The Front-Wheel-Drive 1923 Megola Sport | Megola-Mania

Any rally-car driver knows front-wheel drive is unbeatable for finding grip on questionable surfaces. And roads were nothing if not questionable 90 years ago—so why not create a FWD bike? Of course there were many complicating factors, not least how to drive and steer a wheel at the same time. But Fritz Cockerell, the inventor of the truly bizarre Megola, didn't think these problems were anything clever engineering couldn't overcome.

A consortium of three German engineers—Hans Meixner, Cockerell (who originally spelled his name Gockerell) and Otto Landgraf—Megola got its name by combining the first two letters of each of their surnames. The company was founded in Munich in 1921 to produce a curious motorcycle of Cockerell's design, powered by a three-cylinder engine located within the rear wheel. As plans to commercialize this venture progressed, Cockerell replaced the triple with a five and hit on the novel idea of locating the engine in the front wheel instead. Approximately 2000 Megolas were built and sold between '22 and '26.

This wasn’t the first attempt at a FWD motorcycle, as British firm Radco had produced an abortive prototype in 1919. Cockerell’s was just the first “functional” design, with that adjective decidedly belonging in quotations! Locating the powertrain within the front wheel conveniently sidestepped the problem of transferring power to a turning wheel. It was hardly a perfect solution, however: The spokes are laced directly to the crankcase so there is no transmission—this is a single-speed machine. There is no clutch, either, which makes riding the Megola a particularly challenging proposition. More on that in a minute…

Many incorrectly refer to the Megola engine as a radial design; it’s actually a rotary. A radial engine’s cylinders remain static while the crankshaft—often connected to a propeller—rotates. In the case of the Megola, the main bearing housing—which doubles as the front wheel spindle—remains static and the cylinders rotate around that. A trio of planetary gears transfer power from the crankshaft to the crankcase, with the crankshaft spinning in the opposite direction of front-wheel rotation, at six times the speed, to roughly equalize driving forces. Five longitudinally finned, side-valve cylinders are posed 72 degrees apart. Total engine displacement is 637cc.

Transferring power was just the first piece of this puzzle. Think for a minute: How would you supply fuel and lubrication—let alone devise an exhaust system, or feed spark—to an engine located inside the front wheel? Cockerell’s solutions are both ingenious and elegant. Engine lubrication is gravity-fed to the main-bearing housing from a 4-liter tank mounted on the left steering strut. A matching, gravity-feed fuel tank on the right side holds a small supply of fuel, which has to be regularly hand-primed from the main fuel load inside the pressed-steel monocoque frame. A Bosch magneto fixed to the planetary-gear housing provides spark, and an oil pump driven via bevel gears off the magneto circulates oil thorough the engine. A single updraft carburetor is mounted on the right side of the wheel. Thanks to the engine’s front-and-center location, air-cooling the cylinders was not a concern.

Megola manufactured two models: a Touring version with a sprung rear wheel, a semi-enclosed bucket seat and a mild, 14-bhp engine; and a stripped-down Sport variant with a rigid chassis, sprung saddle and a high-performance, 25-bhp engine. Believe it or not, the Sport was a semi-successful racing machine. Without any clutch, gearbox or front brake it wasn’t particularly useful for roadracing, but it was well suited for oval-track racing on dirt or other low-traction surfaces. Megola works racer Toni Bauhofer even defeated the BMW factory team to win the 1924 Schleizer-Dreieck national championship race.

This particular Megola (which belongs to an American collector who prefers to remain anonymous and was restored by Jeff Craig of Ambler, Pennsylvania) is one of the few surviving Sport models left in the world. The owner brought the bike to the USA from Germany shortly after WWII, during which it had been used in a smuggling operation—the pressed-steel frame was apparently good for concealing contraband—before Occupying Forces seized, then sold it to the current owner.

Riding the Megola immediately reveals why Cockerell’s creation was a technological dead-end. The first challenge is starting the contraption, as a kick-starter was obviously not an option. The recommended method is to prop the bike on its front-wheel stand and kick the tire with your boot. Allegedly this will fire the engine, but after almost wearing out a Reebok trying to perfect the technique, I gave up and bump-started the beast—which is reportedly what most Megola-maniacs did back in the day.

