March 2007


Motorcycle Myth: Rebels Without a Horse

Timothy A. D. Holmes


When the UK’s first motoring magazine was published on Saturday, November 2, 1895, there was no motor industry in the country. The few people who owned cars were tightly restricted by the Highways Act, a piece of legislation intended to govern the use of heavy steam-powered traction engines. This law required every powered vehicle to have a crew of three, one of whom was to precede it waving a red flag. It also restricted the speed to 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in towns. Prosecutions under this act were common. On top of this, every vehicle governed by the act had to be licensed by the county in which it was driven. Thus a pioneering motorist who wanted to make the journey from London to Bristol, a route which stage coaches had plied for a century or more, would have had to register his vehicle with Middlesex, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset county councils before starting.


Not that any driver would have expected to finish that journey as swiftly as a stage coach, for in 1895 motor vehicles were highly unreliable and the poor roads only made them more so. So the setting was not auspicious. There was no industry, no motoring infrastructure, few motorists and a repressive legal framework. Nevertheless, the publishing company Iliffe and Son, based in the provincial city of Coventry believed there was a market for a motoring title and, in partnership with editor Henry Sturmey, backed their hunch with the launch of The Autocar.


Sturmey had previously edited a bicycling magazine for the company, so both sides had acquired expertise in specialist publishing, and Iliffe were noted for their technical prowess, especially in reprographics. Photographs and half-tone reproduction would contribute enormously to the dissemination of information about and knowledge of motor vehicles into the public sphere.


The Autocar was an immediate success. It established editorial and business patterns for motoring magazines. But when the first successful magazine specifically for motorcyclists, Motor Cycling, was launched in 1902 it spoke with a different editorial tone to a different audience.


These two magazines form the basis of my study. My methodology was patterned on three previous studies—the Glasgow Media Group's famous Bad News (39-51), Marjorie Ferguson's critique of women's magazines Forever Feminine (3-4, 212-222) and David Reed's The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States 1880-1960 (9-12).


I created a number of categories of content which were then divided into sub-categories to give me a flexible but meaningful system. I examined every extant page of the first volume of Autocar, noting content category and the proportion of the page devoted to it. I did the same with the first volume of Motor Cycling and, as a control, I analyzed the 1902 volume of Autocar. This gave me a block of easily compared data which immediately pointed up some differences in the ways the two audiences (motorists and motorcyclists) were addressed by their respective magazines.


Henry Sturmey, editor of The Autocar had been editor of a bicycling magazine and it is worth noting that bicycling had, in many respects, prepared the way for motoring. Sturmey had plenty of opportunity to note how the bicycle had changed the industrial, commercial and social life of the nation.


In the first editorial, on the first page of the first issue of The Autocar, Sturmey wrote that to those who had “seen and intimately followed the birth and growth to its present dimensions of the forerunner of the autocar—the bicycle—and have learnt to appreciate its advantages, there is nothing either strange or startling” in the idea of the motor vehicle's potential importance.


He develops the notion of “strange and startling” further when considering the bicycle's general acceptance and its effect on the democratisation of personal transport:


the cyclist and the cycle maker have paved the way for the autocar. The enthusiastic, if at times erratic, wheelman has in his own vile body ... proved to a steady-going and conservative nation the immense advantages of and economic gain obtained by the application of self-contained power as a means for the propulsion of rolling bodies upon ordinary roads, and the cycle maker, in catering for the wants of the many headed, has achieved a mechanical triumph ... so that ... the bicycle rider has accustomed the public mind to the sight of wheeled vehicles without horses, and convinced even the dense bucolic brain that such things have nothing uncanny in their composition, and can be as well controlled as the erstwhile equine steed ... (1)


It would take too much space to analyze Sturmey's notion of the “dense bucolic brain,” but the phrase is related to the fact that long distance transport in the UK went through several stages, which can be briefly characterized as road, canal, railway and back to road. During the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the railway ruled and roads were used mainly for local journeys. They were administered and repaired by parochial authorities who encouraged local people to think they owned them.


