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Historic Roper steam-powered motorcycle at Las Vegas auction - Autoweek

Fri, 28 Oct 2011

In September we told you about one of the world's oldest four-wheeled machines going up for auction at an RM event. In January 2012, the perfect companion piece to that $4.6 million horseless carriage is being sold--a 1894 Roper Steam-Powered Runabout motorbike.

The Roper bike is the second of two built by Sylvester Roper of Roxbury, Mass., and is regarded as one of the world's oldest, predating the earliest Orient, Indian and Harley-Davidsons.

The inaugural Auctions of America by RM event in Las Vegas will see a roster of more than 400 motorcycles cross the block for the multiday sale.

Roper was born in Francestown, N.H., before moving to Boston to work and study in machine shops. New England was one of the premier manufacturing locations in the mid-1800s. He began making bikes in the 1860s, and in 1863 Roper was featured in Scientific American for his coal-fired, two-passenger, four-wheeled steam carriage capable of 25 mph. He built nine more vehicles between then and when he died but received little credit until 1895, when he was featured in the inaugural issue of The Horseless Age.

His second motorcycle, the one being sold in Vegas, was completed in 1894 and benefitted from what he learned in earlier builds. Roper started with a frame from a Columbia bicycle. To that, he added a rectangular boiler, burner, grate and a small steam engine on the right side. A water tank was located over the boiler. The water pump was driven from the rear axle and the controls were located on the handlebars.

According to reports, Roper used the motorbike often, making trips from his home to the Boston Yacht Club seven miles away. In May 1896, he competed in the speed trials on Dorchester Avenue in Boston, where he achieved an average speed of 40 mph. He died two weeks later of heart disease.

The bike was sold by one of Roper's heirs to the Coney Island Museum in New York. Next it moved to a collection in Vermont before going to America's Circus City Museum in Florida. From there the bike found a home at Horn's Cars of Tomorrow Museum, which was bought by Walter Bellm in 1968.

The bike went into private hands in the 1980s before being sold to the current owner in 1996. The last time it was displayed was at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio, to celebrate the induction of Roper.

The current world record for a motorcycle sold at auction belongs to a 1915 Cyclone Board Track Racer, which sold for $520,000 in 2008. We'll be watching this auction because this 1894 Roper steam-powered motorcycle could take the crown and hold it for a long time.

By Jake Lingeman