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Background Information

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A Triumph T110 motorcycle
A Ural motorcycle with sidecar

A motorcycle (also called a motorbike, bike, moto or cycle) is a two or three wheeled motor vehicle. Motorcycles vary considerably depending on the task they are designed for, such as long distance travel, navigating congested urban traffic, cruising, sport and racing, or off-road conditions.

Motorcycles are one of the most affordable forms of motorised transport in many parts of the world and, for most of the world's population, they are also the most common type of motor vehicle. There are around 200 million motorcycles (including mopeds, motor scooters, motorised bicycles, and other powered two and three-wheelers) in use worldwide, or about 33 motorcycles per 1000 people. This compares to around 590 million cars, or about 91 per 1000 people.

Most of the motorcycles, 58%, are in the developing countries of Asia – Southern and Eastern Asia, and the Asia Pacific countries, excluding Japan – while 33% of the cars (195 million) are concentrated in the United States and Japan. In 2006, China had 54 million motorcycles in use and an annual production of 22 million units. As of 2002, India, with an estimated 37 million motorcycles/mopeds, was home to the largest number of motorised two wheelers in the world. China came a close second with 34 million motorcycles/mopeds.


19th century: the first motorcycles

Experimentation and invention

Replica of the Daimler-Maybach Petroleum Reitwagen.

The first internal combustion, petroleum fueled motorcycle was the Petroleum Reitwagen. It was designed and built by the German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Bad Cannstatt, Germany in 1885. This vehicle was unlike either the safety bicycles or the boneshaker bicycles of the era in that it had zero degrees of steering axis angle and no fork offset, and thus did not use the principles of bicycle and motorcycle dynamics developed nearly 70 years earlier. Instead, it relied on two outrigger wheels to remain upright while turning. The inventors called their invention the Reitwagen ("riding car"). It was designed as an expedient testbed for their new engine, rather than a true prototype vehicle. Many authorities who exclude steam powered, electric or diesel two-wheelers from the definition of a motorcycle, credit the Daimler Reitwagen as the world's first motorcycle.

If a two-wheeled vehicle with steam propulsion is considered a motorcycle, then the first was the French Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede of 1868. This was followed by the American Roper steam velocipede of 1869, built by Sylvester H. Roper Roxbury, Massachusetts. Roper demonstrated his machine at fairs and circuses in the eastern U.S. in 1867, and built a total of 10 examples.

Beginnings of mass production

In 1894, Hildebrand & Wolfmüller became the first series production motorcycle, and the first to be called a motorcycle (German: Motorrad).

In the early period of motorcycle history, many producers of bicycles adapted their designs to accommodate the new internal combustion engine. As the engines became more powerful and designs outgrew the bicycle origins, the number of motorcycle producers increased. Many of the nineteenth century inventors who worked on early motorcycles often moved on to other inventions. Daimler and Roper, for example, both went on to develop automobiles.

20th century

Until World War I, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world was Indian, producing over 20,000 bikes per year. By 1920, this honour went to Harley-Davidson, with their motorcycles being sold by dealers in 67 countries. By the late 1920s or early 1930s, DKW took over as the largest manufacturer.

After World War II, the BSA Group became the largest producer of motorcycles in the world, producing up to 75,000 bikes per year in the 1950s. The German company NSU held the position of largest manufacturer from 1955 until the 1970s.

NSU Sportmax streamlined motorcycle, 250 cc class winner of the 1955 Grand Prix season

In the 1950s, streamlining began to play an increasing part in the development of racing motorcycles and the "dustbin fairing" held out the possibility of radical changes to motorcycle design. NSU and Moto Guzzi were in the vanguard of this development, both producing very radical designs well ahead of their time. NSU produced the most advanced design, but after the deaths of four NSU riders in the 1954–1956 seasons, they abandoned further development and quit Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

Moto Guzzi produced competitive race machines, and by 1957 nearly all the Grand Prix races were being won by streamlined machines. The following year, 1958, full enclosure fairings were banned from racing by the FIM in the light of the safety concerns.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, small two-stroke motorcycles were popular worldwide, partly as a result of East German Walter Kaaden's engine work in the 1950s.

21st century

In the 21st century, the motorcycle industry is mainly dominated by Japanese companies. In addition to the large capacity motorcycles, there is a large market in smaller capacity (less than 300 cc) motorcycles, mostly concentrated in Asian and African countries. An example is the 1958 Honda Super Cub, which went on to become the biggest selling vehicle of all time, with its 60 millionth unit produced in April 2008. Today, this area is dominated by mostly Indian companies with Hero MotoCorp emerging as the world's largest manufacturer of two wheelers. Its Splendor model has sold more than 8.5 million to date. Other major producers are Bajaj and TVS Motors.


