Foreign vintage bicycles are a hot commodity these days, both with riders looking for practical everyday transportation, and cycling fans who appreciate a high quality, handmade bike.
Foreign Vintage Bicycles TimelineBicycles were a European invention and until around 1930, the American and European bicycle industries made very similar products. Beginning in around 1930, they began to diverge, reflecting cultural attitudes and different reasons for riding a bicycle in the first place.
The Invention of the BicycleIn 1866, Frenchman Pierre Lallement patented the “bicycle.” It looked like a draisine, velocipede, or hobby horse, except it had pedals mounted on the front wheel. Albert Pope, the founder of Columbia Bicycles in the US, purchased the patent from Lallement and got rich, making bicycles and charging other American builders royalties to use the basic design. Frenchman Eugene Meyer is credited with inventing the high-wheel bicycle. High-wheelers, ordinaries, or penny farthings as they were known in Britain, were in wide use throughout Europe and even Japan until the late 1880s. They were fast, but unsafe and dangerous to ride, and were mostly ridden by daring young men.
Older people opted for much safer tricycles or Quadro-cycles. Queen Victoria owned one of James Starley’s Royal Salvo Quadro-cycles, but it’s not known if she ever rode it.James Starley is known as the father of British cycling. He designed and built the famous “Ariel” penny farthings. His nephew, John Kemp Starley, is credited with inventing the safety bicycle in 1885. The arrival of the safety sparked a massive cycling boom. By 1890, the safety bicycle had replaced the high-wheeler entirely in Europe and North America.
From Sewing Machines to BicyclesA European bicycle industry sprouted up around the centers of sewing machine manufacturing – Coventry, Oxford, Birmingham, and Manchester. The same trend occurred in the US with a bicycle industry developing in New England because the sewing machine industry could provide the metalworking and engineering talent that bike building required.
Bicycles Arrive in AsiaDuring the 1860s, the first bicycles began to arrive in Asia, and during the 1870s, boneshakers were being manufactured in Japan. In 1892, the first Japanese safety bike was manufactured by the Miyata Gun Factory. The frame tubes were bored out of solid steel rods – like gun barrels.
The Safety Bicycle – Two Wheeled EmancipationThe Safety Bicycle is genuinely one of the greatest human inventions ever. It was called a “Freedom Machine” by American feminist Susan B. Anthony. With the arrival of safety, thousands of women took to cycling. It’s been said that the bicycle did more to emancipate women than anything else in history.
DivergenceAfter the turn of the century, the popularity of cycling continued to grow in Europe. Still, interest began to wane in the US Bikes started to be seen as kids’ toys in America, and bike designs began to reflect this perception. By the 1950s, two types of bikes were available in the US – heavy cruisers that reflected Americans’ obsession with the automobile, and English Racer type bikes imported from Europe. English Racers had narrow tires, handbrakes, and three-speed gearing.
In Europe, cycling became less of a hobby and more of practical necessity. European bike builders concentrated on creating comfortable, lightweight designs that often came equipped with generator-powered lights, stands, and frame-mounted pumps. During the 1930s, racers in Europe were allowed to use gears on their bikes for the first time. Europeans became passionate about bike racing, and today there is a huge demand for vintage, handmade lightweight European racing, and touring bicycles.
Chinese BikesStreets clogged by thousands of bikes are an enduring image many people have of Asian cities. While the Japanese bicycle industry started around the same time as bike building in Europe and the US, it’s a relative latecomer to China.
At the end of the 19th century, only foreigners rode bikes in China. Any Chinese who could afford to buy a bicycle preferred to use a sedan chair or rickshaw for transportation. Imported bikes began to appear in China around the turn of the century. Initially, two classes of people were early adopters – wealthy Chinese who had studied abroad and been familiar with bikes, and the prostitutes who worked the port cities. Bicycles became popular in China during the 1920s, and in 1936, a Japanese businessman set up a bicycle factory in Tianjin and began to build Anchor brand bicycles.
The People’s VehicleAfter the Cultural Revolution in China in 1949, the Party decided to promote the bicycle as the people’s vehicle and started a massive production program. In 1950, the first Flying Pigeon bikes were manufactured and designated as government-approved transportation. They were based on the 1932 Raleigh Roadster and have become the “single most popular mechanized vehicle in the world.”
Last Word about the Foreign Vintage BicyclesMany European and Asian bicycles are highly collectible in their own right. European bikes diverged from American bikes, and each type has its fans. Bikes that reflect the American love of the automobile are highly sought after, but so are the countless European and Asian racing bikes and conservative people movers.