First Motorcycle Trip Around the World

April 15, 2017

Imagine, if you will, living in 1913. Airlines were an unimaginable part of a distant future. International travel by train and steam ship was an unusual luxury, and most people saw little of the world. By this time, a number of people had sailed around the globe. But history has only recorded a handful of people who surmounted the challenge of travelling through many nations to circle the world on land by 1913. The new freedom of personal motorized transportation was arising, breaking barriers and giving birth to the first motorcycle trip around the world.

Internal combustion engines were newly arrived. The first motorcycle appeared less than 20 years before, putting along at 30 mph. Now, a few short years later, the fastest motorcycles could already reach speeds of up to 100 mph. Fuel efficient and light, vintage motorcycles could travel long distances on a single tank of gas. While they did not have the advantage of modern suspension, the simple, early bikes could withstand the rigors of 1913 style low maintenance roads.

In this context, with a little youthful dissatisfaction and boredom thrown in, 21 year old motorcyclist Carl Stearns Clancy hatched a plan.

Carl Stearns Clancy – The Original Motorcycle Adventurer

In “The Gasoline Tramp – Around the World on a Motorcycle,” Clancy writes:

“Have you ever eaten too many peanuts and become so fed up with them, you never wanted to look a peanut in the face again? Well, that’s just the way I felt about work in August 1912. I just ‘natcherly lost my taste fer it.’ Suddenly, I determined to take a year off work and devote that time to education – I resolved to see the world. .. I realized that such plan would make it necessary for me to earn much of my expenses en route. To do this, I soon found I should have to accomplish something original and unusual, and then write stories about it. At last, I decided to make a complete tour of the world. ”

Clancy was able to finance much of his trip by publishing accounts of his travels in Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review.

Clancy’s feat is particular incredible when you consider in 1913, there were not so many gas stations and motorcycle repair shops. No GPS, no ATMs, and not even much in the way of roads, traveling through parts of Africa and Asia in 1913. Clancy overcame bandits, wild animals, unfriendly border officials, and lack of spare parts and fuel to make it around the world. Clancy’ initial plan included 5500 miles in Europe, 400 Miles in Africa, 5000 miles in Asia and 3500 miles in the United States in a span of one year. In the end,  he ended up riding a total of 18,000 miles in 10 months.

Adventures of a Rougeish Gentleman Motorcyclist

The young Clancy rode in a three piece suit with a flat cap, later replaced with a pith helmet purchased in Egypt. Like many early riders, he did not have goggles. In Algeria, he came to an endless straightaway and decided to let the Henderson loose. “The machine leaped forward and tore away so fast I could barely hang on, and the wind roared in my ears so loudly, and the smarting tears so blinded me, that I decided 60 miles an hour was not what it was cracked up to be, and dropped back to a more comfortable gait.” – Gasoline Tramp

True to his original intent, he pursued an educational itinerary. The young adventurer made the difficult detour to visit Sigiriya – the Lion Rock in Sri Lanka, one of the Eight Wonders of the Ancient World.  Clancy explored the ruins of ancient Rome, venturing to scale a fence to break into the Palatine city. He casually relates his clandestine spelunking of the substructures of the Palace of Caligula, whilst expounding on the history of Roman Quadrata, the City of the Caesars. Back in those days, it did not count as breaking and entering if you could pull off a convincing imitation of a museum docent.

Press Coverage of the First Motorcycle Trip Around the World

Here is some contemporary press coverage from the Pacific Motorcyclist, Nov 6, 1913. The text in the photo is a little hard to read, so we have included a transcription below.

newspaper coverage of first motorcycle trip around the world


“First man to circle the globe — on a motorcycle

Carl Stearns Clancy of New York City, riding a 1912 Henderson has set a new mark in motorcycle achievements by the completion of his trip around the world.

Late in October, 1912, Clancy sailed from New York for Liverpool with his Henderson. He travelled into the remotest sections of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Then across the channel to the continent.

Through Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy to the shores of the Mediterranean; across to Africa and through Algeries and the Sahara Desert.

Through the Suez Canal to Ceylon, where a Henderson service station furnished road data for touring the island; on through India into China; across to Japan, the land of “rikshaws” and narrow, squared, cornered roads; then the last big water jump across the Pacific to the U.S.A.

From San Francisco through the almost impossible Northwest. On across the prairies to tour factory.  And four days later arrives at his destination, New York City, having covered over 18,000 miles in ten months.”

The Most Ambitious Motorcycle Trip Ever?

Clancy relates that in his writing, his goal is to “…catch, in a large measure, the broadening influence of touching elbows with all sorts and conditions of people.” We think that is a great goal for any motorcycle trip. The context and scope of Clancy’s trip is perhaps without compare in history.

In 1912, before Clancy set out on his trip, The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review magazine described Clancy’s plan as “The longest, most difficult, and most perilous motorcycle journey ever attempted.”  We think perhaps that assessment still stands today.

What do you think? Do you know the story of a more ambitious journey? Please let us know in the comments. We would love to read about it!

More on Vintage Motorcycles

Speaking of achievements that stand the test of time… Do you know the story of Burt Munro and the world’s fastest Indian motorcycle? Burt worked on a 1920 Indian for over 40 years. He made his own parts to trick out his bike. He eventually set a land speed record on a bike over 40 years old! We also have a great article on the extremely dangerous sport of motorcycle board track racing. Want to see some vintage motorcycles in person? Please check out our article on vintage motorcycle museums in the UK or vintage motorcycle museums in Europe. We’ve also got an interesting article on the vintage motorcycle logos.