Number of motorcycles vs number of cars by country. Size of pie indicates population. 2002 estimates.
Millions of cars (light blue) and motorcycles (dark blue) in the top 20 countries with the most motorcycles. Population in red. 2002 estimates.
Motorbikes are the primary form of transportation in Vietnam.

In numerous cultures, motorcycles are the primary means of motorised transport. According to the Taiwanese government, for example, "the number of automobiles per ten thousand population is around 2,500, and the number of motorcycles is about 5,000." In places such as Vietnam, motorised traffic consist of mostly motorbikes due to a lack of public transport and low income levels that put automobiles out of reach for many.

The four largest motorcycle markets in the world are all in Asia: China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The motorcycle is also popular in Brazil's frontier towns. Amid the global economic downturn of 2008, the motorcycle market grew by 6.5%.

Recent years have seen an increase in the popularity of motorcycles elsewhere. In the USA, registrations increased by 51% between 2000 and 2005. This is mainly attributed to increasing fuel prices and urban congestion. A Consumer Reports subscribers' survey of mainly United States motorcycle and scooter owners reported that they rode an average of only 1,000 miles (1,600 km) per year, 82% for recreation and 38% for commuting. Americans put 10,000–12,000 miles (16,000–19,000 km) per year on their cars and light trucks.

As motorcyclists age, there is a tendency for riders to choose touring bikes over sports bikes.


Milk delivery in Karnal, India
A couple ride on a motorcycle in Udaipur, India. Annual sales of motorcycles in India are expected to exceed 10 million by 2010.

While people choose to ride motorcycles for various reasons, those reasons are increasingly practical, with riders opting for a powered two-wheeler as a cost-efficient alternative to infrequent and expensive public transport systems, or as a means of avoiding or reducing the effects of urban congestion. In places where it is permitted, lane splitting, also known as filtering, allows motorcycles to use the space between vehicles to move through stationary or slow traffic.

In the UK, motorcycles are exempt from the £10 per day London congestion charge other vehicles must pay to enter the city during the day. Motorcycles are also exempt from toll charges at some river crossings, such as the Severn Bridge, Dartford Crossing, and Mersey Tunnels. Some cities, such as Bristol, allow motorcycles to use bus lanes and provide dedicated free parking. In the United States, those states that have high-occupancy vehicle lanes also allow for motorcycle travel in them. Other countries have similar policies.

In New Zealand motorcycle riders are not required to pay for parking that is controlled by a barrier arm; the arm does not occupy the entire width of the lane, and the motorcyclist simply rides around it. Many car parks controlled in this way supply special areas for motorcycles to park, so as not to unnecessarily consume spaces.

In many cities that have serious parking challenges for cars, such as San Francisco, California, and Melbourne, Australia, motorcycles are generally permitted to park on the sidewalk, rather than occupy a space on the street which might otherwise be used by a car.

Technical aspects

A Suzuki GS500 with a clearly visible frame (painted silver).


Motorcycle construction is the engineering, manufacturing, and assembly of components and systems for a motorcycle which results in the performance, cost, and aesthetics desired by the designer. With some exceptions, construction of modern mass-produced motorcycles has standardised on a steel or aluminium frame, telescopic forks holding the front wheel, and disc brakes. Some other body parts, designed for either aesthetic or performance reasons may be added. A petrol powered engine typically consisting of between one and four cylinders (and less commonly, up to eight cylinders) coupled to a manual five- or six-speed sequential transmission drives the swingarm-mounted rear wheel by a chain, driveshaft or belt.

Fuel economy

Motorcycle fuel economy varies greatly with engine displacement and riding style ranging from a low of 29 mpg-US (8.1 L/100 km; 35 mpg-imp) reported by a Honda VTR1000F rider, to 107 mpg-US (2.20 L/100 km; 129 mpg-imp) reported for the Verucci Nitro 50 cc Scooter. A specially designed Matzu Matsuzawa Honda XL125 achieved 470 mpg-US (0.50 L/100 km; 560 mpg-imp) "on real highways – in real conditions." Due to low engine displacements (100 cc–200 cc), and high power-to-mass ratios, motorcycles offer good fuel economy. Under conditions of fuel scarcity like 1950s Britain and modern developing nations, motorcycles claim large shares of the vehicle market.

Electric motorcycles

Very high fuel economy equivalents are often derived by electric motorcycles. Electric motorcycles are nearly silent, zero-emission electric motor-driven vehicles. Operating range and top speed suffer because of limitations of battery technology. Fuel cells and petroleum-electric hybrids are also under development to extend the range and improve performance of the electric motors.


