Opinion: Lessons from 1908

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just take a look at Hints and Tips for Motor Cyclists, a handy little book published in 1908 by The Motor Cycle magazine and sent to me last week by CMG reader Allan Johnson.

“Always be prepared for the unexpected,” it warns, and gives examples: “Vehicles in front stopping suddenly … a tyre burst at speed … a block in the traffic, round the corner,” and my favourite, “swerves of passing or oncoming cars, especially if handled by ladies, or when roads are greasy.”

The author’s advice? “When pavements are greasy, give oncoming traffic all possible room,” and “Don’t trouble about the scenery when you are riding really fast.”

Wise and practical words, as valid today as they were 110 years ago when riders were dodging horse-drawn carriages and Edwardian lady motorists. There’s plenty of advice in that volume that contemporary motorcyclists would be smart to heed, and especially to think about here in Canada as spring arrives and we prepare for a new season on two wheels.

Last week, I wrote about how we should get ourselves ready for riding weather, and Zac wrote about how we can all improve our abilities at any time in the season. This week, we’re publishing our annual checklist for preparing your motorcycle for the season after a winter of hibernation. And all year long, we’ll be offering whatever advice we learn along the way while sharing the road and trails with other riders who can help us become better at what we love so much.

For him, Allan explained when he sent along this helpful book, “riding (and driving) safely is to a great extent a mental exercise of anticipation, recognition, pre-planned reaction and safe evasion of the potential hazards resulting from the poor driving and road manners and habits of others. It has always been that way – since I started riding in 1958.”

And that’s the point: we never stop learning, and we must never stop practising. Too often these days, people think they can watch a YouTube video and become an instant expert, but proficient motorcycle riding takes a long time to work at before the right reactions just kick in automatically when you need them. It takes practice and experience to get there – Allan’s still practising after 60 years – and until that point, we must ride with extra vigilance and margin for safety.

It’s the same as it ever was. Sure, some things have changed (you no longer have to watch for small boys throwing their caps at you when you ride past, as they apparently did in 1908) but the principles are exactly the same. “Adjust pace so as to be able to stop dead before farthest point of vision is reached,” advises The Motor Cycle, and “observe the rule of the road strictly, even when you appear to be alone on the earth.” Same as it ever was.


  1. The picture at the top of this article deserves comment. The man with the Harley-Davidson single is Walter C. Davidson, then the President and General Manager of the Harley-Davidson company which had been officially formed and registered in August, 1907. The picture can be dated to 1908, just after Davidson, riding the motorcycle he is shown with, won the 1908 Long Island Endurance Race, a 2 day (June 29-30, 1908) timed event starting at Catskill, New York, going to Brooklyn and then, on the second day, doing a 180 mile circuit of Long Island. There were 84 entries on 22 different makes of motorcycles. about half the entries were eliminated on the first day. Davidson and the ’08 H-D completed and won the 2 day event with a perfect 1,000 points (No points lost on time at check points.)
    A week later, Davidson and the H-D entered and won an Economy Run with a calculated fuel consumption rate of 188 miles per US gallon.
    These two events were the first national competitions that H-D had ever entered and established the make as perhaps not the fastest make on the market but as very rugged, reliable and economical.
    In 1908, in their new 4,760 sq ft. factory in Milwaukee, the company turned out and sold 456 motorcycles. They employed 36 people.

    • Thanks for the info on the great picture. Looking at it seems to show a nicely cemented sidewalk and a dirt road probably because most people walked and there would still be horses on the roads. Where I live the sidewalks have become so neglected that they are dangerous to walk on and like everywhere else the roads are jammed.

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