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A Skelding Summary

The next time you are nearly squashed flat by a motorcycle despatch rider on your travels in Covent Garden - you can at least thank the Almighty that you didn't suffer the ultimate indignity of being despatched yourself by a horse and cart. By the 1880s, people were getting rather fed up with traditional modes of transportation - particularly horse drawn carriages - and were excited by the prospect of mechanically driven transport which could get from A to B quickly and easily. These, you must understand, were the innocent days long before the M25.

Motorbikes also were attractive because they didn't have to be fed hay or sugar lumps, kept in stables overnight or leave an embarrassing mess on the Queen's Highway - unless, of course, involved in collisions.

The first motorbike was in fact a motor tricycle which was invented by Edward Butler, an English inventor, back in 1884. Perhaps because motor tricycles bore an unfortunate resemblance to a Reliant Robin - Butler's invention didn't catch on as well as he had hoped. It was left to the German Gottlieb Daimler to design the first ever petrol engine motorbicycle in 1895. By the turn of the century motorbikes were well established in Britain. Spawned by companies such as Meriden, Norton and Triumph which was founded in 1903.

The Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) race was inaugurated in 1907 testing the bikes' reliability and durability - not to mention the lunacy of the riders involved. As time progressed the bikes became larger, more powerful and faster - and as such began to be taxed by the Department of Transport. A by-product of this was the advent in the 1950s of the moped - a beloved fashion accessory of mods. All one needed was a scooter, a girl on your arm and a seaside resort in which to fight rockers. In Europe, mopeds were generally exempt from vehicle tax - though this didn't stop Her Majesty's Government from slapping extra duties on British owners.

That the British Motorbike industry died is testament to complacency - and the belief that a good product could survive in the face of German and Japanese competition without subsidy, investment or technological innovation. Edward Butler would almost definitely know that sinking feeling.

Nonetheless the British biker lives and the old British bikes are collectors' items. The competition continues to be reminiscent of a plastic three piece suite even though the engineering has got a lot going for it.

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By Laurence Skelding

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