Motorcycles, Motor-Bi

Motorcycles  had begun with the booming bicycle craze that swept Europe and America  in the 1870s-1880s. Bicycles were inexpensive (human powered) transportation that were easier to maintain, and cheaper than, horses. Early designs were stylish but clunky and often dangerous like the '"Ordinary" or   Penny Farthing, with its pedals on the high front wheel. 'Safety' cycles used smaller wheels, rear-wheel chain drive  and mass production to enable the costs to drop. It wasn’t much of a technical jump to put a motor on a bicycle frame although brakes were still optional. Engine technology was evolving and within a few years light, stable engines were being produced, for a bicycle frame. Within England, most motorcycle  manufacturers were concentrated around the industrial centres like Coventry. ( Acme, AEL, AEC, AJS, Arden, Ariel, Arno, Atlas, Araura, Birch, BSA, British Challenge Cycle Co, Coventry Eagle, De Havilland, Dux, Ensign, Frances Barnett, Mascot, Invicta,  Riley, Rex Acme,  Singer, Swallow and loads more in Coventry and nearby but the list would fill a page. The interesting part is the manufacturers who started on motorcycles and expanded )


Royal Riley Tricycle originally offered for sale in 1899 and now at Gaydon Museum

Tri Cycle engine

Riley motorcycles were produced between 1899 and 1906, at Foleshill in Coventry. The Riley family started making well-engineered but quite expensive bicycles in 1890, added motorcycles by 1899, and their first production four wheeled car by 1905. Their first year catalogue had 19 models, including motorized tricycles ( Royal Riley). In 1901 they made motorized quadricycles as well and improved the brakes. After using De Dion, Minerva, Cudell and MMC they started using their own engines, designed 'in house' by sons Percy, Victor and Allen, perfected by 1903. Practical three-wheelers were their specialty with the engines also being sold to Singer for their tricars. Riley finally ceased motorized cycle  production in 1908, then bicycle manufacturing ended in 1911.

 1899 The firm had started to add tricycles and quadricycles  using 2.25hp German Cudell of Aachen  or Belgian Minerva engines, both of which were simple copies of the De Dion engine went behind the rear axle and, according to the type, one or two front wheels were fitted ie quad or tricycle as requested .

1900 At about this time engines were changed to a 2.75hp or a 3.5hp M.M.C.as made locally in Coventry so presumably bought for orders to assist 'cash flow'. This year they restricted the company to a single vehicle displayed at the National Cycle Show a Royal Riley tricycle plus optional conversion kit to make it into a quadricycle. By the 1901 show this was reversed for the 1902 seasons vehicles as the quadricycle was offered with a kit to convert the ' convertible car' to a tricycle which reflects just how quickly progress was at this time.

1901 The first motorcycle appeared as a typically primitive solo fitted with a 1.5hp Minerva or a 2.75hp M.M.C engine.The gents Royal Riley had an exposed chain drive whereas the Ladies model included a fully enclosed chain to prevent long dresses getting caught up.Both now included the 'Riley Patent' back brake so no more useless wooden spoon brakes to the tyre tread.

1902 A forecar design was added to the range.

1903 During the year a further option was added in the form of a 3.5hp M.M.C. engine. The solos were advertised as the Moto-Bi. Late that year, Riley started fitting their own engines in the vertical mounting position, but still kept the Moto-Bi name. They now included  cable operated rim brakes to cope with the greater speeds from Percy's newly designed engine and a shortened wheelbase



The Motor-Bi early motorcycle was produced in mid 1903. Like many other early motorcycles it still uses features normally found on a bicycle, including stirrup type brakes, pedal and chains to the back wheel (for help in starting the engine) and a cycle frame, reinforced to carry the weight of engine, and very flat petrol tank.Engine sizes were 2.25-hp, 3-hp and 3.5-hp. The largest of those was intended for forecar use, with the option of water- or fan-cooling, and both fore cars and sidecars were included in the range.

1906 A fairly heavy machine appeared, fitted with a 6-hp, 804cc V-twin engine, but early in the year the production of motorcycles stopped and the company turned its attention firstly to tricars and then to motorcars.


1903 402cc single-cylinder Riley ‘Motor-Bi’ from Coventry Museum