Sturmey's assertion that bicycling had reclaimed the roads for a more general use was borne out by others. Beatrice and Sidney Webb are best known as socialists and sociologists[1] but they were also keen cyclists, and in 1913 they wrote a history of transport in the UK, The Story of the King's Highway. According to them, what the bicyclist did for the roads between 1888 and 1900, was “to rehabilitate through traffic and accustom us all to the idea of our highways being used by other than local residents” (qtd. in Bagwell 137). The bicycle helped to make sure the roads themselves were returned to the public sphere.


To return to the analysis of The Autocar's first volume: the first thing we learn from an academic point of view is that a discourse was emerging about a new form of transport, a discourse which was already having material effects and a form which could already be seen to have economic, industrial, social and political consequences.


How, then, did this new periodical frame the discourse? What characteristics, patterns and quirks did it use (or stumble across) to make meaning, or to make that meaning accessible to its readership? The immediate answer is nothing much out of the ordinary run of periodical journalism. The pattern which had been established long before even the forerunning bicycle magazines came on the scene—a little news, a little gossip, some anecdotes, something practical (or technical) and some visual interest—was good enough for The Autocar. In its principles, this form can be traced back to The Gentleman's Magazine, first published in 1731, or the even earlier Gentleman's Journal, or Monthly Miscellany founded in 1692.


The largest uniform category of material turned out to be News, at 35.87% of the total number of pages. The largest category with sub-divisions was Features, at 38.41% of the total. However, many of the Feature sub-categories are closely allied to news. The largest of them by some way deals with “Factories and their products; general technical topics; manufacturers,” at 14.34%. Of all the sub-categories this is closest to news and had it not been for a consideration of length of text and frequency of illustration it might easily have come under that heading.


Why this concentration on news? It could well be because of what John Hartley points out in his book Understanding News: “There seems to be a social process at work in which certain facets of our overall culture ‘count’ more than others ... And so we come to news ... [which] enjoys a privileged and prestigious position in our culture's hierarchy of values” (4-5). And as he added 14 years later:


The most important textual feature of journalism is that it counts as true. The most important component of its system is the creation of readers as publics, and the connection of these readerships to other systems, such as those of politics, economics and social control. (Popular Reality 35, italics in original)


Presenting the progress of the motor vehicle as “news” frames it within a well established and socially acceptable form of discourse, one which has been validated as being “true” by such influential organs as The Times of London. The news is seen to be real and objective; it is what is happening, or has happened, out in the world. Features, as normally understood, might allow a little too much of the subjective to creep in.


The other factor which must be included in any analysis of the early Autocar is that it was, from the outset, a friend of the establishment. It so happened that the Prince of Wales, soon to become King Edward VII, was keen on the motorcar, and the magazine did not shrink from playing up that kind of respectable connection. It is full of reports such as the one from the inaugural banquet of the Motor Car Club, the guest list for which includes many lords and other honorables. As a result of this tendency to respectability, it is a rather sober kind of magazine.


This did not mean that motorcycling was overlooked. In those early days there was little distinction drawn between two- and four-wheeled motor vehicles, and The Autocar contains many descriptions and road trials of new motorcycles. On June 6th, 1896 a report notes:


The first practical motor cycle built in this country was completed last week when Messr.s Humber and Co. finished a bicycle fitted with a Pennington two-horse power motor, made at their works in Coventry. The machine was taken down to the Nunhead Grounds, and tried there in the presence of a number of witnesses, and although the motor required some little alteration, the speed developed was said to have varied from thirty to forty miles per hour. (374)


Figure 1There are numerous pictures of motorcycles and most are of astonishingly good quality. What I believe to be the first true action picture of a motorcycle was contained in the report of a race in France in October 1896. The machine in question is a Voiturette Bollee Tandem and although it has three wheels it is closer in form to a motorcycle than a car (see figure 1--click on image at left to enlarge).


