In the 1960s, Honda ran an ad campaign with the tagline “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” It was created to counter the popular opinion in the 1960s that motorcycles were for hoodlums and ne’er-do-wells. Decades before, that’s what motorized bicycles were all about: providing ordinary folks that couldn’t afford a car with a means of motorized transportation.
Most motorcycle companies still in business today got their start producing bicycles, then motors to power bicycles, then complete motorized bicycles. In Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1869, Sylvester Roper designed a steam-powered velocipede, eventually building 10 examples. But prior to the advent of the internal combustion engine, the size and complexity and downright danger of a steam boiler made it impractical.
Today, motorized bicycles are said to make up between 10 to 20 percent of any given city’s total transportation. Modern motorized bicycles are generally powered by small, hub-mounted motors and rechargeable batteries. A handful of super-cool retro motorized bikes like the Derringer shown in the lead photo are available, too.
In 1892, Felix Millet came up with the first practical application of an internal combustion engine affixed to a bicycle. It featured both pedals and a crankshaft, attached to a radial engine on the rear wheel.
The Auto-Bi showed up here in the United States around 1901. It was produced by the Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, New York, after it successfully produced engines for DeDion-Bouton tricycles in the late 19th century. Within three years, Thomas would be the largest producer of air-cooled single cylinder engines.
A lot of development in motorized bicycles came during the odd contest of motor-paced bicycle racing. Basically, every bicycle rider had a motor-powered bicycle pacing in front of him, providing a slipstream that could allow a bicycle rider to hit 60 miles per hour. This Derny pacer used human power to start the engine, but the pedals were unfit to power the bike for any length of time.
In 1939, airplane parts manufacturer Breene-Taylor Engineering began producing bolt-on “Whizzer” engine kits, featuring a 138cc side-valve, four-stroke single that could power a bicycle via a belt. In 1949, the company introduced its first complete production bike, the Pacemaker. In 1998, Whizzer U.S.A. began producing a modernized Whizzer Classic.
The French manufacturer Solex began producing motorized bicycles and tricycles in 1946. Like Vespa and Lambretta in Italy, Solex provided French citizens a means of inexpensive transportation when they needed it most, as the nation began to rebuild itself after the devastation of the war. The VéloSoleX powered the front wheel by a small engine and a friction roller that spun the tire. Between 1946 and 1988 — when the company ceased production in France — it sold over 7 million VéloSoleX models in over 70 countries around the world.