Racing motorcycles leaning in a turn.

Different types of motorcycles have different dynamics and these play a role in how a motorcycle performs in given conditions. For example, one with a longer wheelbase provides the feeling of more stability by responding less to disturbances. Motorcycle tyres have a large influence over handling.

Motorcycles must be leaned in order to make turns. This lean is induced by the method known as countersteering, in which the rider momentarily steers the handlebars in the direction opposite of the desired turn. Because it is counter-intuitive this practice is often very confusing to novices – and even to many experienced motorcyclists.

Short wheelbase motorcycles, such as sport bikes, can generate enough torque at the rear wheel, and enough stopping force at the front wheel, to lift the opposite wheel off the road. These actions, if performed on purpose, are known as wheelies and stoppies respectively. If carried past the point of recovery the resulting upset is known as an "endo" (short for "end-over-end"), or "looping" the vehicle.


Various features and accessories may be attached to a motorcycle either as OEM (factory-fitted) or after-market. Such accessories are selected by the owner to enhance the motorcycle's appearance, safety, performance, or comfort, and may include anything from mobile electronics to sidecars and trailers.


Motorcycles have a higher rate of fatal accidents than automobiles or trucks and buses. United States Department of Transportation data for 2005 from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System show that for passenger cars, 18.62 fatal crashes occur per 100,000 registered vehicles. For motorcycles this figure is higher at 75.19 per 100,000 registered vehicles – four times higher than for cars. The same data shows that 1.56 fatalities occur per 100 million vehicle miles travelled for passenger cars, whereas for motorcycles the figure is 43.47–28 times higher than for cars (37 times more deaths per mile travelled in 2007). Furthermore for motorcycles the accident rates have increased significantly since the end of the 1990s, while the rates have dropped for passenger cars.

Wearing a motorcycle helmet reduces the risks of death or injury in a motorcycle crash

The two major causes of motorcycle accidents in the United States are: motorists pulling out or turning in front of motorcyclists and violating their rights-of-way, and motorcyclists running wide through turns. The former is sometimes called a SMIDSY, an acronym formed from the motorists' common response of "Sorry mate, I didn't see you". The latter is more commonly caused by operating a motorcycle while intoxicated. Motorcyclists can anticipate and avoid some of these crashes with proper training, increasing their conspicuousness to other traffic, and not consuming alcohol or drugs before riding.

The United Kingdom has several organisations which are dedicated to improving motorcycle safety by providing advanced rider training over and above what is necessary to pass the basic motorcycle test. These include the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). Along with increased personal safety, riders with these advanced qualifications often benefit from reduced insurance costs.

In South Africa, the Think Bike campaign is dedicated to increasing both motorcycle safety and the awareness of motorcycles on the country's roads. The campaign, while strongest in the Gauteng province, has representation in Western Cape, KwaZulu Natal and the Free State. It has dozens of trained marshals available for various events such as cycle races and is deeply involved in numerous other projects such as the annual Motorcycle Toy Run.

An MSF rider course for novices

Motorcycle Safety Education is offered throughout the United States by organisations ranging from state agencies to non-profit organisations to corporations. Most states use the courses designed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), while Oregon and Idaho developed their own. All of the training programs include a Basic Rider Course, an Intermediate Rider Course and an Advanced Rider Course.

In the UK and some Australian jurisdictions, such as Victoria, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, it is compulsory to undertake a rider training course before being issued a Learners Licence.

In Canada, motorcycle rider training is compulsory in Quebec and Manitoba only, but all provinces and territories have Graduated Licensing programs which place restrictions on new drivers until they have gained experience. Eligibility for a full motorcycle licence or endorsement for completing a Motorcycle Safety course varies by province. The Canada Safety Council, a non-profit safety organisation, offers the Gearing Up program across Canada and is endorsed by the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council. Training course graduates may qualify for reduced insurance premiums.


A boulevard cruiser (front) and a sportbike (background)
French gendarme motorcyclist

There are three major types of motorcycle: street, off-road, and dual purpose. Within these types, there are many different sub-types of motorcycles for many different purposes.

Street bikes include cruisers, sportbikes, scooters and mopeds, and many other types. Off-road motorcycles include many types designed for dirt-oriented racing classes such as motocross and are not street legal in most areas. Dual purpose machines like the dual-sport style are made to go off-road but include features to make them legal and comfortable on the street as well.

Each configuration offers either specialised advantage or broad capability, and each design creates a different riding posture.