But most of the photographs are either staged or static, and the other artwork (line or wash drawings) tends to be purely illustrative—side-on views of vehicles or enlargements of mechanical details. A small percentage of the writing conveys the thrill of speed and motion which must have lain at the heart of the automobile movement. No matter how scientific or rational the magazine's editorial might have been (highlighting the health hazards of horse manure and the cruel treatment of some horses), the real game was given away in reports such as that from H. O. Duncan about his Bollee tricycle. While waiting to collect it from the factory in France (where the industry was considerably more advanced), he was given several spins on a similar machine, about which he wrote:


These splendid rides without any fatigue, under a scorching summer sun, made one enjoy the magnificent scenery, whilst the perfume from the newly-mown hayfields came along on a fresh breeze as the machine swept merrily over the fine roads, which is altogether a new sensation that made one realize he was living to indulge in a new era of comfortable—even lazy—but speedy road locomotion. (471)


Clearly the editor liked this sort of material because Duncan was given two and a half densely typeset pages to recount his adventure, but it is unusual. The writing was normally rather more buttoned up, contributors more business-like. Nevertheless, The Autocar was doing something right because it survived (in fact it survives to this day). In its wake came many would be competitors, short lived titles such as Cycle and Motor World, Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, and The Amateur Wheelman and Motorcar Weekly.


It would be seven years before another successful motoring magazine came along, Motor Cycling and Motor, launched on February 12, 1902. The editors, Edmund Dangerfield and Walter Groves, were also former editors of a cycling magazine. In their first editorial they noted:


In the motor bicycle we have the cheapest, handiest, lightest and simplest power-propelled vehicle that has yet been introduced. The majority of cyclists have followed the motor movement from its inception, and wherever motor events take place one will always find present the inevitable little crowd of interested cyclists. To many thousands of riders of cycles the luxurious motor car is a forbidden pleasure on account of its prime cost and the expense of maintenance. But in the motor bicycle the cyclist has a vehicle that particularly appeals to his fancy, and his pocket. It is a machine he can ride and drive at once; it is a vehicle he can keep in the house like an ordinary safety bicycle, and he can always get home on it should anything by chance go wrong. In a word, the motor bicycle will introduce the pleasures of motoring to thousands of cyclists who would never otherwise be able to participate in the new pastime; and it is safe to assume that at the present time some thousands of riders of ordinary bicycles will be interested in the development of the motor bicycle. (1)


It does not take a detailed discourse analysis of that passage to see that the pleasurable motorcycle is being set up in opposition to the luxurious motorcar. This message recurs frequently. In the third issue (February 26, 1902), a contributor writes of motorcycling:


I think this form of sport has an immense future before it, as large in its way as the car part of the movement. The control over time and space and the exhilarating sense of power, so dear to the heart of the sportsman, have a fascination ... I think time will show that the car for old age and comfort and the skeleton single track machine for speed and youth will undoubtedly be the two divisions of automobilism.


Compare this with the Autocar of the same year which is reporting:


In some sensible remarks re autocars, Country Life points out that the uses to which the King has devoted his automobiles have been serious and practical, and if the vehicle were the unreliable product that the imagination of many persons still leads them to suppose, His Majesty would have been subjected to reiterated annoyance, and been virtually compelled to discard its use. On the contrary, however, the King is a firm believer in the future of automobilism, and in the face of his orders for new cars the most hardened skeptic has no room for further doubt. (See figure 2--click on image below to enlarge)


Figure 2


One other editorial element which stands out as being different is the technical advice. The Autocar ran such information but it was delivered in what I would call an “objective” style and using a register which suggested the reader would not be likely to get his or her own hands dirty (surely the chauffeur-mechanic would undertake the actual work).[2] By contrast, Motor Cycling's advice is written in a way which suggests that the reader is the person likely to use the information and it uses a chummy tone which any modern day reader would recognize immediately.


But of more immediate impact than Motor Cycling's words were its pictures. The Autocar's halftones might have been of unbeatable quality, but Motor Cycling set out its stall straightaway with cartoons—and cartoons which showed motorcyclists to be law-breaking outsiders. The Autocar didn't have any cartoons, never mind ones which showed a motorcyclist speeding away from a policeman on a horse, a motorcyclist being arrested for speeding after a policeman has executed a cunning ploy to catch him, or a group of motorcyclists outraging a pair of elderly women with their language (see figures 3, 4 and 5--click on images below to enlarge).


