke engines were popular in many early motorcycle designs, in the early twentieth century, they were far from optimal; noisy, stinky and unreliable prone to overheating. It was Englishman, Alfred Scott, who took the two stroke engine from a cheap, low-performance utility motor to a reliable high performance machine. His liquid-cooled, parallel twin cylinder engine had a 180° crank and displaced 333cc. ]
A three port intake system and large internal flywheel between the two separate crankcases gave the Scott exceptional power and quelled the vibration two strokes were known for. The Scott was the first motorcycle with a kickstarter instead of pedals to start the engine as well as being the first production bike to have a foot gear shift. By 1911, Scott became the first to use rotary disc intake valves. Other manufacturers wouldn’t catch up with Scott’s innovative design for two strokes until the 1970s.
There are many, many more designs that broke new ground and contributed to the overall advancement of motorcycle design. Some that never got beyond the concept or prototype stage are even more edgy and inventive than these examples and we may take a look at some of those in the future, if only to muse about what might have been.
Other great source books that contributed to this article include:
“Rider’s Library—The Encyclopedia of the Motorcycle,” Ultimate Motorcycling, December, 2014
“Rider’s Library—Classic Motorcycles,” Ultimate Motorcycling, Sept. 2013.
And (yet to be reviewed):
“Encyclopedia of Motorcycles,” by Roland Brown
“The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Motorcycles,” by Tod Rafferty