The History of Adventure Motorcycle Touring. What were the historical roots of using a motorcycle to tour for adventure? What part did Triumph motorbikes play?
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Suppose you are an Adventure Motorcycle Touring Rider and a History Magnet. If so, then this Cornerstone Article will be a terrific read for you.
Did Adventure Motorcycle Touring only start in the 1980s? No, it goes back much further to the First World War.
Are reruns of movies such as The Great Escape and Easy Rider still a do not miss, and where are my beer moments?
Are you aware that the German High Command in WW1 deemed it perfectly OK to send their soldiers and motorcycles into cavalry-type formations armed with only a sword each?
Have you heard of TE Lawrence or Mad Jack Churchill?
Were the early adventure motorcycle touring riders such as Ernesto Guevara, Ted Simon, and Emilio Scotto the catalysts that turned you into a leather-clad bad-ass?
Did both Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor hit the road at just the right time for you with their excellent 10-part miniseries – Long Way Up?
Now, it’s your chance with the Global expertise of MotoDreamer to fill in any gaps or revisit memories when it comes to
The History of Adventure Motorcycle Touring.
Motorcycles and adventure have always sat proudly together; It´s long known you can not have one without the other.
Over 40 years ago, in 1980, to be precise. The exciting idea of “Adventure Motorcycle Touring on a Motorbike” became a reality with the introduction by BMW of their R80 G/S. (More about this later)
Does that mean adventure motorcycle touring around the world only started in the 80s?
No, the real story of using a motorcycle for adventure touring has roots extending further to the 1930s. The difference, the original bikes were never designed to handle what those bygone pioneers came up against.
It’s safe to say it must have been a whole set of miracles that the riders in the 1930s achieved.
But wait. The History of Adventure Motorcycle Touring traced further back still to 1915! Only this time forget the term touring.
This was the time of the first “Great War.” When the Central Powers of Germany, Turkey, Austria, and Hungary were fighting the 29 Allied armies. Of Great Britain, France, Australia, Italy, Japan, and many more., Later from 1917, the USA.
The battleground was the trenches of Northern France and Belgium. Later, soldiers arrived with armored mechanisms such as tanks, aircraft, and motorcycles.
This war marked the beginning of the end of four powerful imperial dynasties – Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. How? By the sheer unrestricted volume of carnage, slaughter, and destruction.
You can safely say when asked by the younger generations of today, “What was WW1 all about?” It was the first of two great Geopolitical watersheds of the twentieth century.
The second watershed was the follow-up of WW2 some 20 years later. The years between both wars led to much upheaval and unrest in Europe. With the rise of Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the emergence of Hitler and Nazism in Germany.
So what part did the early motorbikes play in the first theatre of war?
Like most people, when I think about motorcycles of old. I imagine the one that looked like an old fashion bicycle. With a small “put-put” engine with no modern-day comforts on board.
I could argue. That many of my generations will recall first, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Tearing up the landscape. On their 1950s extended handlebar Harley Davidson hydra-glide motorbikes in the 1969 movie Easy_Rider.
I always fail to think about the frontline motorcycles used in the trenches. That is until I see the old black and white photos from the military museum visits, I have attended over the years.
Why do I forget their colossal importance in such conditions is mainly due to the film industry. How many of you can list a movie where the motorcycle is the main subject in action during WW1?
For me. I had to wait until the 1963 movie The Great Escape—Starring Steve McQueen on his 1961 Triumph TR6 disguised as a German BMW R75, (and that was WW2 events.)
In my Grandfather’s days, while he was in the midst of war at the Somme and Ypres. He would have seen firsthand the evolutional link between the old ways of seeing horses galloping towards the enemy. He would have also, seen the terrible result from the machines arriving from the German factories, waiting for them.
Thankfully the Triumph motorcycle did not initially kill soldiers and horses.
Triumph motorcycles primarily moved heavy guns to various positions. Later, relaying vital messages from headquarters posts to the men in the trenches. They proved to be an asset to the troops. As the riders could travel at speed. And equally important, they could do it almost silently over the terrain’s awful conditions.
