The first motorized two-wheelers started being developed by bicycle makers in 1901. An immense upswing set in during the 1920s, and the motorcycle became Germany's most important mode of transportation. Along with a great many small makers, major names like Ardie, Hercules, Mars, Triumph, Victoria and Zündapp built Nuremberg's reputation as the citadel of motorcycle manufacturing.

Nuremberg – the center of the German motorcycle industry
Nuremberg was the center of the German motorcycle industry for decades. The industry found its origins at the beginning of the 20th century in the city’s existing bicycle factories. Two decades earlier, when the first bicycles reached Germany from England, Nuremberg – with its flourishing metalworking industry – had already proved to be an ideal location for the mass production of bikes.

So it only made sense that the first motorcycles, built in the years between 1900 and World War I, were essentially motorized bicycles. The most important Nuremberg makers of the day were Victoria, Hercules and Mars.

Development then exploded in the 1920s, in a virtual motorcycling mania. Almost 50 companies offered motorcycles in the Nuremberg region. Makes like Hecker, Ardie and Triumph came onto the market – and of course also Zündapp, whose "Motorcycle for Everyman" began carrying it to the market lead in 1922.

By the 1930s, Nuremberg already counted as the motorcycle capital of Germany. But the era of the true motorcycle legends only began after 1945. At Zündapp, it was the KS 601; at Triumph, the "Boss"; at Victoria, the "Bergmeister." But the worst crisis of all was to begin around 1955: the automobile, led by Volkswagen's "Beetle," wrested the lead away from the motorcycles. Not much later, for most companies, it was all over.

Hercules and Motorcycles

Hercules, Nuremberg's longest-standing bicycle maker, began series-producing its first motorcycles as early as 1905. But not for long – because these expensive, technically rather unreliable vehicles failed to pay off.

Hercules survived World War I and the ensuing years of crisis and inflation quite well by making bicycles, as well as junction boxes, conduits and steel-tube furniture. In subsequent years, the company's records show a vigorous upswing in business.

This growth in sales of imported articles was probably what led Hercules back into the now-booming motorcycle market so late, only in 1929. It built its cycles as a "Konfektionär": it made its chassis units in-house, but procured the engines from such makers as JAP, Villiers, Columbus, Bark, Moser, Küchen, Ilo, and of course Sachs in Schweinfurt.

The Hercules-Sachs partnership dated back to 1905, when Ernst Sachs revolutionized bicycle construction by inventing the Torpedo coaster brake hub. The low-powered motors that Sachs developed and mass-produced for both low-speed and higher-speed mopeds became firmly established on the market worldwide. These two-stroke vehicles, affectionately known as "Sachserlas" in Franconia, were a major factor in the massive motorization of the 1930s.

Hans Kahmann rode this 250 cc Hercules road racer to the German Road Championship in 1931. He also finished in leading places in the 1932 and 1934 races.

This Hercules racing cycle of 1939 is probably a custom product. It was ridden by racer Carl Geffers. As what was known as a "Six-Day Model," it was specifically intended for gymkhana and endurance races.

The "Columbus" engine, a late model in which the oil pump had already been relocated to the interior, was reworked by Richard Küchen. The Austrian Illichmann rear-wheel suspension was built into this competition machine at Hercules.

Hercules presented the first rotary-piston engine motorcycle at the IFMA in 1970. The "W 2000" name boldly implied that this was how people should conceive motorcycles from the year 2000. But the design was not a success. The engine hung within the frame like a vacuum cleaner, leaving an ugly gap under the gas tank. And no wonder – the designers had merely resorted to installing a snowmobile engine that already existed.

Even a number of visual and technical improvements up to the 1974 series run were unable to rescue the project. By 1979, with about 8000 bikes produced, Hercules stopped making the world's first rotary-piston motorcycle.

An all-terrain version of the Hercules W 2000. Hercules released the first Wankel-engined motorcycle in 1970. Though the first models' visual shortcomings gradually improved over time, their real attractions were the turbine-like, smooth running of the 300 cc rotary-piston engine and their good body characteristics. But because of its thirsty gas consumption, heavy weight, low power and noisy operation, the world's first Wankel-engined motorcycle ceased production in 1979 after only 8,000 units had been made.

