It is hard to overstate just how radically the internal combustion engine changed the world. It led to a revolution, because they ease and speed with which people could move from point to point caused a radical change in the way they thought about the world. The steam engine had opened up the world of work and communal travel, but its bulk and complexity made it impractical as a means of individual transportation.
The internal combustion engine, in which light oil fractions were burnt by means of controlled explosions inside of steel cylinders, was more compact and more suited to personal transport. When Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach assembled the first “Reitwagen”, a vehicle which is a motorcycle despite its own intentions, to paraphrase Melissa Holbrook Pierson. The world fell in love with the freedom which the internal combustion engine brought, and the speed which it made possible.
Of course, once one motorcycle had been built, the second would follow shortly afterwards, and once two of anything exist, the human compulsion to compete takes over. Racing followed motorcycle development as sure as night follows day. And as racing followed motorcycle development, so motorcycle development followed racing, a process which continues to this day.
This story, of how the obsession with speed and competition drove the early years of motorcycle racing, and how those developments both influenced and were influenced by the societies in which they existed, is the subject of Mat Oxley’s book, Speed: The one genuinely modern pleasure. In this meticulously researched book, Oxley traces motorcycle racing and competition from its earliest origins, an alcohol-fueled postprandial contest on a bicycle racing oval at the stately (and, post hoc, aptly named) Sheen House, all the way through to the death of the obsessive and eccentric Eric Crudgington Fernihough in Hungary, who died trying to beat the land speed record set by Ernst Henne. It follows the long and winding trail to go from speeds of 44 km/h of that first race to the 279.5 km/h which Henne set in his supercharged 500cc BMW streamliner.