The bicycle, the most energy-efficient means of travel yet devised, developed from
a cultish curiosity to a commonplace between 1870 and World War 1. Machines from these early years make fascinating collectables.
The late Victorian and Edwardian eras were the golden age of bicycling. In the 1870s and 1880s, middle-class young men banded together in cycle clubs to explore leafy lanes on high 'penny-farthing' bicycles, known at the time as 'ordinaries'. From the 1890s on, bicycles with a recognizably modern shape, known as 'safeties', were being sold as an affordable means of transport for the working man, a way of getting to work and of escaping into the countryside on days off.
The first two-wheeled vehicle, patented in Germany in 1817, had no pedals. The rider pushed along, alternating his feet in a skating motion. It came to be known as a hobby horse, and enjoyed a brief craze among the wilder elements of Regency youth.
The next step forward came in 1861, when a Parisian coach-building firm created the velociped . Similar to a hobby horse, but driven by pedals attached to the hub of the front wheel, they soon became known as boneshakers, as the wooden wheels and rigid iron frames ensured a teeth-rattling ride.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
This, and the difficulty of cornering without getting the legs tangled, led to velocipedes being superseded by the ordinary, developed in Britain in the 1870s. In the interests of speed and efficiency - there were no gears - the front, driving wheel got larger and larger, as much as 1.5m/5ft in diameter, and the back wheel got smaller. Both wheels had spokes of tensioned steel and rubber-covered rims, while the frames were made of tubular steel.
The first bicycle with a chain drive was an ordinary, the Kangaroo, marketed in 1884. The first safety bicycle was made very soon afterward. So-called in contrast to the precarious perch afforded atop an ordinary's front wheel safety bicycles had a geared,
rear wheel chain drive and pedals and a saddle mounted between the wheels. The new style consigned the ordinary to history, with the exception of a small market sustained by diehard enthusiasts well into the 20th century.
Sutton and Starley's Rover, first introduced in 1885, set the style for safeties. A diamond shaped frame formed by a crossbar, the front and rear forks and the two stays joining the chain wheel to the rear hub gave greater stability and rigidity with no increase in weight, and soon became standard.
Early safeties shook the bones as much as any velocipede, but this was solved by sprung saddles and pneumatic tyres, introduced by Dunlop in 1889 and universal on bicycles by 1895. This final development made it not only possible, but fashionable for women to ride.
Few machines have inspired as much affection as bicycles. Together with the railways, the safety bicycle opened up the countryside to working men and women, giving them a degree of freedom they had never experienced before.
BICYCLE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
You won't find bicycles in antiques shops, and they are rarely seen at auction. Second-hand bicycle shops may have the odd vintage model, but otherwise your best bet is to trawl through the garden sheds and outbuildings of indulgent old
Bikes made before World War 1 are hard to find in good condition and can be expensive. If you're interested in building up a collection, your best bet is to find and restore discarded
bicycles. They're not fiendishly complicated machines, and quite a good restoration job can be done at home with simple tools and rust remover, though getting the right period finish is a matter for the more expert hand.
Expertise of this kind, and indeed help in locating and showing old bicycles, can be had from one of the many Veteran Cycle Clubs in Britain. Inquire at your local library for details of your nearest club. They are as much for those who want to ride old bicycles, including ordinaries, as for the collector, and represent your best way to experience the thrills of riding vintage machines.
It should go without saying that the main question when you're considering buying an old bike is whether it goes, or at least can be made to go with a little effort. Rusted hulks, unless they represent one of the last surviving examples of an important or early model, are fit for virtually nothing.
There are some things you must check on any bicycle. Do the brakes brake and the springs still spring? Have the rubber and leather parts, particularly the saddle, perished or decayed in some other way? Do the gears change freely? Does the chain run smoothly? Do the wheels spin freely and in a straight line? Check metal spokes by plucking them; they should all be tight and give off the same twanging note.
Most bicycles carry identifying marks. Look for the manufacturer's name, and perhaps that of the model, stamped on the back of the seat spring or displayed on a metal escutcheon fixed to the front forks. The market for vintage bicycles has never attracted fakers, and you should be able to believe these marks - providing, of course, that the part in question hasn't been cannibalized at some time in the past from another machine.