Motorcycle Chariot Racing Madness

September 3, 2017

Hill climbs, hare scrambles, flat track racing, board track – aka the murderdrome. Grand Prix, rallies, the Isle of Mann Tourist Trophy, motorcycle polo. There are so many ways to have a bit of competitive fun on  motorcycle; it’s hard to write an exhaustive list. For instance, if you went with that list, you’d be leaving out motorcycle chariot racing.


Motorcycle Chariot Race two motorcycles with wagons behind on a track

Motorcycle Chariot Racing – As Real As It Is Crazy

Motorcycle chariot racing was a real historical phenomenon. It is exactly what it sounds like. Chariots, like those invented by the Assyrians, pulled by motorcycles instead of horses. You can find some frothy articles out there asserting it was extremely popular. But the general lack of written records and event coverage suggest, maybe, meh, not so much.  We do know that people did take up this crazy sport in the 1920s and 30s in Australia, New Zealand, the US, England and some other countries in Europe.

The Possible Influence of Ben Hur

If you are familiar with the movie Ben Hur, with its dramatic and highly produced chariot racing scene, you’ll perhaps at least dimly remember it came out in the 50s. But Ben Hur was also a best-selling novel in the U.S, originally published in the late 1800s. It topped the sales charts until 1935, when it was surpassed by Gone with the Wind. So we think it is possible the sport originated in the U.S. where chariots had captured the imagination of the nation long before the famous movie.

lining up for motorcycle chariot racing

Motorcycle Chariots in Popular Mechanics

Still, no one seems to be sure who hooked up the first motorcycle chariot. But an article in a 1922 edition of the US popular mechanics indicates the yanks got into this mad motor sport pretty early. The article describes garage engineers using win barrels cut in half to from the front of the chariot and attaching a floor with an axle and a pair of wheels. The particular bunch of fellows in Popular mechanics went all out on the costumes, but the chariot rig was pretty damn basic. Just a two wheeled wagon towed by a rider on a motorcycle for a goofy race: flash in the pan.

motorcycle chariot racing in New South Wales

Aussies Do The Motorcycle Chariot Thing For Real

We don’t know for sure who did it first. But over in New South Wales in the 30s, a police exhibition featured some real serious motorcycle chariot racing. In the Aussie version, as is the case with real chariots, the “horses” did not have riders! We believe there were two approaches to mastering a feisty team of two or more motorcycles. For a simple approach, one could fix the handlebars in place and tether the motorcycles together with a rigid linkage and control the direction of the entire rig with one rein attached to each throttle. Gun the bike on the right to go a bit to the right, accelerate the bike on the left to go more left. Stop by ramming into something or tipping over?

Or you could take a more complex approach. Attach the two handlebars together and the two throttles together. Spring load the handlebars so that with an entirely slack rein, they will turn left. But as the rein is pulled they will center up and then turn right. Control the direction of the handlebars with one rein and the acceleration with the other. In either case, shifting gears is not an option. And stopping is up to the will of the mighty gods, or achieved by gradually slowing down.

More Motorcycle History Madness

Our Gentleman’s Lounge also offers a little light reading on other motorcycle sport subjects, such as the aforementioned Isle of Mann Tourist Trophy, motorcycle sport’s most dangerous period – board track racing and flat track racing, not to mention our own notional nascent flat tank motorcycle racing club. You’ll also find articles about the history of motorcycle engines and tires, brakes and the influential Norton featherbed frame.

As interesting as the sport and technical history of motorcycles can be, you might find the irrepressible and innovative pioneers from the early days of motorcycling even more fascinating. For instance, Carl Clancy Stearns decided to take a motorcycle trip around the world and funded it by inventing a sort of travel blogger job for himself. Burt Munro spent over 4 decades tinkering with his beloved 1920 Indian Scout and souping it up to set a land speed record when he was in his late 60s.

And women aspiring to equality and freedom at the turn of the century heard the siren song of the road and undertook bold motorcycle adventures too: Della Crewe rode around the US and throughout Central American, the Van Buren Sisters crossed the country together on motorcycles for women’s suffrage, and Bessie Stringfield, a black woman, rode all around the American south in the 1920s and lived to tell about it. Read on, and ride on!