There’s a tall tale often spoken about that’s become a lot more relevant this year, you know the one about that power struggle between the light and dark side of the force, that one about those million or so evil guys trying to take over the galaxy with those thousand or so weird hippies led by that green dude trying to fight back. You know the one, car wars? Or something
Recently with the vw scandal in full swing as an evil petrolhead I have sensed a real disturbance in the force (or at least in the popularity of one way I’m fond of converting energy into force), the rebel scum from university I know no longer find the car that cool, they see it as a phantom menace that not only poisons the air but one that threatens to destroy an entire planet.
They always talk to me about how they’ve found ‘a new hope’, the bicycle. They talk of how this machine is the most efficient way of creating momentum, how it can take you across a city in less than twelve parsecs while also burning fat and calories. An amazing invention that will save us all, but the thing that many people do not realize about the modern bicycle is how it’s a product of a long time ago, from an industry not so far far away from the car corporations we know today. The automobile is very much the son to the bicycle as Luke is to Darth Vader (I apologise for the spoiler), two very different adversary’s that grew up under similar circumstances.
As soon as the bicycle gained momentum and popularity at the end of the 19th century bicycle manufacturers soon became interested in new methods of transportation, the car and the plane. This is why so many early cars and planes look so awkward as if they are on stilts, most of the mechanisms were stolen from the parts bins of the cycle factories. And while the car soon became the desired tool the bicycle remained the transport of choice for the working class up until the 60’s and remained supremely popular as a vehicle of pleasure till this day. Today the car and bicycle have an almost reversed relationship where technology and materials such as carbon fibre Monocoque mostly trickle down from the car to the bicycle. So with all this fighting on the streets between the cyclist and the motorist it’s odd to think that the bicycle and the car have always had a very close and often interesting relationship.
Here is the story of some of the important companies that grew out of the bicycle (star wars pun free from here I promise).
When people look at rover they see two different companies, most people see the mess (unfair criticism for many of the cars/ people) that was created with and after BL which spectacularly collapsed in the mid noughties. The rest see the company before the merger, a conservative manufacturer of luxury motors for discerning customers including her majesty the queen.
Neither company really get the credit they deserve for being real innovators, the original land rover, and jet 2 of the golden era really showed a company looking to the future and the k series as infamous as it is really was a marvel of design at the time. So looking at this history it’s to no surprise that the first popular bicycle that is related to the ones we see today was the start of this amazing empire.
The rover safety bicycle hit the scene in the 1880’s, it was the design of J.K Starley , its known as the safety bicycle for the simple reason that unlike the comical penny farthings, falling off at low speeds need not kill or paralyse you on the rover. The importance of this bike is not to be understated, this bicycle became one of the most copied and imitated designs of all time.
The bike was so popular, especially among the lower classes that the polish and Belarusian words for bike are Rower and Rovar respectively. As well as pretty much inventing the way all people will transport themselves before the age of 17 Starley also invented illegal street racing, to promote and prove his machine. On September 25th 1885 14 riders rode 100 miles on the great north road racing each other between Peterborough and Twyford. This was all set up last minute to avoid the attention of the police, a tradition followed by the midnight club racers of today. The rider who came in first completed the trip in 7.5 hours , which math fans will realise is a respectable 13.333 mph average.
Rover would not build its first car for 20 years, 3 years after the death of starley, but it wasn’t until 1924 that bicycle and motorcycle production finally ended. Lessons learned from production and refinement of the early bicycle gave rover an advantage when it came to creating early cars, the mechanical principles and challenges are similar in many respects meaning that unlike many at the birth of the automobile Rover already had a name and experience. Oh and if you’re interested in an authentic 1880’s safety bicycle they’re a bargain at £7K auctions! I’d like to see you try and get a Benz patent motorwagen for that.
Peugeots tale with the bicycle is very different to rovers , the French company never fell out of love for simplistic two wheeled vehicles, with motorcycle and bicycle production carrying on to this day. In 1882 Peugeot were famous for creating the beautiful “Grand BI” big wheel bicycle , while the bike can be looked at as a piece of art, but as a form of actual transport it was just as dangerous as the rest of the penny farthings. Later on in the decade though they created bicycles not too dissimilar to the safety bicycle.
Now did Peugeot see the safety bike before production? Well the answer to that question depends on which side of the channel you ask it, but either way Peugeot quickly made a name for themselves and in 1889 the lion badge was finally introduced to the world.
Peugeot did manage to beat Rover to car production producing their first automobile before the end of the 19th century, but bikes outsold cars considerably for the first half of the 20th century. In 1955 when the 100,000th car rolled of the production line at the Beaullieu in eastern France, Peugeot were making 220,000 bikes a year. They’re were bikes and trikes of all descriptions, the bicycle obviously made a lot of sense for poverty stricken France which was still rebuilding itself after years of war.
