The world»s first armed road vehicle was not a lorry, bus, car or even a motorcycle but a pedal cycle. In the 1880s various armed forces were experimenting with units of armed cyclists, these were not as ridiculous as might at first seem to be the case. These troops fulfilled a similar role to that of mounted infantry, fighting on foot but using their mounts for relatively rapid transit to the scene of action. A bicycle has some advantages over a horse when used in this role for it is unnecessary to reserve men to be horse holders whilst their comrades engage the enemy. A mounted infantry unit could loose up to ten percent of its firepower as men were detailed for this task. Nor do cycles need supplies of fodder (a substantial part of the supply train of an army of the period was devoted to carrying food for horses). A cyclist unit does not need to be supported by farriers and vets (although it might need some mechanics). In general most bicycles are more docile than a horse and it is usually quicker to teach a man to ride a bike than a quadruped.
It was probably to provide fire support for such a unit that in 1888 G.H.Waite of the Humber Company of Nottingham produced a machine gun armed pedal cycle. This vehicle was a three seat quadricycle with its crew in tandem formation. The steerer and middle pedaller had racks on which their rifles would be carried whilst the rearmost cyclist had an air cooled Maxim machine gun mounted on a pivot in front of him. Quite how this would have been used is difficult to see. The heads of the forward pair of cyclists were in line with its muzzle whilst the position of the gunner’s saddle would make firing to the side difficult. There was no separate mounting for the Maxim to allow it to be used when it was dismounted from the quadricycle. The saddles and wheels of the quadricycle were so positioned as to make it awkward to use the gun when not in the saddle. There would appear to have been no provision for a container for the ammunition belt. Not surprisingly the British Army did not consider the armed quadricycle. Even if its layout had been better military traditionalists already viewed both the machine gun and the cycle with some suspicion, a combination of the two would have been doubly damned in their eyes. Its interesting to note that a G.H. Waite was later associated with the Clyno motor company who produced the majority of British machine gun armed motor cycle combinations in World War 1.
Ten years later the French firm of DeDion produced a motorised quadricycle (the late Victorian equivalent of the modern quad bike). This could carry a driver and a passenger. The first sat on a saddle and steered with handlebars whilst the passenger occupied a seat in between (and slightly ahead) of the two front wheels; this of course ensured that they would be first to the scene of any accident. This vehicle inspired the first of a long line of Renault cars. It was also either built under licence or copied in other countries. One producer was the British firm of Beeston Motor Cycles in Coventry. In 1899 the inventor Frederick Simms converted one of these vehicles into a motorised scout. The passenger seat was replaced with boxes for an ammunition belt and an air cooled Maxim machine gun was fitted on a tube steel frame in front of the handlebars. This had a relatively small armoured shield. The whole thing was a sort of early quad bike armed with a machine gun.
As an armed motor scout this vehicle would have been of problematic effectiveness. Its rider would have been extremely vulnerable to return fire and it would have been next to impossible to operate the gun and drive and steer at the same time. A scout vehicle’s prime task is to reconnoitre the enemy and report back, it is not to sit and fight, any gun carried is for defence. Given the forward pointing gun with limited traverse the Simms motor scout could only operate in an offensive mode. It was not adopted by any military organisation. However the idea of using motorcycles to carry machine guns was adopted. Initially the first true motorcycle to carry a machine gun was in service with the Canadian 80th Militia regiment in 1908, they used a Harley Davidson motorcycle and sidecar combination with a forward facing Maxim gun. Its inventor, a Sergeant Northover, was to become better known as the inventor of the Northover projector issued widely to the British Home Guard in the 1940s. (Northover emerged from WW1 as a captain in the Canadian Army, retiring as a Major. He then went on to win a number of shooting championship medals at Bisley and other international competitions).
Northovera7rsquo;s idea was copied by American forces almost exactly as the enclosed photo of another Harley Davidson side car combination shows. At least one was fitted with an armoured shield positioned at the rear of the sidecar and another with a smaller shield for forward firing. These armed sidecars were used to support units of motorcycle mounted infantry. Such vehicles may have been used against Pancho Villa’s forces in Mexico in 1916. The gun was either dismounted for firing or fired from the stationary vehicle, the driver dismounting to act as the ammunition feeder. Both Colt and Hotchkiss machine guns were used.
By the outbreak of war in 1914 the idea of using a motorcycle and sidecar combination to carry a heavy machine gun had been translated into material form by a number of British manufacturers the chief of which were Clyno, Enfield and Scott. As with the armoured car it was the Royal Naval Air Service that led the field but eventually such vehicles had been taken into service in the British Army equipping units of the Machine Gun Corps. These were machine gun carriers, much as were the post war Carden Loyds and the Bren gun carrier of the Second World War. They were a means of getting a Vickers machine gun, its ammunition and crew as quickly as possible to the point where they were needed. The gun could be dismounted and deployed on a conventional tripod mounting (also carried on the machine) or from the sidecar itself whilst the vehicle was stopped. It was rarely, if ever, fired from a moving vehicle in action. The severe shaking and jolting would make aiming extremely problematical and any bullets arriving anywhere near the enemy would be the result of sheer chance. The gun was sometimes fired rearwards from the sidecar of the combination when stationary, this was a useful tactic when providing a rearguard for the vehicle could quickly roar off to a new position when the advancing enemy became too close.
At least one British motorcycle combination of 1914 was armoured, its make is not known. A photograph exists of bewhiskered and rather well fed French officers examining the vehicle and doubtless expressing some satisfaction that they would not be asked to ride in or on the dammed contraption. They make it difficult to see the details of the machine but it is obvious that the armour plate would only have protected the lower regions of its crew. The position of the gun suggests that this was intended to be fired from the moving vehicle.
By mid 1915 it had become obvious that the war in France was for the foreseeable future going to be relatively static and trench based. There was little or nothing for the motorcycle combinations to do and eventually many of their crews were retrained and became tank crews. However a Motor Machine Gun Brigade was maintained. During the German offensive in 1918 their mobility proved invaluable in providing a rapid response to plug gaps in the line created by the German assault. Casualties were inevitably high as their crews fought numerous rearguard actions to slow down the attack and but time for new defences to be established.
The first armoured single seat motorcycles were not military but police vehicles. In the 1920s a number of American police departments produced armoured motor cycles to fight gangs of bootleggers. Such vehicles were produced in both single and combination versions. Armour was confined to a frontal shield covering most of the rider’s body. Armament was usually a Thomson sub machine gun (Tommy Gun or Chicago Piano). The New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles police departments used bikes of this type. In New York they equipped what was known as "the Gunmen’s Squad". They were capable of speeds of up to 100mph. Riding a heavy armoured motor bike at 100 mph whilst firing a Tommy Gun at a speeding vehicle (which would no doubt be returning fire) sounds like enough excitement to last any police officer for a long time.
Some of the images in this article come from the Motorcycle memories and the British motor cycle museum web sites. Also, for more info, check: http://www.localhistory.scit.wlv.ac.uk/Museum/Transport/Cars/AGBpaper/AGB.htm