Let’s face it: not everybody rides a motorbike because of its two (or three) wheels, an engine, and a bunch of gears and pipes.
There’s also some history and culture to it. For example, did you know that the heaviest motorbike ever built weighs more than an average car? From record-breaking rides to jaw-dropping backstories, the world of motorcycles is a world of surprises.
Read this collection of facts about motorcycles and biker culture however you like: from top to bottom or by skimming and skipping. (You can even use it as a treasure trove of biker trivia to impress your motorcycle date!)
So rev up your engines and let’s ride!
Fun Facts About Motorcycles
1. Meet the World’s Oldest Motorbike
There are still disputes about whether or not we’re talking about motorbikes when we talk about the steam-powered two-wheelers from the mid-19th century.
But most people agree that the first real (or kinda real) motorcycle in today’s sense of the word was the Reitwagen or “Riding Car” (a.k.a. Einspur or “Single Track”) designed by Daimler in 1885.
True, today’s bikes’ great-great-great-grandma doesn’t much resemble the beauty sitting in your garage right now. But it had an internal combustion engine, which makes it a Homo erectus to your chromey Homo sapiens.
2. What’s in a Name? Ask Honda “Benri”
Any fan of classic bikes will have heard of Honda CB92, a.k.a. 125 Benly Super Sport.
Some of the lucky so-and-sos might have even got a chance to take one for a spin.
But whether you are an aficionado or not, you probably don’t know the truth about how and why this little but hardy guy came to be called Benly. It’s actually a misspelling (or Americanized spelling) of the Japanese word “benri” which means “convenient, handy, useful.”
And that happens to be exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you look at it today.
3. “4 Cylinders? Make That 6!”
No, this quote isn’t coming from Honda’s engineers when they decided to make the famous CBX 1000.
In fact, it isn’t a real quote after all. But I imagine someone must have said it when they decided to design a 6-cylinder engine.
And that someone’s name was Alejandro de Tomaso, an F1 racing driver, entrepreneur and visionary who acquired Benelli and devised its Benelli 750 Sei lineup of the world’s first 6-cylinder motorbikes.
This revolutionary type of engine was much praised at the time for its power and speed. Almost as much as it’s being scoffed at today for reasons such as bulkiness and a huge gas appetite.
But not long after its launching in the early ’70s, Honda and Kawasaki would follow suit and release their own sixers. Some of which, like the famous Honda Gold Wing, would even become bestsellers!
4. The Weirdest Name for a Motorcycle Goes to…
Competition is fierce on this one, with Flying Merkels, Widowmakers, Beagles and Pixies all around. But there’s one name that can hardly be beaten. Meet Sissy!
This cute little Austrian moped, fully named Lohner Sissy, first hit the road in 1957. It was advertised for ladies, but not for the reasons you might think. In Austria, Sissy has one meaning and one meaning alone: the nickname for their 19th-century darling, the insanely popular and universally admired Empress Elisabeth.
This little motorbike was kinda popular yet short lived. But fast forward to 2019 and it would even make it onto a postage stamp!
5. A War Bike Made to Fight the Nazis (But Never Actually Did)
Any WW2 movie shows it: bands of Nazi soldiers riding their BMWs (with or without sidecars).
But did you know that both Indian and Harley developed their responses to these machines? The main candidate that was supposed to whiz through the North African deserts and beat the Nazis was the stout, V-twin Indian 841.
The beast was rugged enough to withstand any imaginable kind of atmospheric beating. But even though it passed the military tests, it never actually went on its mission.
6. The Most Uncomfortable Bike Ever Made?
Okay, I know this question’s more than enough to cause a full-scale biker fight.
But some motorcycles are just so painful to ride that they go beyond the peaceable “one biker butt’s heaven, another biker butt’s hell” philosophy.
The top contenders – you guessed it right – have to fall under the dirt bike, cafe racers, sports, super sports or naked bike categories. While there can never be a consensus on such a sensitive issue, many riders seem to agree that Yamaha MT-01, though generally a decent machine, has to be one of the most painful bikes to ride.
The looks of the tank itself tell you that this experience must be akin to riding an elephant. Except that the pegs are nowhere to be found. (In fact, they are placed such that you need to bend the knees really hard, especially if you’re long-legged.) To make matters worse, this elephant’s rear end is lower than you would expect, which makes the grip on the handlebars a bit uneasy too.
7. There’s Heavy, and Then There’s… Heavy Harley!
Motorbike manufacturers sometimes pretend to forget that you need to be able to handle your bike when it’s parked too. Or, god forbid, to pick it up when you drop it.
As is known far and wide, Harley’s one of the foremost manufacturers of motorcycles that weigh half a ton. And their CVO Road Glide Ultra takes the heavy cake, with its 930 lbs (422 kg) of dry weight.
A wicked tongue may even use the word “unnecessarily” in this context. But if you’re a Hulk, you won’t complain!
Note that this beast is the world’s heaviest commercially available motorbike. The next entry on this list is way heavier. But there’s a catch: you can’t get one.
