c.1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller
There had been steam-driven 'boneshakers' on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1860s and, of course, Gottlieb Daimler's gasoline-engined Einspur of 1885, but the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller was the first powered two-wheeler to enter series production; indeed, it is the first such device to which the name 'motorcycle' (motorrad in German) was ever applied. (Although a true motorcycle, Daimler's was only ever intended as a test-bed for his high-revving internal combustion engine, and as soon as that was powerful enough he turned his attention to automobiles).
Like many of their contemporaries, the Hildebrand brothers, Heinrich and Wilhelm, began by experimenting with steam power before turning to a (two-stroke) gasoline engine, the latter having been developed in partnership with Alois Wolfmüller and his mechanic, Hans Geisenhof. The quartet's next design was a water-cooled, four-stroke parallel twin displacing 1,488cc, which until relatively recent times was the largest power unit ever fitted to a motorcycle. The Hildebrands were in the cycle business so their new engine was mounted in a bicycle frame of the newly developed 'safety' configuration. When this proved insufficiently robust, a more integrated arrangement was devised, based on that of the Hildebrands' defunct steamer, and the name 'motorrad' registered for the new invention, which was patented in January 1894.
Steam locomotive practice was further recalled by the long connecting rods directly linking the pistons to the rear wheel, which opened and closed the mechanical exhaust valves via pushrods actuated by a cam on the hub. The latter contained an epicyclic reduction gear and there was no crankshaft flywheel, the solid disc rear wheel serving that purpose. Rubber bands assisted the pistons on the return stroke. Fuel was fed from the tank to a surface carburettor and thence via atmospheric inlet valves to the cylinders where it was ignited by platinum hot tube, as developed by Daimler. The box-like rear mudguard acted as a reservoir for the engine's cooling water, while one of the frame tubes served as the oil tank. The tyres, manufactured under license from Dunlop by Veith in Germany, were the first of the pneumatic variety ever fitted to a motorcycle.
Although modern in many respects, the H&W was primitive in others, most notably the brakes, which consisted of a steel 'spoon' working on the front tyre, the application of which automatically closed the throttle. The rider controlled the latter by means of a rotating thumbscrew; there was no clutch, which made starting an athletic procedure, the machine being pushed until it fired, whereupon its rider leapt aboard while simultaneously trying to regulate engine speed. Despite producing only 2.5bhp at 240rpm, the H&W was capable of speeds approaching 30mph, an exciting prospect at a time when powered road transport of any sort was still a novelty.
A patent for the design was granted in January 1894 and a new company formed in Munich: Motofahrrad-Fabrik Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. The H&W's announcement was greeted with considerable enthusiasm and plans were drawn up to build a factory on the Colosseum Strasse in Munich to produce it. In the meantime, numerous small workshops manufactured parts for the machine, which was also licensed to the firm of Duncan, Superbie et Cie for manufacture at its plant in Croissy, France where it would be marketed as 'La Petrolette'. Six Petrolettes were exhibited at the first Paris Motor Salon held in December 1895 and by 1896 some 50-or-so had been delivered.
Seeking to promote its new product, the company had despatched two machines to Italy in May 1895 to take part in a combined car/motorcycle race from Turin to Asti and back. Ridden by Wolfmüller himself and a local motoring enthusiast, Giovanni-Battista Ceirano, they finished in 2nd and 3rd places respectively, beaten only by a Daimler car. Despite this impressive performance the H&W's shortcomings were cruelly exposed in the next race, the prestigious Paris-Bordeaux-Paris event from which both retired at half-distance, and matters worsened still further once deliveries to paying customers commenced. The crudity of the hot tube ignition meant that starting was difficult and, once under way, progress was erratic because of the rear wheel's poor flywheel effect. Duncan, Superbie et Cie lost a court case against a dissatisfied customer whereupon many others promptly demanded their money back. Early in 1897 both the German and French ventures collapsed. Opinion differs with regard to how many machines were produced, figures ranging from as low as 800 to as high as 2,000 being quoted. Survivors are, needless to say, exceedingly rare though there are examples in some important collections including the Deutsches Zweirad-Museum in Neckarsulm, Germany, the Science Museum in London, England, the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan, USA and the Lower Rhine Motorcycle Museum in Moers-Asberg, Germany.
The example we offer has been in the ownership of the vendor's family in the USA since at least the early 1930s, which is when it last ran. While growing up in the 1930s in Staten Island, New York, USA, William 'Bill' McNee - the vendor's father - became fascinated by his grandfather's old motorcycle with the foreign sounding 'Hildebrand & Wolfmüller Munchen' decorative script on the rear fender. Bill McNee's interest and enthusiasm was so keen that his grandfather, Bill Brassington, promised him the motorcycle when he got older.
Upon Mr Brassington's death in 1970 his daughter Marion McNee (née Brassington), Bill's mother, sold several of his old motor vehicles, including the H&W, to an interested neighbour. However, its loss was too much for Bill to bear and he very pointedly let his mother know how betrayed he felt that she sold the motorcycle promised to him years earlier by his grandfather. Mrs McNee felt so badly about her mistake that she repurchased the H&W the next day for double the price that the neighbour had paid her!
It was not until after obtaining the motorcycle in 1970 and doing some research that Bill McNee began to think it had some real historical significance and he arranged for a representative of The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC to inspect it. While the Museum's representative was able to provide quite a few additional historical details about the machine, the suggestion that Bill might like to consider donating it to the Museum was declined and back into his basement it went. Following Bill McNee's death in 2007 and his wife Cornelia's death in 2009, their daughter (the vendor) and her brother took ownership of the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller.
Presented in original, unrestored condition, this wonderful machine represents the ultimate acquisition for the serious private collector or any museum devoted to the history of powered transport.