The Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of American History (NMAH) has a small but choice collection of motorcycles, managed by the Transportation Collection staff in the Division of the History of Technology. Among the highlights are the earliest American motorcycle, a Smithsonian staff members daily commuter dating back to 1913, and one of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievels Harley-Davidsons. The collective history of the holdings is rich and colorful, and it continues to grow as new examples of this unique branch of American transportation technology are added to the permanent collection.
A motorcycle may be defined as a self-propelled, engine-powered, two-wheeled vehicle. Without question, the jewel in the Smithsonians collection is the earliest known example of American motorcycling ingenuity: a steam velocipede built by inventor Sylvester H. Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Although the precise construction date of this vehicle is unknown, it was exhibited and demonstrated at New England fairs and circuses by 1869. Aside from the forged-iron (?) frame and wooden wheels, its most prominent feature is a small, vertical fire-tube boiler suspended on springs between the wheels, just below the rider. The boilers water supply was ingeniously incorporated into the riders seat, and the water was manually pumped between the two by a hand-operated pump on the forward side of the boiler. The heated steam from the charcoal-fired boiler fired a small oscillating cylinder on either side of the boiler; the throttle was controlled by a rotating handlebar similar in design to the handgrip throttle on modern motorcycles. Twisting the handlebar in the opposite direction applied a friction brake on the front wheel. This vehicle predates Daimlers 1885 vehicle, often accorded self-propelled primacy, by at least 25 years. Roper was killed on June 1, 1896, while testing a new steam motorcycle at a bicycle track in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Next in time is an 1897 gasoline tricycle built by Louis S. Clarke of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is a remarkably modern-looking tricycle, converted to self-propulsion by the addition of a single-cylinder gasoline engine mounted just forward of the rear axle. A spark-advance lever served as a throttle control for the single available speed, and another lever operated both the clutch and hand brake. Pedals used for starting the vehicle or moving it when the engine was inoperative were in the usual place and were disengaged by a clutch when the engine was in operation. Pneumatic tires on 26-inch wire-spoke wheels served as the only suspension enhancement. This experimental tricycle led to the first four-wheeled Autocar in 1898, which is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The pioneering company continues to make long-haul trucks today.
In 1901, bicycle racer Oscar Hedstrom designed a motorcycle for the Hendee Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, which later became the Indian Motocycle Company. The following year the firm produced 143 examples; the NMAH has one. Although it is purpose-built, it closely resembles a modern bicycle, with a small gasoline engine below the seat driving the rear wheel via a dedicated chain. The engine is a 1 3/4-hp, air-cooled 4-stroke; a two-cell tank over the rear fender carried gas and oil for the carburetor and crankcase respectively. Bicycle pedals drive a separate chain to the rear wheel; reversing the pedals applied a coasting brake to the rear wheel. This early Indian weighs 93 lbs.; the NMAH also has a 1918 Model O, a 1923 example with Princess sidecar, and a red 1941 Four model with Indians famous skirted fenders.
The only American motorcycle manufacturer still in existence from the early days is the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, which celebrated its centennial in 2003. The NMAH has a number of the firms output. The earliest is a 1913 Model 9-B, which has a single-cylinder, 5-hp, 4-stroke air-cooled engine, chain drive, and a coaster brake. When new, this motorcycle cost $235. In 1918 it was purchased secondhand by Smithsonian employee Paul E. Garber, who used it for several years prior to donation to the Smithsonian in 1947. Other Harley-Davidsons held by the NMAH are: a rare 1942 Model 74 custom twin that belonged to Jorge Ubico, president of Guatemala; and a 1972 XR-750 custom used for jumping by daredevil Evel Knievel in the mid-1970s. More recently, the company donated a limited-edition 1993 Electra Glide Ultra Classic touring bike in commemoration of its 90th anniversary.