8. Say Hello to the Big Mama! Heaviest Rideable Motorcycle Ever
If 930 lbs sounds too much, how about 4,7 tons of rusty steel powered by a Soviet tank engine from WW2?
That’s just shy of 10,400 lbs.
Well, that’s the weight of a Harzer Bike Schmiede’s motorbike with a sidecar. (I wager it’s an estimation because nobody ever managed to lift the damn thing.)
The three-wheeled behemoth was cobbled together from old military gear by two enthusiasts who must have been ardent Mad Max fans. Better yet, the thing moves well enough to have been able to parade through a Hamburg motor show back in 2017.
9. $1 Million for a Piece of History
If someone asked you to guess which motorbike claimed most cash at an auction, you’d probably think about a futurist conceptual motorbike such as Neiman Marcus or something along those lines. And you’d be wrong.
The correct answer is more romantic and way less high-tech. As of this writing (February 2023), the winner is the vintage 1908 Strap Tank Harley, which is essentially a bicycle with a small engine.
A question remains: did the buyer splurge so much because it’s vintage, or because it’s a vintage Harley? Or because there are only a dozen such bikes left in the world?
10. The Longest Ride: A Journey of Half a Million Miles
Ever dreamed of ditching your day job to sit on your bike and ride into the sunset?
That’s exactly what Emilio Scotto did back in 1985. 10 years, almost 300 countries, 13 passports and 457,000 miles later, he would make it to the Guinness World Record as the rider who’s made the longest ever motorcycle trip.
The journey was by no means smooth. Scotto got mugged in Brazil, crossed paths with all sorts of outcasts on his way across the Amazon River, and even got arrested in Nicaragua on charges of spying for the CIA!
His trusted Honda Gold Wing took him to all corners of the world, including Europe behind the Iron Curtain, Greenland, Egypt, African and Asian deserts and steppes, Australia, Japan.
10. Faster Than a Speeding Bullet?
The greatest motorcycle speed ever recorded on land was marked at 376.36 mph – a little more than 605 km/h! That’s faster than your average airplane, making it a miracle that the vehicle didn’t take off the land.
This record was set by a bullet-shaped streamliner called Ack Attack whooshing through the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. Rocky Robinson, the magician who got to break both his own and the world record not once but 3 times riding this same machine, had to lay back in the enclosed capsule, as if he were operating a Star Trek spacecraft.
Well, it might not really be faster than a bullet. But it wasn’t that far either! Suffice it to say that both this and other teams still haven’t managed to top this speed.
11. The Country With Most Motorcycles
No, it’s not the US. Not even close!
The data vary, but according to Pew Research, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia top the charts of motorcycle ownership. In Thailand, a whopping 87% of all households owned at least one motorbike in 2015. Even if many or most only owned humble scooters, it’s pretty impressive!
The US stands at 14%, which puts it in the lower half of 44 countries they surveyed.
12. The Most Popular Motorbike Ever
No matter how old or young you are, you’re bound to have seen it on the road, in the rush hours, or behind a bush. It’s a small, economic, scooter-like motorbike that was first made in 1958 but still remains the absolute best-seller ever!
Say hello to the legendary Honda C100, also known as Super Cub.
To this date, this little guy has hit over 100 million sales, and counting. New iterations of the C125 are still being released. But even though the tech is getting better, one thing remains evergreen: the model’s classic charm that doesn’t give in.
13. Motorbikes for Mail Delivery
After centuries of delivering mail to the country’s rural corners on horseback and horse-drawn wagons, a new mail delivery vehicle cropped up in 1907: the motorcycle. Pretty soon, America’s backroads were traversed by Harleys and Indians with or without detachable sidecars.
In 1911, mail motorcycles began to conquer the cities too. Except that they weren’t your regular two-wheelers. Instead, they had two wheels at the front with a hinged box in between so that the mailman could quickly put the mail in and take it out, and one wheel in the back.
14. The First Ever Electric Motorcycle Was Patented… Much Earlier Than You Think!
They may be all the rage today, but electric motorcycles were pondered upon more than 150 years ago!
More precisely, the first ever patent for the so-called Vélocipède magnéto-électrique was filed back in 1869! The inventor was a guy called Joseph Marie.
He wasn’t the only one dabbling in new technologies that were supposed to render the power of human legs superfluous, though. Two other engineers filed their own patent that same year, which would soon be followed by a patent for yet another model of a motorcycle that runs on steam.
15. Meet the Guy Who Survived the Most Unusual Motorcycle Crash
Surviving a crash on a motorbike in the fast lane during rush hour and getting away with several bruises and broken ribs is lucky enough.
But how about being struck by lightning on a moving motorcycle, then slipping off not one but two lanes without bumping into a single car, crashing offroad and living to tell the tale?
This is what happened to Eugene Villenes back in 2014 on his regular motorbike commute from work. The lightning knocked him unconscious so the lucky guy woke up hours later, in a hospital, to an almost unbelievable story about his own survival.
