In the current family ownership since the late 1960s
c.1894/1895 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller
Engine no. 47
There had been steam-driven 'boneshakers' on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1860s and, of course, Gottlieb Daimler's gasoline-engined Einspurof 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 carburetor 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 tires, 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 tire, 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 leaped 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 dispatched 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 current family ownership since the late 1960s when an acquaintance of the consignor's father told him of a 'steam motorcycle' located on the East Coast. Having already restored several Stanley Steamers, the vendor's father was intrigued and took his son with him to look at this remarkable sounding machine, which was stored in a utility shed amongst gardening tools and building materials. It was dusty, but seemed complete and not overly rusty. It was apparent though, that it was not a steamer; there was no boiler or burner, nor room for one. The pair's guess was that it was a benzene-powered motorcycle. Otherwise, except for 'Wolfmüller' painted on the rear fender/water tank, there was no indication of its origins.
The consignor's father had owned and ridden Harley-Davidson motorcycles when he was younger. He no longer rode, but did have a small collection of vintage motorcycles and was determined to add this example to it. He came to an agreement with the lady owner and the H&W was loaded into the trunk of his Buick LeSabre sedan. The lady said that it had been in her family for a while, but could not recall any details about it apart from the fact that they believed it was steam powered. The East Coast has always been a popular summer destination for the rich and famous. It is possible the H&W was bought as a summer amusement and when the novelty wore off was placed in storage. The machine's unusual appearance probably saved it from the scrap heap.
At its new home the H&W was placed in the barn with the other vintage motorcycles. In the pre-Internet age it was more difficult to research 'odd' machines like the H&W, which sat in the barn for many years. The vendor's father eventually found a reference to it in a vintage automotive journal, which stated that one had been shown at the New York Auto Show around the turn of the 19th Century.
In the early 1980s it was decided to restore the H&W. The plan was to carry out a historically correct, cosmetic and mechanical restoration but not to the point where it would be operational. As mentioned above, the machine was in good shape for its age, retaining a lot of the original paint and striping. Notes were made and photographs taken so that these details could be duplicated correctly. However, the name 'Hildebrand' had vanished from the water tank, most likely having flaked off.
Presented in restored condition, this wonderful machine represents the ultimate acquisition for the serious private collector or any museum devoted to the history of powered transport.