The motorcycle is one of the most popular vehicles in the world today. Especially in summer, you can see bikers dressed in leather riding through the countryside on their “hot stoves”, really enjoying their “freedom on two wheels”. But only very few people know that the motorcycle was most probably born in the small Bavarian town of Landsberg am Lech with its 30,000 inhabitants. From there, thanks to the tinkerer Alois Wolfmüller, it started its triumphal march around the world.
The world’s first motorcycle – to whom does the honor belong?
Scholars disagree about who really invented the motorized two-wheeler. Some say the motorcycle originally came from France, where Pierre Michaux and Louis-Guillaume Perreaux built their steam bike in 1869.
Others claim that Gottfried Daimler, who equipped his wooden bicycle with an internal combustion engine in 1865, was the inventor of the motorcycle. This cannot be clarified completely.
But the fact is that the Imperial Patent Office issued a patent to Alois Wolfmüller, the brothers Heinrich and Wilhelm Hildebrand and Hans Geisenhof on January 20 1894, in which the word “motorcycle” was mentioned for the first time. This paved the way for the first mass production of the motorcycle, which Alois Wolfmüller and his colleagues started in their factory in Munich. This was confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records a few years later, which would prove that Alois Wolfmüller was indeed the rightful inventor of the motorcycle.
According to unconfirmed reports, the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller company sold between 800 and 2,000 units between January 1894 and October 1895, some even in France under the name “Petrolette”.
From motorized two-wheeler to motorcycle
Born in Landsberg on April 22, 1864, Alois Wolfmüller attended elementary and secondary school and was considered a brilliant student. According to Wikipedia, his teacher once said “You’ll make a great rascal one day, or something else great.” Wolfmüller decided against a career as a gangster and for an apprenticeship in his father’s workshop. He then wandered around Germany working as a mechanic and wood turner.
During this time, he met Heinrich Hildebrand, founder of the magazine “Radfahrhumor und Radfahrchronik” (Cycling Humor and Cycling Chronicle), who, along with his brother, launched an unsuccessful attempt to develop a steam bicycle. Hildebrand commissioned Wolfmüller to develop a bicycle that would be powered by a gasoline engine. The test run in 1893 on the bumpy roads of the time ended in disaster, with one mechanic losing an arm. The test runs in January 1894 worked out better, but the new motorcycle only went backwards.
Then, on January 20, 1894, came the breakthrough. Wolfmüller’s buddy Hans Geisenhof completed the first hundred laps on the world’s first motorcycle on Landsberger Allee in Munich.
From March 1, 1894, Hildebrand & Wolfmüller’s first machine went into series production in Munich. The water-filled two-cylinder four-stroke engine made it to 40 km/h and was considered at the time to be an intelligently designed vehicle that was far ahead of its time, as can be seen from documents at the Deutsches Museum, where the prototype of the first motorcycle can still be seen today.
The Rise and Fall of Alois Wolfmüller
The motorcycle became a great success and the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller company employed 850 people, producing eight to ten machines a day. Wolfmüller stirred up the publicity by even taking part in two races. At the Esperimento di corsa di veicoli automotori in Italy, he finished third. But disaster was not long in coming. Customers complained about the life-threatening ignition and the lack of reliability. One journalist called the vehicle unfit for purpose. Litigation for damages and high production costs meant that the company had to file for bankruptcy in October 1895.
From then on, Alois Wolfmüller devoted himself to his true passion: flying. He corresponded for many years with aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal and designed flying machines. Wolfmüller died a poor and lonely man in Oberstdorf on October 3, 1948. But his invention, the motorcycle, inspires millions of fans all over the world today.