Old photos of daredevil bikers racing in motorcycle chariots, 1920-1930

motorcycle chariot races photos

Motorcycle chariots at New South Wales Police Carnival, 1936.

Chariot racing was one of the most popular sports in the ancient Olympic Games and it was dangerous to both drivers and horses as they often suffered serious injury and even death.

Two-wheeled carriages were drawn by horses and raced around a stadium called a hippodrome, making oval-shaped laps. From four to six chariots competed in a single race, normally consisting of seven laps around the circus.

The racing chariots were light, fragile affairs, easily smashed in a collision, in which case the driver was often entangled in the long reins and dragged to death or seriously injured.

In the early 1900s, chariot racing was all but forgotten outside of history books, but all that changed when some daredevils strapped motorcycles to the front of chariots and revived the sport using modern technology.

With the success of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1925, people were absolutely fascinated with everything about it, including the exciting chariot race sequence. With the public thirsty for more of that kind of action, someone saw an opportunity to modernize the sport using motorcycles instead of horses.

A typical early vehicle configuration was a rider on a motorcycle, pulling a chariot and charioteer who were essentially ornamental.

A 1922 short piece in Popular Mechanics describes this configuration. This soon developed into a configuration with two riderless motorcycles steered by a single charioteer using reins.

Steering was sometimes done with reins attached to the throttles (the charioteer steered by controlling the relative speed of the two motorcycles), and sometimes with rigid extensions attached to the handlebars.

The first image is taken from the 1936 New South Wales Police Carnival at the Sydney Showground in Australia. Two police officers were actually recreating the iconic scene from Ben-Hur and their stunt is the most known photo of motorcycle chariot racing of the past.

The sport went largely (although not entirely) extinct after the 1930s, although exhibition rigs are still made and driven.

motorcycle chariot races photos

A German motorcycle chariot. 1938.

motorcycle chariot races photos

England, 1925. The man in the chariot is dressed as a Roman.

motorcycle chariot races photos

Filming Ben Hur, the movie that inspired motorcycle chariot racing.

motorcycle chariot races photos

Motorcycle chariot racing in London, 1927.

motorcycle chariot races photos

Motorized chariot races on Whit Monday at Crystal Palace, London, 1936.

motorcycle chariot races photos

Ben Hur (the 1959 version).

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

Four motorcycles on this chariot. 1938.

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

motorcycle chariot races photos

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Visual News / Spiegel).