The Triumph works on Fürther Strasse

Fürther Strasse, a primary artery between Nuremberg and Fürth and the site, in 1835, of Germany's first railroad, subsequently developed into a prototypical "axis of industrialization." This was home to a large segment of the area's two-wheeler industry in the 1920s and 1930s. Among the most important was the Triumph works, which burgeoned swiftly from small beginnings into a factory site that dominated the streetscape for decades – as shots from a variety of dates show.

In the BD 250, Triumph achieved the feat of building a relatively low-priced motorcycle that would work for everyday use but could also serve for sportier outings. The BD250 represented a technical innovation by Otto Reitz’s development department: the engine and transmission could be dismantled separately from one another, making repairs considerably easier.

A pioneering step for the German motorcycle industry, and a feature of later Triumph motorcycles as well, was the development of a two-cylinder engine with uniflow scavenging and a crankcase rotary slide, as first appeared in the BD250 of 1939.

This motorcycle would surely have been a great success if only the war had not broken out shortly after it was released. All the same, it was quickly nicknamed the "Porcupine" because of its conspicuous cooling ribs.

In an era when numerous 350s were vying to equal the performance of the 500 class, Triumph brought out a 350 that offered "only" 16 hp.

But it could summon that amount of power at just 4000 rpm – quite enough for the everyday needs of a sidecar motorcycle. A twin-port system and a new precombustion chamber system with an enlarged air filter system helped muffle noise.

Victoria – From the penny-farthing to the Bergmeister

The company was founded in 1886 by two enthusiasts for penny-farthing bicycles, as a commercial partnership named Frankenburger&Ottenstein OHG. In the search for new areas of activity, in 1899 the firm was reconstituted as a stock corporation, Victoria AG. The company began making fast printing presses for books and an entirely newly designed Victoria motor car.

The best known of these models was the Victoria "doctor car" of 1905. This two-seater, powered at 5 hp(M) and with a top speed of about 25 kph (about 15 mph), now has a home at the Museum for Industrial Culture.

The prototype of the first Victoria motorcycle was presented in 1901, making Victoria one of Germany’s pioneers in motorcycle construction. Based on its years of experience in making bicycles, the company began "series production" in 1903, outfitting reinforced bicycle frames with engines procured from outside.

After production was interrupted by the war, the company quickly returned to the fast-growing motorcycle market in 1920. Victoria's heavy KR1 touring cycle was intended primarily for well-to-do customers – and the sales figures proved it was a success. Smaller models came only later, and Victoria developed into a highly creative Nuremberg motorcycle maker.

English manufacturer Raleigh also offered complete racing motorcycles for those who bought its Sturmey Archer engines. Victoria raced a few such Raleigh motorcycles in road races.

One of them has survived. It was acquired from Victoria by Edmund Schmidt, and was raced as a privateer in various competitions before finding its way to the museum.

Different versions of the KR 6, a successor of the KR 3, remained in production for more than 10 years. It was a successful racer, but was also widely used by police forces. There was little competition in this class, so Victoria held firm to its basic design until 1938.

A KR 6 was not a motorcycle for those of limited means. At a price of 1,750 marks, it was plainly a high-end motorcycle for the "gentleman rider" who could afford a small car but had ambitions for a sporty two-wheeler instead.

As in the KR 25, the engine of the KR 35 SN was also developed by Richard Küchen, and was produced in cooperation between Victoria and Horex. Sales were good up until the war began; the great collapse only really arrived in the 1950s – and it was Horex that suffered it, not Victoria.

The Victoria shown here is in "brand new" condition. It survived the war wrapped in oiled paper and well hidden. After that, it was acquired by a collector who recognized that a never-driven machine had special value as a historical reference. He donated the cycle to the museum through the mediation of the Victoria-Interessengemeinschaft society.

This prototype for the Swing KR 21, the last motorcycle made by Victoria itself, was built between 1953 and 1954. A cache of hitherto unidentified motorcycle parts was discovered by chance in the cellars of the former Victoria works. Our search for their origin ultimately yielded photos and written references to this vehicle in a publication by motorcycle historian Ernst Leverkus. This bike was used as a test motorcycle on all-terrain and gymkhana trips. Motorcycle restorer Mike Kron took on the restoration of this unique exhibit.

This engine from famed designer Richard Küchen offered an enticing, sleek aesthetic design. The carburetor and ignition were integrated into the engine block. The valves were suspended in the light-metal cylinder heads.