Push-starting is fine, as long as you’re ready to go as soon as it fires—remember, this thing has no clutch! The technique is reasonably straightforward: Give a push with the decompression lever lifted and, once you get the bike up to speed, simultaneously jump aboard and drop the lever. Done correctly, the bike cackles to life and takes off at whatever speed at which you preset the throttle lever. Set it too high—like I did the first time—and you risk having your arms pulled out of their joints as the Megola catapults away! Make dead-certain that you have the wheel pointed forward, too, or the torque reaction as it straightens itself will yank the bars out of your grip and cause an unavoidable and utterly ignominious get-off. Apologies again, Mrs. Craig, for destroying your flowerbeds!

After at least one more fall and even more stalls, I finally mastered the art of achieving forward motion. Riding a Megola on the street—even in the relatively traffic-free days of the early '20s—must have been pure madness. Not only is there no clutch, but the single rear brake is useless. It's a complicated dual-action drum—with one internally expanding shoe and another externally contracting one—controlled jointly by a hand lever and foot pedal in what may be the world's first linked brake system. Squeezing and stamping both for all you're worth does practically nothing to counter forward progress, however. How anyone managed anything resembling traffic aboard a Megola is a mystery! It's no surprise that the owner's manual included special instructions for navigating then-newfangled traffic lights (called "robots" at the time!), advising the Megola rider to "orbit" until the light changed and he could depart the scene. Talk about your Monty Python moments…

I must confess I only rode the Megola in a straight line: a combination of cowardice and mistrust of those towering, 28-inch tires made my progress around turns somewhat, um, restrained. Besides, once the throttle is wound on, it’s practically impossible to go anywhere but straight forward, as you heave manfully on the bars to combat the torque effect. Until you’ve wrestled with a Megola, you don’t know the meaning of understeer!

At the end of the ride, I could only ask why? Why build such a strange machine, requiring so many complicated solutions to problems that never existed until Cockerell created them? Especially since the end result barely functions as a motorcycle? The only plausible explanation is that Cockerell—like so many other creative inventors operating at a time before any firm rules for "proper" motorcycle design were defined—occasionally led himself down a blind alley. No surprise that Megola folded in 1926, another victim of worsening economic conditions and rampant inflation in post-WWI Germany. Cockerell continued producing motorcycles under his own name, though these were utterly conventional 175cc runabouts. There hasn't been another mass-produced, front-wheel-drive motorcycle since.

Evolution
Cutting-edge aircraft and automotive technology, ingeniously misapplied to two wheels.
Rivals
The Ner-A-Car, a runaway horse.
Tech

Price na
Engine Type a-c 72-deg. 5-cyl. rotary
Valve train Inlet-over-exhaust side-valve, 10v
Displacement 637cc
Bore x stroke 52.0 x 60.0mm
Compression 6.0:1
Fuel system Carburetor
Transmission Direct drive
Claimed horsepower 25 bhp @ 3600 rpm
Claimed torque na
Frame Sheet steel monocoque
Front suspension Leaf-sprung leading-link fork
Rear suspension Rigid frame, sprung saddle
Front brake None
Rear brake Dual-action drum
Front tire 3.50-28
Rear tire 3.50-28
Rake/trail na
Seat height 30.0 in.
Wheelbase 79.0 in.
Fuel capacity na
Claimed curb weight na
Color Red

Verdict
1 out of 5 stars.

No clutch, no brakes - no future!

The Megola Sport’s rigid, monocoque frame, press-formed from sheet steel, incorporates flowing, full-coverage fenders that looked particularly modern in its day.
The updraft carburetor hangs beneath the right fork leg. The crankshaft is hollow, and doubles as the intake manifold. Don’t even ask how this works!
The Megola’s five-cylinder rotary engine, contained within the diameter of the front wheel, is a marvel of elegant packaging. Each cylinder has its own muffler.
Megola instrumentation is Spartan, consisting of only an ammeter. The main fuel tank is located within the monocoque frame, with the filler cap visible here
The leading-link front suspension was a weak point of the Megola’s design. Excessive unsprung weight caused the leaf springs to repeatedly fracture.
The side-valve engine is surprisingly torquey, able to accelerate the single-speed Megola from a walking pace to its top speed of nearly 70 mph quite efficiently.