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Roper: The World’s Oldest Motorcycle?

by Richard Backus

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1869 Roper
Sylvester Roper built this steam-powered "motorcycle" about 1869. (Image courtesy the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History)

Remember the circa 1895 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller that Bonham’s auctioned last April for $132,000? Considered the oldest production motorcycle in the world, the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller was also the first machine to be described as a “motorrad,” German for motorcycle. Recently, we were reminded of what we think was surely the worlds first true motorcycle, the circa-1869 Roper Steam Velocipede, built by Sylvester Roper, Roxburry, Mass.


That reminder came by way of the latest eNewsletter from sister publications Farm Collector and Gas Engine Magazine, which published a reprint of an article that ran in the May/June issue of the now-defunct Iron-Men Album, a magazine we used to produce for collectors and restorers of steam-powered tractors, generally referred to as steam traction engines. We still publish an online version,, where you can find information on these leviathans of the prairie.


While there are various claims to the first true motorcycle, including Gottlieb Daimler’s 1885 gas-powered machine, Roper’s “steam velocipede” was the first powered two-wheeler to include elements that still define motorcycles today, including equal-sized wheels front and rear and a twist grip to control acceleration and braking. Power for Roper’s machine came from a two-cylinder oscillating steam engine with a 2.5 inch by 5 inch bore and stroke. (Also called a “wobbler” in some circles. The cylinders were bolted to the frame and the piston connecting rods ran to a lever or crank pin on the rear wheel. There was no intermediate point of articulation, so the cylinders and rose and fell lightly with the motion of the rear wheel.) And while critics say this feature denies the machine’s status as a motorcycle, it’s clear that’s precisely what Roper was constructing. Nicolaus Otto didn’t perfect his 4-stroke engine until 1876, so it’s hardly surprising that Roper turned to steam to power his invention.


A fascinating bit of motorcycling history, Roper’s contribution to motorcycling is often forgotten or simply ignored. Go here to read the rest of our story on Roper’s machine. For further discussion on the subject of the earliest motorcycles, check out Jeffry Tank’s article at 


Roper, a relative of Dave Roper, currently the man to beat in vintage motorcycle road racing (and the only American ever to win at the Isle of Man TT, taking first in the Senior TT in 1984), continued developing his steam-powered machine. He died in 1896 while testing a newer version of his steam-powered motorcycle. His original 1869 machine is tucked away somewhere in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. – Richard Backus.