One Hundred Years Ago: The Art of Driving a Motorcycle

B.H. Webster with his Indian motorcycle, “Old Reliable” circa 1930. Photo property of the blog editor.  Colorized.

Even before World War I the motorcycle was used by both sides during the Mexican War. General Pershing was a big fan of the vehicle, and they soon became a substitute for horses during WWI. The Indian and the Harley Davidson brands were the most popular.

My father (who was born only a few years before WWI began) was an Indian motorcycle aficionado, and called his model “Old Reliable.”  He died on 7 November 1981, and this article is dedicated to him, for I know he would have laughed aloud at the story that now follows.

The following is entirely borrowed from Dots and Dashes newsletter, Vol 1 No 1, US YMCA-Army Newspaper, Camp Alfred Vail Little Silver, New Jersey; 23 Oct 1917

A Few Tips on the Art of Driving A Motorcycle (By A Novice)

First, a prospective driver should get into several unusually tough foot-ball games or lie on the bottom of a big six-ton motor truck that is traveling about 40 miles per–over rough roads. Next, sit before an electric fan and have someone throw sand and stones into your face. After several days of this the P.D. will be hardened sufficient to withstand the excitement and shocks of the first ride.

The next best step is to make out your will. Next, get a motorcycle; you must use a machine to learn to drive properly. Don’t try to learn by correspondence. Sit on the seat and think. Make sure you know which is your left and which is your right. Next, make a death-like grip on the handles and hold on. Make sure your speed lever is neutral–it is not good to try to start at top speed. Shove in the clutch, which is somewhere down near the front wheel. Turn on the spark–then some gas. Next, find the crank which is usually doubled up as though it has a cramp down beneath of you in the basement. Put your foot on it, say a prayer, then push. If somewhere away down underneath of your legs there is an explosion and a continuous loud noise, you can be sure the thing’s going. If she doesn’t go, try again. Remember the old adage, “Try, try again.”

Advertisement in the Transportation Problem Solved Ad. March 31, 1918, Seattle Daily Times (Seattle WA) page 39 proclaiming that motorcycles are the best form of transportation.

Next, make sure there is nothing in front of you for a mile or more, push the gear out, throw the speed from neutral to low–and prepare for the worst. Push your gear in slowly–and lo, She goes. When you get going you can, after long practice, shift your speed from low to second, and then later to third or high speed. If you do it quick enough. You will about this time notice how narrow the roads are–funny you never noticed it before.

There are many ways of stopping once you get going–the simplest is to pick out a big healthy tree where its quiet and steer your front wheel directly at it. You will stop, sure. That methods has been proven time and again. Other means of stopping are to turn off the spark, or throw out your gear and apply the brakes, and still another is to run quietly up behind some heavy wagon or automobile that is coming to a stop and try to push.

Several Don’ts.
Don’t try to pass under or over any wagons or autos or fences. Never try to climb up walls or poles–motorcycles were made to stay on the ground. Never go very far from the nearest gas supply when your supply is low–it’s a job pushing and it looks funny. Never star gaze as you ride–keep your eye on the rut. Always give the bath tub on the side space to get by things.

In closing–by all means, don’t be rough; be kind and gentle. Remember the machine appreciates gentleness. If you mind all these little tips, well, you might be able to drive some day in years to come.

P.S. the “Don’ts.” above is exactly how it was in the original.


Riding Vintage

Motorcycles of WWI (A Google search for photos)

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4 Responses to One Hundred Years Ago: The Art of Driving a Motorcycle

  1. Loved this article. It also reminded me of my Dad.

  2. Teresa says:

    Great article – I shared it with my husband 🙂

  3. Michael says:

    Somebody sure had a sense of humor. And I’m sure some of these examples sprouted from reality.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael. Though my Dad did not write that, but parts of it certainly seem like something he’d say. He was not only an avid motorcyclist, but also a bit of a prankster.

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