Back in the old days: Part 3

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Back in the old days: Part 3

What it was like to tour on a motorcycle 100 years ago, give or take a year.

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.


Lighting on motorcycles has surely evolved over the years. Recently, we’re seeing LED technology getting incorporated into our motorcycles starting with marker lights, blinkers, tail lights, and now even headlights and auxiliary lighting.

All most riders of recent times have probably known was the various bulb technologies. But did you know that 100 years ago lighting was achieved using acetylene gas? Yes, the rider would have to light his headlamp and be certain he had enough fuel to get him through the darkness ahead. And if one should crash, there was one more item that could explode during a mishap.


For the most part, if we want a roof over our heads, rather than, say, a tent dome, we stay in a hotel or motel. Most motels don’t offer much in the way of food, other than a continental breakfast of some sort. The same holds true for hotels, unless you’re staying upscale and they happen to have a three-meal-a-day restaurant attached.

But back in the old days, you could typically find a room at an inn. And many inns served meals as part of the cost of your stay. And because we hadn’t ruined our food supply with quick-made foods, often times you could get a decent meal. A freshly made sandwich, made-from-scratch pasta dish, a nice cheese and fruit plate. This never really caught on the United States, but even today in Europe, it is possible to tour many countries and have the same experience of days gone by, touring, pulling into an inn, getting a full dinner and departing the next day after a delicious breakfast of local goods.

Cameras and Film

Smart phones have come a long way over the last decade. You can forget about packing a camera since many phones provide large format photography options right on board. And take as many photos as you like because large storage memory means you’ll rarely run out of space for images.

But imagine trying to take photos during your tour 100 or more years ago. That required packing a fairly large format camera, a full-size tripod to get a selfie now and then and the number of photos you could take was limited to how much film you carried. Getting film processed was another story, since few small towns along the way could handle the task. Instead, riders often mailed their film back home or to their favorite processor, never getting to see the pictures they took until the trip was over.


On most modern-day motorcycles, oil is something we think about every 2,000 – 8,000 miles. As long as we don’t have a leak or bad piston ring, we just keep seeing full levels on the dipstick every time we check it out. When we do need oil, we’ll pay about $5 for a regular quart and double that at least for a quart of synthetic.

Not so, even into the 1990s when motorcycles found numerous ways to consume oil, causing us to pack a quart or two each trip to keep up with the bike’s appetite. If a bike had a 2-4 quart capacity, we likely put double that amount in by the next changing interval. Several things were different a century ago. There was no such thing as synthetic back then, and a quart of standard motor oil would set you back a whopping .38 cents, give or take a penny.

Fast Food

It’s pretty easy nowadays to find fast food along just about any paved route, not only in North America, but in many developed countries across the globe. Burgers, fries, tacos, burritos, pizza and more, loaded with high levels of carbohydrates and packing high glycemic loads are readily available. And that’s not healthy when our world is struggling with skyrocketing numbers of humans with diabetes.

But don't think it was much different a century ago when the motorcycle appeared on the scene. During any part of a journey, a rider would roll into a town and satiate his or her appetite with items like shakes, cakes, breads, ice cream, sweets and baked good products which all packed a high glycemic load. Which goes to show you 100 years ago we were already on our way to poor eating habits and, sadly, it’s only gotten worse, even though we have all the data to show we’re making poor choices based on what’s available in the marketplace today.

Patrick Thomas/December 2016

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