Perhaps you now can see the seeds of the “adventure” the riders experienced. Not for touring but for learning what a motorbike can endure and accomplish in wartime.
It did not take long for governments to employ specialist manufacturers in creating great numbers of bikes and recruit “Corps” of riders to ride them.
The British war machine saw the Triumph motorcycle as the route to having an effective solution to many of their problems.
The motorcycle was turned into the primary tool for communications on all the frontlines for the British with significant effect.
It did not matter that these machines only had four horsepower; yes, I did say 4. Their reliability, speed, and ability to go where soldiers could not on foot made the difference.
Subsequently, over the next four years. Over 30,000 Triumph motorcycles were manufactured and deployed to the front lines of the British soldiers.
By 1915 motorcycles were further developed by adding sidecars with mounted heavy gun capability. Now sadly, the motorcycle could go after humans and horses.
In comparison, the German high command also became interested in the motorcycle as a killing machine. They actually created cavalry-style platoons to charge just like horses towards the enemy lines.
Did it work with the German soldiers only armed with a sword?
Yes, you are reading right, and no, they were not successful. Remember, this was still the time of cavalry charges that had been in effect for thousands of years. The introduction of the tank and the machine gun finally put an end to charging rider and horse.
During WW2, the German High Command revisited the possibility of the motorcycle as a perfect killing machine. But soon turned to tanks, chemical weaponry, and later rockets as their preferred options.
Readers who love history and the role that motorbikes have contributed can take solace in the knowledge that the world we all live in today. It would most certainly have been very different if it had not been for the Triumph motorcycles and their heroic riders.
Let’s look at one such Adventure Motorcycle enthusiast hero of his day.
86 years ago, on May the 19th. It was pouring rain when a young TE Lawrence died of a motorbike accident. The above photo shows him six days earlier. As you can see, he had no helmet. But his military cap to offer any protection sat happily talking upon “Boa” or “Son of Thunder,” his beloved Brough Superior SS100.
This same TE Lawrence is the world-renowned Lawrence of Arabia.
TE Lawrence was a renowned British trained Archaeologist, writer, and scholar. Due to his deep sympathies for the Arab people he famously mobilized the Arab Revolt against the Turks in WW1.
He was 45 when the accident happened on a quiet country road. It is thought he reached the brow of a hill when suddenly. Two boys on bicycles were directly in front of him and his motorbike. He, of course, tried to maneuver away. But he had no chance of success, and the resulting impact led to his demise six days later.
Author’s Note: I added TE Lawrence to this article titled: The History of Adventure Motorcycle Touring. Since this fellow knew how to have an adventure or two on a motorbike in the desert terrains of Asia.
If he was alive today. I am sure we would be hearing of him as a fearless Adventure Motorcycle Touring Rider. Certainly, with his neverending exploring today’s world and making documentaries of all that he would have discovered.
If you wish to learn more about this remarkable man of history. Head to your local bookstore or library and look up TE Lawrence’s memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The intervening years between the ending of WW1 and the commencement of WW2
As you can imagine. Many of the “Adventure Motorcycle Touring Riders” would have come with masses of experience gained after the first war. Most likely, many of them who ventured out were trying their hardest to come to terms with what they endured.
The attraction of having solace from riding into countries they had no experience of must have been so tough to deny. So began the term “Adventure Motorcycle Touring,” not necessarily from a good beginning, but a necessary therapeutic one.
One such man was Mad Jack Churchill, Adventure Motorcycle Rider to Nazi hunter and eventually surfer extraordinaire.
Imagine being on the beaches of Normandy during WW2 and hearing British Lieutenant Colonel “Mad Jack” or John Churchill ringing in your ears: “Any British Army officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.“
He, of course, was referring to his trusty basket-hilted Scottish broadsword. This medieval weapon went everywhere with this warrior. Just imagine. You are a typical enlisted enemy soldier with someone wearing a kilt, playing a set of bagpipes, running towards you at full speed. Waving a massively long sword towards you in one hand and a longbow strapped to his back!