16. The World’s First Flying Motorcycle
How would you go about making a two-wheeler that flies? Why, just take one and clasp it onto a drone.
This is the gist of the XTURISMO hoverbike that was recently launched at a show in Detroit. Like the name suggests, it lets you buzz off the ground and hover for up to 40 minutes. So it doesn’t only look like a drone. It acts much the same as one!
If you’re feeling rich and adventurous, you can order one already. The initial price is just shy of $800,000, but the company has promised to make them way more affordable.
But why do they even consider it a motorcycle, you may ask? Because you mount it like you would mount a motorcycle. It even has handlebars and a small windshield.
17. Tall, Taller, 16-Feet Tall Super Chopper
How can a humble human reach the handlebars of a monster motorbike that’s nearly 17 feet tall and over 33 feet long?
The answer is, you can’t. (Except for show.) This super chopper has a set of handlebars of normal human size right in front of the seat. So yes, it is rideable and not just a piece of the “let’s build something ginormous and call it a motorbike so we can get into Guinness” worldview.
The world’s tallest motorbike was built back in 2012 by Fabio Reggiani, a guy who still tweaks and refines the beast. And sometimes even takes it for a spin around town!
18. How Do I Call Thee? The First Ever Use of the Word “Motorcycle”
If you scroll up to the entry #14, you’ll notice the word “Vélocipède” being thrown around a lot. This literally means “swift foot,” which of course meant a bike operated by feet. Not the aptest name for a bike that doesn’t actually run on human sweat!
Next in line of lousy names was “Reitwagen” or “riding car.” Which was technically true but so painfully sketchy that it could be used for just about anything, from an oxcart to a stagecoach.
So when the Hildebrand brothers and Alois Wolfmüller designed their epic, mass-produced two-wheeler with internal combustion in 1894, they named it “Motorrad.” Translated to English, it literally means “motor wheel” or “motorcycle.”
This isn’t the oldest ever motorcycle though. (For that, scroll up to entry #1.) But it’s definitely the oldest motorcycle that was called – a motorcycle.
19. Say Hello to the Arch-Helmet
Where there are motorcycles, there are accidents too. So it’s little wonder that in 1914, as commercial motorcycling was booming, Dr. Eric Gardner realized that head injuries weren’t going anywhere.
So the good doctor designed a protective leather cap and even campaigned far and wide to raise awareness. Admittedly, a piece of thicker leather with straps would only (maybe) protect you from a minor head bump. But it’s the thought that counts, and this thought would soon burgeon into the world’s first motorcycle helmet.
20. The Night When Harley (Almost) Went Bust
You probably know that Harley isn’t exactly cruising down a road paved with milk and honey. On the contrary, struggle is ingrained in the company’s reputation almost as much as its leather-clad iconography.
The reason is simple. Its archetypal customer, the tough, free-spirited rider, grew old. It’s a bit difficult to relish the wind in your hair when you wake up each morning to a pain in your back. And it’s more difficult still to sell the Harley philosophy to the e-scooter generations.
But the 2000s aren’t the company’s worst time by a long shot. What many people don’t know is that Harley came within a hair’s breadth of bankruptcy back in 1985. The managers were ready to call it a night when the company got saved by the bell. Or rather, a telephone call by an investor who decided to offer them a lifeline.
21. “Easy Rider” Riding Cheap
Freewheeling Harley choppers down Route 66 and getting high with hippies isn’t the only thing “Easy Rider” is famous for. This landmark biker movie kicked off an era of cheap post-classic Hollywood pictures of the early ‘70s.
Granted, its budget of around $400,000 translates to a wee bit over $3 million in today’s money. But that’s still nowhere near hundreds of millions that your average Hollywood movie costs.
22. Pay Your Own Way for a Biker Movie
The surprisingly low budget for “Easy Rider” isn’t the only marvelous thing about this movie.
Since the funds were tight, Peter Fonda (the genius behind the screenplay and Wyatt’s role) decided to go super liberal with his credit cards. Which then everybody used to pay for their accommodations, gas and grub.
Talk about enthusiasm!
23. Rats Don’t Like Chrome
Choppers, bobbers and other custom bikes have been part of the biker culture since day one.
But there’s something even cooler than that, and it’s called rat bike.
Basically, it’s about rummaging through old warehouses and dumpsters to find bike parts – or ANY parts that could be used on a bike. (Think airplane or tractor parts, rusty old tubes and valves, anything that resembles or can be made to resemble a rake or a fork or a cable…)
But there’s a twist: you don’t paint this thing and dress it up in shiny chrome once it’s put together. It’s supposed to look like a self-reliant, proud monstrosity whose singular purpose is to act, not look. If it stands or better yet – if it rolls on two wheels, it’s good enough.
(And if the exhaust spits flame while you rev it up, even better!)
“I try to put things on as good as I can – especially the good stuff that I get. But I have lost some good stuff… you just hope another rat bike man picks it up,” said Smitty, a rat biker, in an interview for the Motorcycle Cruiser mag back in 1999.