But the long distances that the air and gas mixture had to travel impeded performance and could cause the engine to "choke." A twin-carburetor version never reached series production.

Victoria sold about 5,000 Bergmeisters between 1953 and 1956 – not enough to rescue the company. In 1958 it was absorbed into Zweirad Union, which henceforth would make only bicycles and mopeds.

This racing machine, preserved in its original condition, was heavily modified by Victoria test engineer Harald Oelerich between 1954 and 1958, when he set it up for off-road riding. Its most salient features are a rear-wheel swingarm and its increased power from a two-barrel carburetor. But only a few prototypes were ever built, and none of these modifications ever made their way into series production. The conspicuous color markings that survive on this machine were intended to keep riders from breaking the rules by altering the machine during the races, which often lasted several days.

The Swing was the last motorcycle developed in-house by Victoria before the company was absorbed into Zweirad-Union AG in 1958 – the year when this exhibit was built.

The body was designed by Ernst Wüstenhagen and the drivetrain-swingarm assembly was designed by Norbert Riedel. The rear suspension is essentially a single-sided swingarm. Another technical delight was the four-speed electromagnetic draw-key transmission.

The Swing's technical refinements were intended to make riding fun. Victoria was focusing here on buyers who were not looking for a mere everyday vehicle, but something for pleasure riding during leisure time – a good approach, but one the company adopted too late.

The Zündapp works

In 1903, Fritz Neumeyer began industrial production of toy steam engines, toy trains and mechanical pencils in Nuremberg. This led to setting up production for drawn tubing, as a technical basis for manufacturing products that also included weaponry. In 1917, Neumeyer then founded Zünder- und Apparatebau GmbH, an "ignition and apparatus construction company" headquartered in Nuremberg.

The loss of orders after the war ended threatened to finish off the company's highly specialized armaments business. In the search for new products, the company tried making everything from automated chain mesh machines to typewriters – but without success. Which led in 1921 to the inception of the motorcycle era.

Unlike many bicycle makers who had arrived at motorcycles more or less by necessity, Zündapp started out with a predetermined slogan, making a "Motorcycle for Everyman." The idea quickly met with an enthusiastic response. Among young people especially, the first years after the war were dominated by a sense of new beginnings and a desire for individual mobility.

The strategy worked well, and by the end of 1924 Zündapp had sold 10,000 motorcycles. It was well on its way to becoming Nuremberg’s biggest maker of motorcycles in the coming decades.

The Zündapp K 800 of 1933 was the only four-cylinder motorcycle from Nuremberg, and the flagship of the company's K Series. Its quiet-running, silky-smooth pulling power made it very popular, especially for use with a sidecar.

But it was heavy and not exactly cheap: in 1935 it cost 1550 marks, when an Opel P4 could be had for only 1450 marks. Many buyers were inclined to get a car instead.

Still, the K 800 sold well, and from 1937 onwards, many were also sold to the Wehrmacht.

The KKS 500 was a highly salable competition model, with its cardan shaft drive and small frame. This sports version of the KS 500 was used mainly by private riders for mountain races. Today it's a prized vintage model; only 153 of them were ever made.

Richard Küchen (1897–1974)

Richard Küchen, born in Bielefeld in 1898, began building motorcycle engines to his own design just after the end of World War I. In a period when two-stroke engines were still "modern," he worked only with four-stroke motors. Even the early designs for this "K" series of built-in engines already stood out for their harmonious look, elegant lines and shapely full encapsulation – features that would remain Küchen’s trademarks. In 1931 Küchen came to Nuremberg in connection with an order that chief designer Otto Reitz, who had been recruited from NSU, had received to develop Triumph's four-stroke product line.

This failed to materialize, however, because at Zündapp Küchen was offered a chance to develop an entirely new line of motorcycle models – the "K" series (though here, "K" stands not for Küchen, but for "Kastenrahmen" and "Kardanantrieb" – "box frame" and "universal shaft drive"). With its elegant pressed-steel frame and sleek engine-transmission units, the "K" series was probably the era's most elegant range of motorcycles.

In 1938 Küchen began working on the KS 750, based on the KS 600, a previous product of his efforts. In the deceptive expectation of an early end to the war, during this period Küchen designed a variety of civilian engines.

