USDOT: NHTSA: MSF Motorcycle Safety Foundation Logo
Motorcycle Factors: Introduction to Motorcycles Table of ContentsHomenhtsa

Introduction to Motorcycles

Motorcycle Design


Vehicle Modifications


Lane Use

This section is intended as an informational and introductory piece and does not include recommendations.
Background: Motorcycle Types & Characteristics

Until the 1950s, there was just one kind of motorcycle available. This all-purpose type of machine was designed for street use and was modified for more specialized applications. As motorcycles became more popular, new configurations were created to address certain interests and needs. Initially, special models were designed for off-highway riding. However, the range and variety of models has grown as manufacturers identified and addressed new market niches. By the 1980s, several distinct types of street-legal motorcycles had emerged. The characteristics and capabilities of current street motorcycles vary with their style. Different categories have different strengths and weaknesses, which may be helpful to recognize. Although some machines blur the distinctions, in general, current street-legal motorcycles fit into the following categories:

Traditional motorcycles designed as practical transportation, with few styling frills or amenities. This category falls in the middle of the spectrum in most areas of ergonomics and performance, including power, handling response, and braking. Although they were once almost universal, traditional-style motorcycles have declined in popularity as more specialized types have become available.

John Keogh Design Motorcycle Traditional
Currently the most popular category of the market, centered on traditional or classic American styling. Once dominated almost exclusively by Harley-Davidson, the cruiser category has attracted competition from all major manufacturers and is the entry category for new American manufacturers. The profile is long with a low saddle height. The emphasis in the cruiser category is on appearance, style, and sound, with less emphasis on performance. Owners frequently customize these machines.

John Keogh Design Cruiser
Styled and constructed in the manner of road-racing motorcycles with streamlined bodywork, front-end weight bias, and forward-leaning riding positions, the emphasis is on handling, acceleration, top speed, braking, and cornering prowess. Performance handling and braking systems are the rule on sportbikes, which tend to be lighter and more technologically advanced than other types of motorcycles. Often less comfortable than other types, they are favored for riding on twisting roads

John Keogh Design Sportbike
Large motorcycles with luggage, wind protection and other amenities (stereo, two-way communication, cruise control, etc.) designed to transport rider and passenger in comfort. Touring bikes are heavy with moderate power outputs. Their intended purpose is comfortable, long-distance travel.
John Keogh Design Touring
These motorcycles combine the comfort and some of the luggage capacity of touring motorcycles with the responsive handling of sportbikes. Usually powerful with relatively responsive handling, and high-performance brakes, sport-touring motorcycles offer fewer amenities than touring bikes. The ideal mission of a sport-touring machine is medium- and long-distance travel via curving roads.
John Keogh Design Sport-Touring
Machines designed to be used both on- and off-road. They are typically lightweight, tall and narrow with single-cylinder engines, long suspension travel and tires suitable for on- and off-highway use.
John Keogh Design Dual-Purpose
These two-wheeled vehicles are small, mostly low-power designs with small-diameter wheels suitable primarily for use at low and medium speeds on surface streets in urban environments. Their appearance differs significantly from motorcycles’ because of their bodywork and the “step-through” frame design. Most are not suitable or legal for use on high-speed or controlled-access roadways, though some do have sufficient power and other capabilities to allow such use.
John Keogh Design Scooters
Mopeds and Nopeds
Lightweight, very low-power two-wheelers designed for cheap urban transportation. Their bicycle-like design, slow acceleration, and limited top speed (30 miles per hour) make them unsuitable for use on high-speed roadways and create unique traffic issues for their users.
John Keogh Design Mopeds and Nopeds
A third wheel can be added to the side of a motorcycle to create a motorcycle/sidecar combination. These devices attach to the frame of the host motorcycle and provide additional passenger or cargo capacity. These accessories strongly affect all aspects of handling and control by essentially creating an entirely different kind of vehicle, which in some ways is more like an automobile than a motorcycle.
John Keogh Design Sidecars
These machines are created by either grafting the front of a motorcycle to the back of an automobile or adding an automobile-type rear axle to the rear of a motorcycle to create a three-wheeled vehicle. Although they are usually licensed as motorcycles, these vehicles are dramatically different in many ways and do not handle or steer like motorcycles.
John Keogh Design Trike

MSF Motorcycle Safety Foundation Logo USDOT: NHTSA BACK TO TOP