No doubt you´d be thinking no this is a Hollywood myth. But you´d be wrong.
Believe it or not, there is actual photo evidence of this happening.
Here it is from the Daily Mail Newspaper which published this amazing story back in December 2012.
This intrepid adventurer preferred his Scottish roots when engaging the enemy. He landed on the beaches of Normandy with his claymore in his right hand. There is official written evidence that Mad Jack slain an enemy soldier using his longbow. And he’s credited as the only man to do so in the five-year war.
Life for Mad Jack began in 1906 in Hong Kong, where his father held the post of Public Works Director. He spent his first eleven years growing up and exploring the exciting world of Hong Kong and the Asian rural areas.
In 1926, now twenty, in England, well educated and heading to the Royal Sandhurst Military College for Officer Training. He graduated and was deployed to Burma the same year. A country now referred to as Myanmar in Southeast Asia.
Here Mad Jack gained much experience with his consistent traveling by motorbike over the entire Burma peninsula.
Visiting the many Buddha Temples and sandy beaches and all in sundry. I don’t know how but it was here he learned to play the bagpipes!
How many of you Adventure Motorcycle Riders have unknowingly ridden the same Burma roads as Mad Jack?
I am certain Mike Thomsen, the Co-Founder and Chief Rider of MotoDreamer. As part of his 100 or more countries he has discovered and explored on his motorcycle, must have also done.
In the thirties. Mad Jack continued at pace with honing his skills with the longbow, bagpipes, and motorcycle adventure touring in Kenya. He even took on acting roles and worked as an Editor in the local newspaper industry; not only that, he found the time to be a working male model too.
Mad Jack eventually returned to the Thames area near London, and here he settled down to retirement.
Sadly he passed away at the ripe old age of 89. Not bad for a man who ensured his life was full of adventure, danger, and motorcycle touring. A true one-of-a-kind Adventure Motorcycle Touring Rider.
Author’s Note: For you historians amongst the Motorcycle Motorcycle Touring communities. If you want John “Mad Jack” Churchill’s full story, check out: Mad Jack Churchill.
Finally, peace came to Europe, and the rebuilding of all European nations began. Some were under communist rule, and the remainder under a Nato Alliance.
Does that mean Adventure Motorcycle Touring finally became common to see?
No, not really; our grandparents were the first generation to start the process of rebuilding nations again. The idea of taking a month from work and hitting the road was beyond the majority for both financial and practical reasons. Also, the bikes of that time could never stand up to the rigorous challenges from mountains and muddy or desert-like off-road terrains. Who was going to repair them and where were new parts going to come from?
It’s nearly a decade after WW2 had ended that we started to pick up the story again of Adventure Motorcycle Touring. This time with the odd intrepid individual going the odd mile or two more than the majority.
You’ll find history books littered with individual stories of people selling up all they owned to finance a bike trip to Timbuktu and beyond. Some went on to make touring by motorcycles a lifetime pursuit.
Here are 4 superb life-changing stories of individuals who went the extra mile. (Or two) in their quest for adventure motorcycle touring.
- A good example is the story of Ernesto Guevara. Who, in 1952 with his good friend Alberto Granado. Embarked on a nine-month motorcycle adventure tour of South America. You may know him as CHE – the Freedom Fighter who gained notoriety with Castro in Cuba. (Check out my article of these two Argentinians at the link below:)
- Another great example was Ted Simon, considered by many as the Godfather of adventure motorcycle touring and his 500cc Triumph Tiger. Ted was the first to Adventure Motorcycle Tour the world, stopping in 45 countries and covering over 103,000 miles doing it.
- Fast forward to our next example of an individual who felt the attraction of motorcycle adventure touring. His name is Emilio Scotto. And he went on a world epic tour. Covering over half a million miles on his trusty 1980 Honda Gold Wing, which he lovingly referred to as his “Black Princess.”