When cars like the 2cv, beetle and original mini became affordable the bicycles moved much more up market with a focus moving towards the popular cycle racing scene. There was money to be made from international events such as the famous tour de France. It’s interesting to note that the evolution of the Peugeot bicycle is very similar to that of their cars. In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s the cars were practical and dependable but when this market started to dry up Peugeot moved its focus onto the sporty gti’s we know and love. I actually own an 80’s Peugeot road bicycle and in my opinion the decals wouldn’t look out of place on an 80’s hot hatch. Oh if you’re wondering, this piece of steel cycle history only set me back £90 on gumtree one year ago and has been the most reliable tool I have ever had the pleasure of using.
Bianchi are a name synonymous with the top end of competition cycling, but only four years after the formation in 1885 (around the time the safety bike became popular) the first car left the factory in Abruzzi Italy, like the bikes of today Bianchi cars were famous for being specialized and prestigious. The cars were made with great attention to detail and for the people who could afford such a motor car very little could compare. The company gained a good reputation but unfortunately after the outbreak of the second world war everything went wrong for the company. Bombing runs destroyed the factory and worse the genius behind the name Edoardo Bianchi died in a car crash leaving his son Giuseppe the unenviable task of picking up the pieces.
It soon became apparent after building the new facility in Desio that it was not possible to resume car production so Bianchi went back into producing Bicycles, the passion for the automobile inside the factory gates didn’t die out however and the company continued to look into viable new models that could be built if the situation ever changed. Bianchis general manager Ferruccio Quintavalle in particular was interested in re-joining the market, but he realised it would not be viable without the help of a much stronger backer to provide finance and resources.
In came Fiat and Pirelli in 1955, it was decided the new venture needed to separate itself slightly from the popular bicycles and became autobianchi. The new bianchi cars were quite different from the pre war efforts as they were in a sense tarted up fiats. Autobianchi soon found itself an important part of fiats empire, it became in a sense the companies canary down the mine shaft. Fiat realised autobianchi was a good means of testing markets and drivetrains which could eventually be used by their own cars , if an autobianchi failed or was deemed unreliable the damage would be far less of a hinderance than if it was a fiat.
Unlike previous entries reliant didn’t evolve from bicycles to cars but instead where an offshoot of the famous Raleigh bicycle company of Nottingham. Raleigh were pioneers in the cycle world in the late 19th century, creating patents for some of the earliest braking and gear changing systems that today many cyclists take for granted. By the start of the 20th century Raleigh had become a household name famous around the world, they were a great exporter for the uk which eventually became a multinational corporation in its heyday.
Raleigh moved into car production of sorts when it introduced its first three wheeler three Raleighette which was later improved in 1906, but by 1908 these vehicles were making considerable losses and it was decided production would end to focus back on bicycle production.
12 years later due to the economic situation of post war Europe cheap transportation made sense so Raleigh introduced a van range which was basically a 500cc motorcycle with an extra wheel and a wooden body attached. Despite its obvious humble origins the vans sold relatively well, allowing small businessmen and tradesmen to cart much more around reasonably cheaply. In the early 30’s Raleigh moved back into the passenger tricycle market with the safety seven but by 1936 Raleigh again lost interest and decided once and for all to leave the car sector to focus on the bicycles. In 1934 chief automotive designer at Raleigh, Tom Williams could see the slow wind down and decided he disagreed with the management’s decision so set about making his own prototype three wheeled van. What would become the first Reliant prototype was very similar to the raleighs, but the main change was an important one, the Reliant had a 600cc air cooled jap engine which meant at the time it could be powered on the lowest grade and therefore lowest priced petrol available. This van made a lot more business sense to the early van driver than the slightly higher strung Raleigh vehicles.
Over the next year Tom with a few other former Raleigh employees converted an old bus garage and school boot factory into one of the uk’s greatest fringe manufacturing plant. The three wheeled vans obviously evolved into the comical ‘trotters van’, but reliant also designed indias anadol , created the brilliant scimitar sports car range (the gte was even the earliest car to boast folding rear seats for added storage!) and even built much of the infamous but brilliant ford rs200 rally monster. The factory survived all the way to 2002 when sadly like many other similar sites it was converted into housing.
In 1889 another man was inspired by the safety bicycle, this man was proud Austrian Johann puch. A small workshop grew into a large manufacturing concern in just 10 years. The puch plant in Graz isn’t muck about with just bicycles for long, bicycles quickly grew into motorcycles and engines which in 1904 grew into cars first puch car. It’s unbelievable to think that so soon into car production in 1909 a puch broke the world speed limit with a respectable run of 81 mph.
Steyr like autobianchi gained a reputation early on for high quality vehicles and produced official cars for the Austrian-Hungarian royal family. And when the First World War came about they became prolific producer for the war effort. Following the war, puch left the automotive field to focus on motorcycles and bicycles. Production of course ramped up again when the Second World War broke out, they famously merged with rival manufacturer steyr (who also produced bicycles and cars). Steyr-puch became known for making some of the coolest off-road commercial and military vehicles.
As a sideline steyr-puch also produced vehicles and parts under license for fiat, Volkswagen and Mercedes. They should perhaps be most famous for collaborating with Mercedes in designing and producing the Hollywood favourite, the g-wagen.
