History of Overlanding – Up to the end of 1920s
George A Wyman
A necessary pre-cursor to RTW motorcycling, was the first transcontinental crossing of the USA. In 1903, George A. Wyman rode a 1902 ‘California’ motorised bicycle of 90cc from San Francisco to New York, a distance of 3,800 miles (6,100 km) in 50 days – although after several breakdowns the motor finally gave up with only 150 miles to go and Wyman was forced to pedal to the finish.
Wyman’s original account was reproduced in the 1970’s by Road Rider Magazine; this formed the basis of research for a centennial re-enactment of the journey on a replica of the original bike after Wyman had been inducted to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Carl Stearns Clancy
The first recorded RTW journey by motorcycle took place in 1912-13. Carl Stearns Clancy and his companion Walter Storey set out on a pair of Henderson 57 cubic inch (934 cc), 7 horse power, in-line four-cylinder machines, aiming to write a world-travel guide.
Their route took them from New York by boat to Ireland, then Britain and through Europe, although Storey dropped out of the venture in France leaving Clancy to ride on solo through North Africa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Japan before crossing the USA from the West coast returning to New York 18,000 miles (29,000 km) later.
Clancy was able to send reports from the road via telegraph and these have been reproduced in the book ‘Motorcycle Adventurer Carl Stearns Clancy: first motorcyclist to ride around the world 1912-1913’ by Dr. Gregory W. Frazier 2010, Iuniverse, 320 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches. ISBN: 978-1-4502-2141-2 (also available as an ebook).
To mark the centenary of this historic feat, a number of riders took part in events to retrace the journey. www.facebook.com/CSClancyCentenaryRun
Author, Sunday Times journalist and motorcycle adventurer Geoff Hill, retraced his route and even carried the very boots Clancy had worn because alas, although he’d hoped to, Carl never did get to ride the world again, before his death in 1971.
Geoff’s story has been released as ‘In Clancy’s Boots’ ISBN: 978-0-85640-913-4 published by Blackstaff Press, and is available here.
Adeline and Augusta VanBuren
From Brooklyn, New York to Tijuana, Mexico, the Van Buren sisters rode a pair of Indian Power Plus bikes to prove a point: that in 1916 women could do anything men could. To make the unpaved challenge more difficult, they rode to the summit of Pike’s Peak in Colorado en route, all 14,110ft of it. Part of their mission was to demonstrate that women should be permitted to serve as dispatch riders in WW1, but as their remarkable achievement didn’t manage to convince the military hierarchy of that, they later turned their attention to campaigning for female suffrage.
Augusta and Adeline Van Buren were real pioneers but their trip was hampered by many things, not least being arrested numerous times in the small towns west of Chicago. Not for speeding, but for wearing men’s clothes. The battle with mud, rocks, accidents, heat exhaustion and dehydration across a country with no infrastructure was never really recognised. Even the bike press of the day was happy to celebrate the achievements of the bikes, but not the riders! As ladies their trip was described as a bit of a vacation.
There is little information about whether they continued riding, but they did continue to be pioneers. Adeline, initially an English teacher, earned her law degree from NYU. Augusta became a pilot, flying with the women’s flying group founded by Amelia Earhart, called the 99s
Demobbed from the RAF after WW1, Englishman CK Shepherd set off in search of further adventure in 1919. He bought a brand new Henderson in New York and decided to ride it to Los Angeles and then San Francisco.
The journey took him just over 3 months, battling with mud, sand, accident, heat and exhaustion, as well as what turned out to be a hugely unreliable motorcycle. As George Wyman and Carl Stearns Clancy had discovered before him, highways in the United States were little more than deeply rutted tracks. He even ventured onto railway lines to assist with river crossings etc. through what was a developing nation.
The good news is that his original book, published in 1921 and simply called ‘Across America by motorcycle’ , is now easily available again and really captures the essence of the time. You can read a full review here.
Svend Oluf Heiberg & Aksel Svane
Two Danes, Svend Oluf Heiberg and Aksel Svane, rode RTW in 1924-25. Their purpose was to study forest reserves in other parts of the world as Svend intended to enter the Danish Forestry Service, although he later settled in the USA, became a professor of forestry and was knighted by the King of Denmark. Aksel stayed in Denmark, becoming Sherriff of South Greenland and later a lawyer.
