A Century Of Motorcycling | Cat Tales

By Brian Catterson

One-hundred years. Ten decades. A century. Longer than a lifetime, most of the time. Way back in 1912, Motorcyclist magazine debuted as Pacific Motocycling. (They were called “motocycles” back then, without the “r.”) It wasn’t the world’s first motorcycle magazine, or even America’s, but it’s the oldest one that’s still being published today. (Italy’s Motociclismo is two years younger.)

An editorial titled “Smell o’ Gasoline” appeared in the second-ever issue, published on July 15, 1912. (The magazine was bi-weekly then.) In it, Editor L.J. Berger (who for the moment preferred to remain anonymous—he must have had a day job) outlined his vision for what the magazine would be.

“There are already some publications devoted more or less to the technical features of the motocycle. We do not contemplate invading that field now, though what the future may show in that line we do not prophecy,” he wrote. “We believe that the ‘ordinary reader,’ the man who buys a machine to use and who is in the great majority, is not a technical man. He wants to know the facts which will help him select his machine and enjoy it afterward.”

Thus the foundations of the road test were laid. But there would be feature stories, too.

“[The reader] wants the riding conditions of the country he lives in described as he himself would describe them, if he had the ability or time to do so. He wants to read such descriptions himself, to re-enjoy experiences through which he has passed, and he wants readers in other sections of the country to know what the conditions are on the [West] Coast.”

Readers were encouraged to contribute to the magazine, as well.

“Every reader has had times on the road, or off it—over the fence, maybe, or at lunch under a country roof—which would ‘make good reading.’ Write it down and send it in, and if it’s good and not too long we’ll print it. The real spirit of motocycling is in the open air, out where the breezes blow, not in the factory nor auto show nor on the racetrack; and it is the conclusions of the ordinary user, and his ways of getting enjoyment and practical results—particularly his methods of righting the things that go wrong on the best of machines—that are of the greatest interest to his fellow users.”

We still count on that sort of reader feedback for our Doin’ Time long-term tests and for Answers.

And although that first editor professed that readers wanted the magazine written “in plain English … in as nearly simple newspaper English as possible,” the writing was already a cut above that.

“If you want a vivid illustration of what the motocycle means to all sorts of people, come with the writer to a certain tent-house on a gently sloping piece of land in the San Marcos Valley, between Escondido and Oceanside. There you can lie with head high on a camp cot, a quarter of a mile away from the road, and see the fellows pass. You can hear the hum of a machine long before it is in sight, from ‘Escon’ on the east or Richland on the west. Presently it slithers by on the fine-surfaced highway of decomposed granite, passing horse-drawn rigs as though they were still-life pictures out of a past century, placed on a modern, rapidly moving film for the sake of contrast.”

That’s right: decomposed-granite roadways and horse-drawn carriages. Motorcycles that sold for $250; gas less than 10 cents per gallon—and there weren’t any gas stations yet. Motorcycling was in its infancy but growing fast—and already progressing beyond mere transportation.

“Some of those machines are ridden by city people, out for a day among the yellow, hairy hills; but more of them belong to the folks who are the real producers, and who find in the smell o’ gasoline a change from the odor of the fields, to which they are glad to get back before they have been away from it long. There is nothing that will do more to make the man of the country enjoy his own home more, or to realize the beauty of its setting in the landscape, than to get away from it occasionally and compare it with other places. The motocycle enables him to do this.”

A century later, that’s still true. Here’s to the next hundred years!

Motorcyclist will celebrate its 100th anniversary throughout 2012 with special retrospective content in all 12 issues of the magazine, on our website and in “A Century of Motorcycling” display at the Progressive International Motorcycle Shows.

Come join the party!

By Brian Catterson
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