Antique Motorized Bicycles: Zoom Into the Past

Updated March 16, 2022
Minerva Motocyclette - Getty Editorial Use

The forerunners of today's motorcycles were the early antique motorized bicycles. Motorized bicycles date back to the late 1800s, and you can still find them for sale in antique shops if you look hard enough.

History of Antique Motorized Bicycles

The earliest models of motorized bicycles were powered by steam engines. The first one was built in France in 1868. A year later, a Massachusetts gentleman by the name of Sylvester H. Roper built his version of steam powered motorized bicycle called the Roper steam velocipede. Roper built ten of these machines and demonstrated them at fairs and circuses in the eastern United States. However, steam powered bicycles were not very practical. The first truly successful motorized bicycles would not be seen until the late 1890s, when internal combustion engines powered by gasoline replaced the steam engines of earlier models.

First American-Made Motorized Bicycle

Once again, France took credit for the first gas-powered motorized bicycle. A man by the name of Felix Millet designed a bicycle with a radial engine built into the back wheel. The first gas-powered motorized bicycle commercially sold in the United States was built in Buffalo, New York by E.R. Thomas. Thomas started off selling gasoline engine kits for regular bicycles. This enabled him to create the Thomas Motor Company, and he then began selling motorized bicycles called the Auto-Bi, which is considered the first American-made motorized bicycle.

Evolution of the Whizzer Bike

If you're shopping in antique stores for motorized bicycles, antique Whizzer bikes are one of the most common models you'll see. Starting in 1939, the Breene-Taylor Engineering Corporation began to offer kits to add motors to regular bicycles. The Whizzer bike kit retailed for just under $55 and included everything needed to turn an ordinary bike into a motorized bicycle. These were very popular.

Motorized Bicycles Become Motorcycles

By the beginning of the 20th century, new frames were being designed for motorized bicycles. These larger and heavier frames could accommodate larger displacement engines, which enabled the bicycles to travel at greater speeds. The frames also situated the rider in a new position. Instead of being centered over the pedals, the rider's feet were moved forward where they rested on pegs or platforms. This new design was more comfortable for the rider when using the motor to propel the bike. Pedals became increasingly obsolete, being used only in emergency situations. Eventually, manufacturers stopped adding pedals, and the first true motorcycles were created.

Motorized Bicycles Continue to Live On

However, the invention of motorcycles did not mean the extinction of motorized bicycles. Motorcycles are considered motorized vehicles and require a driver's license to operate. Most motorized bicycles are not classified as motorized vehicles and can therefore be operated by anyone who can ride one.

Evolution of Vintage Mopeds

Motorized bicycles also became known as "mopeds" (motor + pedals). During the 1930s in France, motorized bicycles were in high demand because of gasoline shortages and restricted production of automobiles. By the time World War II was over, many European factories were in ruins, and most people could not afford automobiles. Bicycles became the most popular form of transportation in countries like Italy and France. Bicycle makers began offering small auxiliary engines for their bicycles. Mopeds and scooters became the preferred way to get around.

Common manufacturer names in the motorized bicycle industry included the following:

  • Motobecane
  • Peugeot
  • Ducati
  • Moto Guzzi
  • Velosolex

Motorized bicycles took the next leap in evolution in 1952, with the release of the Austrian made MS-50. It was the first moped that was designed to be driven by its engine most of the time. The MS-50 was introduced to the United States through the Sears catalog in the late 1950s and was known as the AllState Mo-Ped.

Antique and Vintage Motorized Bicycle Resources

If you are interested in learning more about motorized bicycles and would like to network with antique motorized bicycle collectors, there are some great options out there. Research is important if you're considering buying an antique motorized bicycle.

MotoredBikes.com

You can join the forum at MotoredBikes.com. The forum not only has information about antique motorized bikes, but you can also find out about local, regional, and national events and rides. You'll also be able to view their buy, sell, and trade topics.

Venice Motorbikes

Another good resource for vintage motorized bicycles is Venice Motorbikes. Here you can find antique motorized bicycles for sale and view a gallery of beautiful new and restored motorized bicycles. If you have an antique bike and would like to have a motor installed, this company can do that for you. Visits to their shop are by appointment only; however, Venice Motorbikes can do much more than just motorize your bicycle. The company has welding and frame modification services as well.

Rex motorized bicycle (1946)

Buying Vintage Motorized Bicycles

There's a wide range of values for motorized bikes, depending on their condition, age, rarity, and other factors. You can often find them in the range of $800 to $2,000. If you're considering buying an antique motorized bike, your best resources will be local shops and classified ads. Also look at local eBay listings, where you can pick the bike up yourself. Shipping large items like bikes can be very expensive, often hundreds of dollars on top of the purchase price.

A Fascinating and Functional Antique

Collecting antique motorized bicycles can be a fascinating hobby. The demand for motorized bicycles is growing once again as people are looking for alternative forms of transportation for environmental reasons, and so it appears the motorized bike will continue to be popular.

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Antique Motorized Bicycles: Zoom Into the Past