Figure 3 Figure 4 Figure 5


The latter (figure 5) is worth looking at in more detail, as I believe it demonstrates that motorcyclists had already become a subculture at this early date. Consider the following two definitions, the first by Stuart Hall:


[Sub-cultures] must be focussed (sic) around certain activities, values, certain uses of material artifacts, territorial spaces etc. which significantly differentiate them from the wider culture...Sub-cultures ... take shape around the distinctive activities and “focal concerns” of groups. (14)


And then Dick Hebdige’s definition:


The tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture… in the styles made up of mundane objects which have a double meaning. On the one hand, they warn the “straight” world in advance of a sinister presence—the presence of difference—and draw down upon themselves vague suspicions, uneasy laughter, “white and dumb” rages. On the other hand, for those who erect them into icons, who use them as words or as curses, these objects becomes signs of forbidden identity, sources of value. (2-3)


As far as I can see, it makes no difference that Hebdige was writing about British Punk Rockers in the late 1970s. His words apply equally to the group of (to our eyes harmless) “motists” in this cartoon. None of the words these aficionados use are out of the ordinary but they clearly have a value as signs of identity, they draw down vague suspicions and, if not rage, then outrage in the eavesdropping women.


Now, obviously this is only a cartoon, a humorous construct, but why would the editors of Motor Cycling choose to publish it if they did not think it would ring true with their readers? And by publishing it they help to reinforce that idea of subculture, the special few who understand the jargon, the machines, who brave the wrath of the law to experience the thrill of subjugating the open road to your mechanical horsepower, shrinking of time and space while savoring the perfume of new mown hay.


Appealing to, constructing and reinforcing readerships is what magazines have been doing ever since The Ladies Mercury founded the women's market in 1693. The relationship which magazines establish and cultivate with their readers, and how readers identify with the magazine has been much commented on.[3] Kathryn Shevelow notes that this characteristic was developed by periodicals in the eighteenth century when they encouraged contributions from readers (38). Going further, she suggests that periodicals have to do this to ensure their continued production, so that “the extent of audience control over the survival of the periodical fostered a degree of audience complicity in its continuation, a sense of audience power that was exploited by the periodical editors who consistently appealed to their audiences, sampling opinion, engaging in dialogue” (45). 


From the evidence in Motor Cycling, it seems clear that what appealed to pioneering motor cyclists was to be considered and portrayed as a slightly louche, slightly outlaw, dirty-handed bunch, related to but distinct from their more respectable four-wheeled cousins. They preferred, in fact, to be seen as outsiders.



1 Not to mention founders of the New Statesman and the London School of Economics.

2 There was a small but significant number of women who took up the new pursuit. To judge from the reports in Autocar of notables who had placed orders for or taken delivery of new cars, these women were drawn almost exclusively from the aristocracy. There were eventually sufficient of them for an exclusive members' club to be established in London.

3 See Abrahamson, Beetham, Ferguson, Ohmann, Shevelow, and White.


Works Cited

Abrahamson, David.  Magazine-Made America: The Cultural Transformation of the Postwar Periodical.  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1996.

Bagwell, Philip S. The Transport Revolution.  London: Routledge, 1974, 1988.

Beetham, Margaret. A Magazine of Her Own.  London: Routledge, 1996.

Dangerfield, Edmund and Walter Groves. Motor Cycling and Motor 12 February 1902, 1.

Duncan, H. O. Autocar 2 November 1895: 471.

Ferguson, Marjorie. Forever Feminine: Women's Magazines and the Cult of Femininity. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Glasgow Media Group. Bad News.  London: Penguin, 1976.

Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson, eds.  Resistance Through Rituals.  London: Routledge, 1975.

Hartley, John.  Popular Reality.  London: Arnold, 1996.

---.  Understanding News.  London: Routledge, 1982.

Hebdige, Dick.  Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  London: Routledge, 1979.

Ohmann, Richard. Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets and Class at the Turn of the Century.  London: Verso, 1996.

Reed, David.  The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States 1880-1960. London: The British Library, 1997.

Shevelow, Kathryn. Women and Print Culture.  London: Routledge, 1989.

Sturmey, Henry. “Editorial.” Autocar 2 November 1895: 1.

White, Cynthia. Women's Magazines 1693 – 1968London: Joseph, 1970.

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