Back in the old days: Comparing international motorcycle travel 100 years ago to today

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Back in the old days – Part 1

A look at motorcycle touring at home and internationally 100 years ago

What a difference a century makes. Motorcycle touring 100 years ago was considerably harsher and few ever took on the task to do major touring around any one country, or around the world. But for those who did…

Today it’s quite easy to put together a route, ship a bike if need be and ride in another country for months at a time. You may disagree. Let’s pause for a moment and look at how we tour today, versus 100 years ago.

Time availability – Recently a rider made a trip around the world on a motorcycle in 6 weeks. He probably didn’t see much, but he’s got that feather in his cap nonetheless and still has his job.

Back then, a trip around the world would take 10 months or more, so you really had to be willing to give up your day job.

Trip Planning – It’s fairly simple to plan out a trip in advance and get all your ducks in a row as long as things like your passport and medical are all in order.

100 years ago some countries were leery about these contraptions called motorcycles and weren’t so sure about allowing visitors into certain areas with them. Dealing with consulate members and getting granted access was a full time job for months in advance.

Road Quality – Today, 100 years after the’ better roads movement’ began, it’s pretty easy to move through developed countries on decent paved roads.

100 years ago we were just getting started with pavement. The major cities usually had it, but as soon as you passed the last structure in town you could be pretty sure you were going to be in the dirt and mud until the next town. This wreaked havoc on bikes causing many failures including suspension, broken spark plugs and the occasional crash.

Shipping Costs – Today you can ship a bike across the pond for anywhere from $600-$1,000 dollars. Back then you could do it for about $6. This would give you some indication of the rate of inflation over 100 years. About 100 times what was then. But it’s all relative because most people probably earned about 100 times less than today.

Motorcycle Costs – That 100x inflation rate doesn’t hold true when it came to buying a motorcycle. Quality 700-1000 cc motorcycles can be had today for anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 stock.

Back then you had to pay $300-$500. That was a huge chunk of change then, equivalent to $30,000 - $50,000 in today’s dollars. Perhaps the old adage really works – ‘we’ll make it up in volume.’

Petrol Access – Today, gas is available all over the world, pretty much with ease on the whole.

100 years ago the combustion engine was new technology that still hadn’t caught on in smaller towns and villages. To get fuel you would go to the local hotel or hardware store, since there was no such thing as filling stations yet. And pure gasoline wasn’t always available in large quantities, but kerosene was, so riders would often cut their fuel with kerosene.

Tire Availability – In most countries with major cities, tires can be had fairly easily. And when not, you can have them send to you.

100 years ago you needed to plan ahead months in advance to pre-ship your tires to your intended pickup point hoping you and they arrive together at relatively the same time.

Tire Repair – The quality of our tires and the quality of repair tools on the market today means we’ll usually ride away from a puncture in about 15 minutes.

Tire quality back then was poor at best. It was common to get a puncture at least weekly, or worse, have a tire carcass tear. For large holes in inner-tubes and the carcass, riders took along a needle and thread and sewed them up, hoping it would hold until they could reach a point to make a proper replacement. Otherwise, they had to ride on the rim. Very undesirable.

There were no electric pumps to inflate tires, either. One had to carry and use a hand pump. If you’re doing this weekly, you may start to feel a little carpel tunnel kick in.

Mail Call – Today we can ride anywhere in the world and stay in touch with loved ones at a moment’s notice by tapping into the local wi-fi weekly if not daily.

100 years ago you provided your itinerary to loved ones so they could mail you and send additional supplies in advance of your arrival.

Spare Parts – So you broke a crank-shaft or need a new sprocket and chain? Simple, call your dealer back at home and have your parts FedExed to you.

Not so 100 years ago. Riders had to carry plenty of spare parts including spark plugs, cables, drive chain items and so on. Smart riders carried enough parts to handle a rebuild on the road, which wasn’t uncommon and they had to have the skills to perform the operations as well.

End of part 1. Click here for part two…

Patrick Thomas/June 2016

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