They set-off in an Indian/Harley-Davidson sidecar combination, but decided to leave the sidecar in Anatolia (Turkey).
Their route took them from Denmark through Europe to Turkey, Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), by boat to India, Ceylon, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Japan, across the USA from San Francisco to New York and returning by boat to Europe.
For more information see www.berndtesch.de
Robert Sexé & Henry Andrieux
Robert Sexé and Henry Andrieux are the first known French RTW riders. They took just over five months in 1926 to complete a 25,000 mile (40,250 km) journey aboard two Gillet 350 cc, 6.5 hp, two-strokes.
Starting in Paris they crossed Europe and the newly formed USSR to Vladivostok (thought to be the first motorcycle to reach there), then by boat to Japan, across the USA before returning to France. Sexé (who may well have been the model for Hergé’s character TinTin) wrote about many of his long-distance journeys, while Andrieux went on to race for the Gillet factory.
BH Cathrick & JP Castley
British journalists B.H. Cathrick and J.P. Castley rode a pair of BSA V-twin Colonial sidecar outfits 21,000 miles (33,000 km) across six continents between 1926-28.
Their route took them from England through western, southern and eastern Europe to Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt (believed to be first time vehicles made the distance from London to Cairo), then to India by boat, Burma, Java, across Australia and on to Tasmania, New Zealand, South America, South Africa and back to England.
Over an eight-month period from 1927-28, Stanley Glanfield rode his 3½ hp Rudge-Whitworth motorcycle (with a box-bodied sidecar added along the way) 18,000 miles (29,000 km) from London, across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America.
Some time later, W.Boddy wrote a magazine article “Round The World On A Rudge – an epic journey of 1928”, later reproduced in the August 1972 edition of Motorcycle Sport which can be found here.
Glanfield’s machine can still be seen at the Coventry Transport Museum in England, alongside several other notable bikes, including Ted Simon’s 500cc Triumph. This is the bike he used for his famous Jupiter’s Travels trip – see 1970s section of this history www.transport-museum.com.
Jim Wilson & Francis Flood
In 1927 the two young Americans Wilson and Flood took five months to complete the first trans-African motorcycle journey we’ve heard of. They used a Triumph 5HP single cylinder, side-valve with a sidecar attached, and departed with minimal preparation. Only one of them had ever ridden a motorcycle before and in one of the reviews of the resultant book, it’s noted that they didn’t even bring servants or porters…
They shipped to Lagos in Nigeria and initially rode north towards the Sahara before heading due east to Eritrea and the Gulf. Although incredulous officials wrote ‘seen for the last time’ on their passports, and they did suffer a catalogue of mechanical failures and health issues – multiple fractures and appendicitis – they did arrive at their destination with a story to tell. Wilson for example, sacrificed his false front teeth, which were melted down to make the necessary insulation for a repair on the magneto.
The book is called ‘Three-wheeling through Africa’ by James C Wilson and was published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company. Please let us know if you ever track down a copy.
Zoltan Sulkowsky & Gyula Bartha
The first Hungarians to ride the world were Zoltan Sulkowsky and Gyula Bartha, using a Harley-Davidson sidecar outfit. From 1928–36 they visited 68 countries on five continents, at that time the longest RTW trip at 106,000 mile (170,000 km).
Their route took them from Budapest, down through North Africa and the Middle East, into Turkey and the Balkans, back through North Africa and Arabia through much of India to Ceylon and then on to Australia, taking-in many of the countries and islands comprising South-East, mainland China and Japan before crossing the ocean to Hawaii and on to San Francisco. The next four years were evenly split between North America and Central / South America before returning to Hungary.
An English language translation of their book ‘Around the World on a Motorcycle: 1928-1936’ by Zoltan Sulkowsky has been published by Whitehorse Press, 413 pages, softbound 6 x 9 inches. ISBN 978-1-884313-55-4. Available here.
For more information see www.berndtesch.de.
Gabriel Dufner & Polly
Probably the first canine to circumnavigate the globe by motorcycle was “Polly”, who accompanied US rider Gabriel Dufner on an Indian Scout sidecar outfit over 37,000 miles (60,000 km) between 1928-30. The sidecar was fitted with a propeller driven generator to recharge the bike battery. Their route took them from Germany through the Balkans to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and India before returning to Germany. Dufner is believed to have circled the world 3 times by motorcycle, perishing in the Sahara on his final trip.
