Orient 1899-1907 - America’s First Production Motorcycle
Fans of the original Indian motorcycle often like to remind their Harley buddies that their Springfield splendor preceded production of the Milwaukee marvel by two years; Indian first appeared in 1901, Harley-Davidson in 1903.
But both Indian and Harley were upstaged in the history books by a Massachusetts bicycle company called the Waltham Manufacturing Company founded in 1893 by Charles H. Metz. The name of his machine, and rightful heir to the title “first USA production motorcycle” was the Orient-Aster, better known simply as the Orient. The Aster relates to the machine’s French-built engine, a copy of the ubiquitous DeDion-Bouton.
In 1876, the high-wheel bicycle was brought to America and exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A few of the British-made high-wheelers were imported, and within a short time people were riding them on the streets of Boston. At first, only the affluent could afford the expensive mechanical device, and they were considered a novelty rather than a practical means of transportation. Even when riders were proficient, the often muddy and deeply rutted dirt roads of the time made it a difficult challenge just to stay on board the precarious contrivance.
In the 1880's, however, bicycles with equal-sized wheels (called "safety" bicycles) were introduced, and quality machines became more affordable. The "safety" bicycle was not only safer, but easier to ride, and both men and women were drawn to the new invention. For the first time, large numbers of young people had the means to travel beyond their own neighborhoods. By the 1890's, the modern two-wheeler had had a profound effect on American society.
As the 20th century approached, the internal combustion engine also came to America from abroad. It didn't take long before mechanically adept young men became impassioned with the idea that the European invention might be used to power wheeled vehicles.
Motivation for attaching an internal combustion engine to a bicycle came about when Metz wanted a means by which to train his bicycle racing team. Metz constructed a tandem pacer bicycle with the pilot sitting up front, the rear passenger operating the DeDion-Bouton engine housed in the rear section, then put it to work on the Waltham bicycle training track intent on giving his team something to shoot for. The idea worked, the Orient bicycle team gaining victory after victory, which naturally translated to increased bicycle sales for the company.
The Orient motorcycle was relatively expensive at an MSRP of $250, quite a lump sum more than a century ago. What you got was a 2-hp gasoline engine that carried about five quarts of fuel, good enough to take you 100 miles, again a fair piece at the turn of the century, especially considering the quality of the roads.
About four years later, Metz introduced a two-cylinder version that doubled the horsepower of the Single to four. At this point, Metz teamed up with the Marsh Co. of Brockton, MA, the merger producing the high quality Marsh-Metz motorcycle appearing in 1908.
The Marsh Brothers, W.T. and A.R., had first built their 1-hp single-cylinder bike in 1899 as the Marsh Motor Bicycle. By 1902, they had built a 6-hp belt-drive racer that could reach 60 mph. After the merger to form the American Motor Company, the motorcycles bore the name Marsh & Metz or M.M. and would mark another milestone when it produced the first 90-degree V-Twin in the U.S. Marsh and Metz also sold engines to other builders such as Peerless, Arrow and Haverford, but by 1913 the company was no more. Charles Metz switched to manufacturing automobiles.