He created the preliminary study and prototype for a 125 cc two-stroke motorbike with a twin-piston engine. But the war kept the designs from ever reaching series production.
Richard Küchen died in Ingolstadt in 1974.

The "Nuremberg High-Performance Test" could be considered the forerunner of all later motocross races. Held in 1939 on the difficult terrain around the city's "Schmausenbuck" hill, the event placed extreme demands on both rider and equipment. The new Zündapp, ridden by Eugen Haselbeck, won its class.

The winning motorcycle was one of eleven test machines Zündapp built between 1937 and 1941; after that, the Reich authorities ordered development to stop. Ten vehicles were scrapped, but amazingly, one survived and found its way to the museum.

Shortly before World War II, a supercharged four-cylinder vertical-shaft boxer engine was built that was supposed to set the absolute speed record for motorcycles. But then war broke out, and the engine was left uncompleted and unused. Builder Albert Roder intended the 1000 cc motor, at some 125 hp(M), to achieve a top speed of about 300 kph (186 mph).

The KS 600, a further development of the 500 series, was the most powerful Zündapp motorcycle of the pre-war era – and the fastest, with a top speed of about 145 kph (90 mph).

It was also very popular as a sidecar motorcycle. It was used by police forces as well, and in large numbers by the Wehrmacht. Under the company's slogan, "Zündapp: reliable on all fronts," about 18,000 motorcycles of the KS 600 type with a "special Zündapp sidecar" were in use. The total number of all motorcycles Zündapp delivered to the army was many times greater.

Thea Fischer – A Nuremberg Motorcycle Pioneer

Thea Fischer, born in 1907, was a Nuremberg motorcycle enthusiast in the 1920s. She recalled: "People would stare at me like they'd seen a ghost even before I'd left driving school. In those days you had to learn a lot, especially how to make repairs. There were just so many little things that could cause a breakdown. One time I was waiting at the Königstor and the motorcycle just stopped. I knew what I had to do – I unscrewed my carburetor and blew through it. People just halted stock still and the streetcar stopped and a policeman came up and said I should get out of there. I said, 'I can't, it won't run!'"

Thea Fischer took part in a variety of motorcycle competitions, gathering experience with various Nuremberg motorcycle makes, just as she did routinely every day. She was a member of the Triumph Club and the Hecker Club, and of course rode both makes. She was less enthusiastic about the Hecker – it gave her lots of trouble. Not so the Victoria, which had been her first motorcycle after she earned her driver’s license in 1927, and her Triumph also ran well. "That was the best make in those days." She worked at Ardie until her marriage, but for "endurance trials and small races" she would ride motorcycles from Hecker or Scharrer & Gross.

In 1940, Thea Fischer joined the Reichspost, driving heavy Zündapp sidecar units as a motorized mail carrier. After the war ended, she switched to cars: she and her husband bought a Kleinschnittger microcar. Her new hobby? Flying.

A reconstruction of a Zündapp fire brigade sidecar unit of the kind used between 1943 and 1945 as a dispatch rider's bike around the city of Nuremberg. Combined with a sidecar, it often enabled firefighters to get more easily through rubble-clogged streets to assess a situation on location. The sidecar shown here was built at the workshops of the Nuremberg professional fire brigade.

All motorcycles used for combat purposes up to around 1940 – and not just those from Zündapp – were civilian machines in design, and thus often not entirely suitable for military use.

The order for Zündapp to develop a heavy-duty motorcycle was aimed at a real wartime vehicle for hard use in the field. The job called for something entirely new. Power came from a 26 hp(M), 750 cc two-cylinder four-stroke OHV boxer engine. Among the many unusual technical features was a four-speed transmission with additional off-road and reverse gears. The KS 750 was the first mass-produced motorcycle in the history of the machine to use hydraulic brakes. The spring-suspension sidecar wheel was driven via a torsion shaft inside the frame tube and a gear reduction.

18,000 motorcycles of this kind were sold to the Wehrmacht. The sidecars were developed and produced by another Nuremberg company, Steib.
A model highly prized by collectors today.