Gill, Stephens and Irving
British riders John Gill and Walter Stephens undertook a 23,000 mile (37,000 km) RTW trip aboard an HRD-Noxal sidecar outfit between 1928-30. Australian rider Phil Irving joined Gill for the return leg of the journey back to England after Stephens abandoned the enterprise on reaching Australia. Back in Britain, Irving became the engineering genius behind the development of Vincent motorcycles.
J. Graham Oates
In 1928 a WW1 dispatch rider, ex-motorcycle racer and builder from the Isle of Man, Mr J. Graham Oates, was the first to take a rubber-tyred vehicle across Canada, coast to coast. Although he had designed and briefly produced his own bike, the Aurora (a venture which unfortunately failed), he did the Canadian trip aboard a 500cc single cylinder Ariel with a Sturgess sidecar built in Hamilton Ontario.
Having left the Isle of Man he moved to Bolivia before settling in Toronto and eventually becoming the general manager of JV & JW Conroy’s motorcycle emporium, selling Royal Enfields, Douglas’ and Ariel machines.
Gaining sponsorship from both Ariel and Castrol Oils, he set off in July 1928 to prove them both by riding from Halifax to Vanvouver using roads when he could find them, but more often by riding the sleepers of railtracks – an incredibly tough undertaking. He had to lift his outfit off the railway every time a train approached (hoping the muskeg or swamp in eastern Manitoba wouldn’t swallow him) and lift it back on afterwards.
He carried letters from various city Mayors with the hope of presenting them all in Vancouver and highlighting Canada’s need for a highway infrastructure.
On Thursday, Sept. 13, 1928 Oates arrived in Calgary, Alberta and a front-page story in the Calgary Herald ran the next day. The headline and first paragraph:
‘Coast to Coast Cyclist Arrives. J. Graham Oates Reaches Calgary on Motorcycle in Cross-Canada Trip.’
“Four days from Regina through discouraging prairie ‘gumbo’ and 18 days from Halifax on a coast-to-coast motorcycle tour in an effort to establish for the Ariel motorcycle the record of being the first gas-propelled vehicle to travel across Canada on rubber tires, J. Graham Oates, general manager of Conroy and Company, of Toronto, arrived in Calgary at 7 o’clock, Thursday evening, tired and dusty, but cheerfully satisfied with the results of his trip so far, having covered the 6,700 miles in 18 days. Mr. Oates emphasizes that Western Canada’s chief need is more and better motor roads and he heartily endorses the campaign of the Alberta Motor Association to awaken public interest in the subject.”
According to the article, Oates left Calgary heading west on what was the beginnings of the Trans-Canada highway, but he expected to cross the Rocky Mountains once again bouncing over railway sleepers.
Oates made it to Vancouver just 21 days after starting the trip, and he dipped the rear tire of his Ariel in the Pacific, just as he had done in the Atlantic. He returned to Toronto via U.S. routes, and remained in Canada for another few years, founding among other things, the British Empire Motor Club in Toronto, which still exists. In 1932 he rode north on 2 wheels to the Hudson Bay, the first rider to do so.
He was recently inducted into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame and ‘Aurora to Ariel’ is a book by Bill Snelling all about Oates’ motorcycling exploits. Published in 1993 ISBN: 0952112604 by Amulree Publications
Geoffrey H Malins & Charles Oliver
Two more Britons, Geoffrey H. Malins and Charles Oliver circled the world during 1929-30 using a brace of OEC-Temple 1,000cc V-twin sidecar outfits using OEC’s unique Duplex frame (an example is on display at the National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham, England). The outfits were known as “Pip” and “Squeak”, or “The Heavenly Twins”.
Their route, based largely on British Empire territories and interests, covered 22,800 miles (36,500 km) from London through Western Europe to Gibraltar, Malta, Palestine, Iraq, India, Burma, Singapore, Java, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, across the USA and then the Atlantic crossing back to London.
Malins, who as a cinematographer had filmed ‘The Battle of the Somme’, wrote a book: ‘Going Further, Etc. the complete circling of the world by motor cycle and sidecar’, published by E. Mathews & Marrot in 1931, London, 396 pages. We wish you well finding a copy.
For more information on this pairing click the image, and for other riders mentioned above, see www.berndtesch.de