Emilio’s story is definitely a bit special as it’s a story of an Argentinian who was fed up with his “Lot.” He made the monumental decision at that time to quit his job and head off to pastures new. He just kept on traveling and ended up circumnavigating the entire planet!
It took this unforgettable Adventure Motorcycle enthusiast the best part of ten years to reach all five continents, many subcontinents, and clock over 279 countries.
Initially, he had only planned to tour South America. But when he achieved that adventure motorcycle touring milestone, he just kept going for the next ten years breaking record after record.
Now Emilio can be found in the Guinness Book of Records. And there are numerous books about his adventures available at all good bookstores.
I think you may agree with all at MotoDreamer. That Emilio Scotto is a record-breaker, and every owner of an adventure motorcycle should know of him.
Author´s Note: Number 4 will be revealed at the end of this article titled The History of Adventure Motorcycle Touring. I think you will be please to see who it is.
But do you know what the most striking common thing is that gels all our top three stories?
None of the journeys described were made on purpose-built Adventure-Touring Motorcycles. Why? Simple, they had not yet been invented!
The beginning of motorbike’s history began some 80 years or more ago. All the intrepid bikes were ill-suited and not meant to travel the distances they did accomplish. On a wing and a prayer, their owners simply just met each obstacle head-on as they arose.
This is what makes their stories so incredible, and dare I say it, awe-inspiring. So when does a bike become an adventure motorcycle touring bike? What specifications and capabilities must it have?
- High ground clearance is essential for those challenging off-road locations.
- Each bike should have windscreens that offer a high degree of wind and all-weather condition protection.
- Large under-stressed engines with low-end horsepower for those high-reliability needs.
- Large fuel tanks for those extra-long journeys where fuel stations are remote.
- Each bike has to have a relaxed upright, almost vertical riding position for rider support and comfort.
- If classed as a touring bike, then it must be designed for that purpose.
- It should handle perfectly on all terrains, whether on-road or off-road surfaces.
Another piece of history for this article, is titled: The History of Adventure Motorcycle Touring.
We thought we should mention the first credited all-terrain adventure motorcycle, especially for touring. It was the R80 G/S from BMW, and it was launched in 1980 to answer all Motorcycle Adventure Riders worldwide. (see I did say at the beginning of this article I would come back to this landmark from BMW.)
Before this launch. All bikes down the years had stood up to either being made for a particular sport such as land speed, freestyle motocross, Gymkhana, rally bikes, or motorbike racing.
But this was the first to be specifically for those long-distance riders who wanted one bike that could meet all their needs.
Now you can choose from any specialist manufacturers of Adventure Motorcycles. Such as BMW, KTM, Yamaha, Honda, Royal Enfield, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Moto Guzzi, Ducati, Aprilia, Harley Davidson. And of course, last but certainly not least – Triumph.
In conclusion to the history of Adventure Motorcycle Touring and bringing us all up to date, over the past 20 years.
There has been an explosion in that small tranquil niche known as Motorcycle Adventure Touring. That is down to the television documentary broadcasted in 2004 of two “Normal guys” who liked bikes. They loved adventure. They just happened to be famous British actors.
Long Way Round with Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor
Charlie and Ewan were the first two to bring motorcycle adventure touring to the masses via their TVs. With a very amusing and exciting 10 part miniseries. Finally, we all could see these two happy chappies traveling around the world. Each on two-wheelers and showing us the ups and downs of touring.
From the off, it was brilliant and often hilarious. You see the preparations, the training, and all the mishaps in between start to finish.
Just like the guys in WW1, you see that these are not experts, and they weren’t fully trained mechanics. They did not have a clue about survival. But it did not matter. We, the viewer, also do not have those attributes.
For us at MotoDreamer, both Charlie and Ewan pulled it off, and MotoDreamer’s order book became a delightful book indeed.
Author´s Note: Did you remember I said I would reveal Number 4 at the end of this article titled The History of Adventure Motorcycle Touring I think you will be please to see who it is? Then check out the second article below and you will discover who he is.
Now, we at MotoDreamer can bring you to the present times with the history of adventure motorcycle touring.
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