Motorcycle rider postures

The motorcyclist's riding position depends on rider body-geometry ( anthropometry) combined with the geometry of the motorcycle itself. These factors create a set of three basic postures.

  • Sport – the rider leans forwards into the wind and the weight of the upper torso is supported by the rider's arms at low speed and air pressure at high speed (e.g., above 50 mph (80 km/h)). The footpegs are below the rider or to the rear. The reduced frontal area cuts wind resistance and allows higher speeds. At low-speed this position throws the weight of the rider onto the arms, and this can be tiring to the rider's wrists.
  • Standard – the rider sits upright or leans forwards slightly. The feet are below the rider. These are motorcycles that are not specialised to one task, so they do not excel in any particular area. The standard posture is used with touring and commuting as well as dirt and dual-sport bikes, and may offer advantages for beginners.
  • Cruiser – the rider sits at a lower seat height with the upper torso upright or leaning slightly rearwards. Legs are extended forwards, sometimes out of reach of the regular controls on cruiser pegs. The low seat heights can be a consideration for new or short riders. Handlebars tend to be high and wide. Harley-Davidsons are exemplars of this style. The emphasis is on comfort, while compromising cornering ability because of low ground clearance and the greater likelihood of scraping foot pegs, floor boards, or other parts if turns are taken at the speeds other types of motorcycles can do.

Factors of a motorcycle's ergonomic geometry that determine the seating posture include the height, angle and location of footpegs, seat and handlebars. Factors in a rider's physical geometry that contribute to seating posture include torso, arm, thigh and leg length, and overall rider height.

Legal definitions and restrictions

A motorcycle is broadly defined by law in most countries for the purposes of registration, taxation and rider licensing as a powered two-wheel motor vehicle. Most countries distinguish between mopeds of 49 cc and the more powerful, larger vehicles (scooters do not count as a separate category). Many jurisdictions include some forms of three-wheeled cars as motorcycles.

Environmental impact

In 2007 and 2008, motorcycles and scooters, due to good fuel efficiency, attracted interest in the United States from environmentalists and those affected by increased fuel prices. Piaggio Group Americas supported this interest with the launch of a "Vespanomics" website and platform, citing lower per-mile carbon emissions of 0.4 lb/mile (113 g/km) less than the average car, a 65% reduction, and better fuel economy.

Other sources, however, claim that while motorcycles produce much less pollution in terms of greenhouse gases, a motorcycle can in some cases emit 10–20 times the quantity of nitrogen oxides (NOx) when compared to the NOx emissions of a car. This is because many motorcycles lack a catalytic converter to reduce NOx emissions, and while catalytic converters have been used in cars long enough that they are now commonplace, they are a relatively new technology in motorcycles. Many newer motorcycles (such as later models of the Yamaha R1 and Suzuki GSXR1000, as well as most BMWs which have included catalytic converters since the 1990s) now have factory fitted catalytic converters. Along with other technologies that have taken longer to appear in motorcycles (e.g. fuel injection, anti-lock brake systems), catalytic converters are becoming increasingly commonplace.

United States Environmental Protection Agency 2007 certification result reports for all vehicles versus on highway motorcycles (which also includes scooters), the average certified emissions level for 12,327 vehicles tested was 0.734. The average "Nox+Co End-Of-Useful-Life-Emissions" for 3,863 motorcycles tested was 0.8531, for a difference of about 16%, not the claimed 10X factor. Likewise, if one looks at how many of the 2007 motorcycles tested were also catalytic equipped, 54% of them, 2,092, were equipped with a catalytic converter.

United States emissions limits

The following table shows maximum acceptable legal emissions of the combination of hydrocarbon and nitrous oxides, as well as carbon monoxide, for new Class III motorcycles (280 cc or larger displacement) sold in the United States.

Tier Model year HC+NOx (g/km) CO (g/km)
Tier 1 2006–2009 1.4 12.0
Tier 2 2010 and later 0.8 12.0

The maximum acceptable legal emissions of hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide for new Class I and II motorcycles (50 cc–169 cc and 170 cc–279 cc respectively) sold in the United States are as follows:

Model year HC (g/km) CO (g/km)
2006 and later 1.0 12.0


European emission standards for motorcycles are similar to those for cars. New motorcycles must meet Euro III standards, while cars must meet Euro V standards. Therefore, the difference in total pollution between motorcycles and cars that pass European emission standards would be small, certainly much smaller than the 10X factor claimed by the referenced LA Times article. Motorcycle emissions controls are being updated and it has been proposed to update to Euro IV in 2012 and Euro V in 2015.

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