In the early post-war years, the laws on sports still permitted supercharged engines in road races, and Fürth sidecar racer Oskar Pillenstein, with Zündapp's support, built this supercharged sidecar unit based on the KS models. For the large sidecar-motorcycle class, he used the engine and frame from the Zündapp KS600, together with a BMW rear-wheel suspension and the fork and brakes from the KS 750. The motor, upgraded with a Roots-type supercharger, was so powerful that it overstressed the engine test bench at Zündapp. But reliability left something to be desired, so Zündapp took a skeptical view of the experiment. Nevertheless, in 1949 Nuremberg racer Loni Neussner won his place as the German Privateer Racing Champion in the 600 class on this model. Zündapp itself did not begin entering its plant-built products in sports events until 1950.

Immediately after the war, the occupying powers prohibited any construction of motorcycles. Approvals were then granted step by step, with rising limits on engine size. When the Allied Control Council eventually raised the limit to 250 cc, Zündapp resumed building its time-tested DB 200 in 1947. This was not a new development, but a reissue of the pre-war model from 1935.

The company had sold 15,000 of these machines by 1949 – a solid reentry into the market for Zündapp. The company’s decision to adhere to the principle of a "motorcycle for anyone" proved to be just the right choice: the DB 200 and its successors, all unapologetically utilitarian models, held the largest share of registrations in the 200 cc category until 1953.

Zündapp in Nuremberg worked at high intensity from 1948 to 1953 on developing a 250 cc four-stroke boxer engine motorcycle, probably so it could offer a small, less expensive version of the famed "Green Elephant." The protruding rear panel resembles the Bella motorbike that was also under development at the time. The motorcycle "crisis" that was already impending ultimately kept the B250 from reaching series production.

The legendary "Green Elephant," the Zündapp KS 601 – shown here in a model from 1953 – is very probably the best-known motorcycle ever produced in Nuremberg. The vehicle got its nickname, which has stuck permanently, from a test report in "Motorrad" magazine. Zündapp's top-of-the-line model was very successful as a sports cycle, and was especially popular for use with a sidecar by police and border patrols.

The cross-section model presented here comes from the estate of Zündapp and was once used for dealer and customer service training as well as for fairs. Zündapp had built up an extensive and dense network of dealers, which was not least a building block for the great success of this particular motorcycle manufacturer.

Ernst Schmidt (1905 – 1993) – Father of the "Green Elephant"

After completing his degree in mechanical engineering, Ernst Schmidt began his career at Faber-Castell. Following an intermediate stop in Berlin, he joined Zündapp, where in 1936 he became chief designer. He first worked on designing a sidecar unit for use in extreme terrain, the K 500 and KS 500. A more important development, and a very significant one for Zündapp, was an aircraft engine built under a "secret special order." The result, an air-cooled 2000 cc four-cylinder in-line engine, was a success at the first try, and set a number of records for speed, altitude and distance. After an interlude at NSU Motorenwerke, where he developed the "Kettenkrad" tracked motorcycle in 1939, Ernst Schmidt returned to Zündapp in 1945.

When that company was again allowed to build motorcycles, work began on what was probably his most important development, the KS 601, which later earned a place of honor in the history of the Nuremberg motorcycle industry as the "Green Elephant." Not much later, he created the elegant "Bella" motorcycle, which drew on an Italian forerunner, the Vespa, and scored a direct hit on contemporary taste. His last design project from this period was the prototype of a 250 cc four-stroke boxer engine with an elegant sheet-metal housing. But this "B 250" never reached series production.

Only two copies of this competition model were ever built, for repeat German champion Günther Sengfelder. Sengfelder was an in-plant rider for Zündapp, and also worked for the company in development for many years. When Zündapp closed its production operations in Nuremberg in 1958 and relocated to Munich, Sengfelder headed the KBN design office, which Zündapp had left in Nuremberg.

The Nuremberg Motorcycle Museum at the Museum for Industrial Culture

The "legends in chrome and steel" kept rolling off the production lines here until the mid-1950s. But as the "motorcycle crisis" then set in with the dawning age of the automobile, the reputations of the "Green Elephant," "Boss," and "Bergmeister" began to dim.

The Museum has some 130 vintage motorcycles on display – all of them "Made in Nuremberg."
Nuremberg Motorcycle Museum

Credits: Story

Text and choice of images: Matthias Murko
Implementation: Brigitte List

More about the history of the Nuremberg motorcycle industry can be found in the book accompanying the Nuremberg motorcycle museum
Matthias Murko: Motorrad-Legenden
Erweiterte und vollständig überarbeitete Neuauflage
Tümmel Verlag, Nürnberg 2014

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.