In the late 1980s, Norton introduced and sold a rotary-engined motorcycle called the Classic. This was followed by the Commander, and existed alongside the Interpol law enforcement version. It is probably the first or only rotary-engined bike that comes to mind if you ask motorcycle enthusiasts. However, the first wankel-engined production motorcycle was actually German. It was the Hercules W2000 introduced more than a decade earlier in 1974. In fact, the Norton reportedly was developed using leftover tooling from the Hercules production run. And, the Suzuki RE5 went into production only slighty after the Hercules.
Hercules began like so many other motorcycle manufacturers in the late 1880s, but did not begin producing motorcycles until the early 1900s (1904). Also similar to many others, the financila ups and downs lead to mergers and then an eventual purchase by Sachs in 1963. This resulted in the bikes being branded as either Hercules, DKW, or Sachs depending on the market. In the early 1970s, many companies were toying with the idea of using the Wankel engine and were trying to navigate their way around the difficult licensing constraints imposed by NSU who held the patent.
Hercules moved forward accepting a 30HP cap on the output of anything they built using the engine. The problem was that for nearly 900cc (swept volume was counted as opposed to the volume of one lobe (just under 300cc). Comparable bikes with 900cc were making 80+ HP at the time, so the Hercules seemed to make no sense. Less than 1800 were reportedly built and all of them in 1974 and 1975. Those not sold in those two years were simply sold as new in subsequent years, hence the apparent span from 1974 to 1979. Sachs continued producing bikes for many more years, but the rotary experiment ended. Suzuki had a similarly short run, as did Norton a decade later.
One of these bikes showed up at the BMW Guinness Record event earlier this year, and I snapped a few photos. They are good looking bikes, and interesting engineering feats. They were plagued by the same maladies of all rotary-engined vehicles at the time. They can run hot, and over revving will cost you an engine. They enjoy a robust enthusiast community today, and show up now and then in the for sale Ads. With Mazda perfecting this engine, you would think another attempt to put it in a motorcycle is about due...