Triumph as a company has a very complex history, the original company WA set up by German Siegfried Bettmann in Coventry 1883. Initially the company imported German sewing machines and bicycles which were re-branded as bettmanns.
In 1887 the company becomes “new triumph co”, engineer and fellow German Mauritz Schulte convinces Bettmann to start producing his own products. In 1902 the first english motorcycle was prodcued but bizarrely in 1903 Siegfreid set up another triumph company which built motorcycles to a different design in his German hometown of Nuremberg. It took until 1921 for the first triumph car to be produced.
In 1913 things started to become even more complicated when the German motorcycle company went independent, in 1936 the car company did the same before in 1944 becoming part of standard before in 1960 becoming involved with the infamous leyland until its demise in the later 70s. The bikes continued independedntly until 1951 when it was swallowed up by car and bike producer b.s.a . Bsa in 1956 sold all the cycle assets tp raleigh who kept the triumph name going till the late 70’s. The motorcycles of course went through several failed mergers and plans caused by the japanese bike invasion but found an unlikely hero in property tycoon Jon Bloor who brought new life into the company making them one of the market leaders today.
Special Mention – Dunlop
Car suppliers as well as manufacturers grew from the bicycle industry, and without one of the biggest breakthroughs in cycle engineering the car probably never would have caught on. At about the same time as rovers pivotal safety bicycle , a Scottish vetinary surgeon by the name of John Boyd Dunlop was playing around with rubber and came across a breakthrough which really helped the bicycle gain momentum, he created the first practical pneumatic tyre. Before Dunlop’s tyres, most wheels had a leather coating or worse which made even the relatively low speeds attainable by the bicycle incredibly uncomfortable. Now if this was an issue for a bicycle imagine the pain it would afford a motorcar, it’s probably the reason that the decade after Dunlop’s tyres hit the scene that car production became a real serious matter.
Special mention – Dr Alex Moulton (1920-2012)
Inventors are a funny thing, it’s a popular to trope to show a madcap inventor in a shed or lab creating weird and wonderful mad lap designs. Usually this trope is way off, most inventors work in research labs with massive teams coming up with relatively dull solutions for even duller problems. But one guy broke the mould (or should that be moult?) in the last century. Like Dunlop the Moultons before Alex were rubber pioneers, so it was to no surprise that after leaving the Bristol aeroplane company he would set up several businesses around the material. Moulton was famous as an innovator in both the bicycle and car world, a great mind that thought outside the box. He created two of his most famous products (car and bike related respectively) bizarrely at relatively the same time. Alex was good friends with famous mini designer Alec Issigonis, he became involved with the suspension design of evolved versions of the car. It is believed both Alec and Alex were impressed with the hydropneumatic suspension system used by citroen in their Ds but saw a flaw in its complexity, and by 1962 had created his solution, the sometimes infamous hydrolastic suspension. It first saw use in the prototype which would become the loved Austin/Morris 1100 but went on to support much of the Bmc line up. At the same time as revolutionising the way British cars drove Alex brought his incredible portable bicycle into production. An ingenious design that could be split in half relatively quickly allowing it to be stowed on transport or in the boot of a car. Now folding bikes had been popular before the moulton, but they were famous for being compromised in both speed and comfort due to a combination of high weight, no triangulation and tiny wheels. But the moulton design was different, thanks to a rubber cone suspension (similar to his design for the original mini) it was comfortable, thanks to triangulation of the chassis it was stiff which when added to the low drag wheels meant the Moultons could gather incredible speed, in fact the 200m cycling speed record that still stands today was performed on a moulton. (52.3 mph).
Moulton eventually sold the company on to Raleigh in 1967 but was said to have instantly regretted the decision and in 1980 bought the rights back to fully develop the idea. The 80’s was also the decade that he revolutionised his other baby by creating his own metro with interconnected hydrolastic suspension, a solution that even rover couldn’t beat, this system lived on in the mcf until 2002. The Moulton bicycle company however still exists today, the bikes range from 1000-15000£ and fill a weird niche in the bicycle world.
By no means are these the only manufacturers to have grown out of bicycle production, most companies in fact will trace some heritage to the bicycle. what is odd now though is there are many companies who are reversing the trend, and moving from car production to bicycle production. As the bicycle evolved from transportation tool to lifestyle accessory and with popularity of the grand tours increasing the bicycle itself has seen a huge resurgence recently. This means companies like Ferrari and Porsche are more than happy to produce and license bikes with their names.
The bicycle will never overtake the car again, as a vehicle it is much too compromised , but their is one caveat. When I lived in the center of Manchester running a car as inner city transport soon became a misery of car parking charges and congestion, it soon became apparent that cities were never designed to accommodate the car. Not only is the car an inconvenience for its owner at certain times they’re also a hindrance for pedestrians and more worryingly the emergency services which year on year as car ownership rises see response times getting longer in heavily congested cities. So maybe a compromise should be met somewhere to leave the car as much as possible for longer faster travels where they are infinitely more fun, and save the cycle for traveling through rush hour Deansgate. Plus there’s another advantage to the bicycle, you can own a collection of all the prestige marques and best of all they’ll all fit into a single garage.