AA President Edmund King is hot on dispelling the myth that motorists and cyclists come from different planets. In a ‘Two Tribes’ presentation given to a road safety conference he said: “We really must get past this dangerous ‘them and us’ mentality that sours interactions between different groups.” And on Twitter he tries to reduce the animosity shown to cyclists by motorists, and vice versa. The fact remains that – for some motorists, and for some cyclists – never the twain shall meet. Yet, historically, cyclists and motorists have far more in common than many may imagine, a theme I will explore in Roads Were Not Built For Cars, the Kickstarter campaign for which is still taking pledges.It’s usually assumed – and, thanks to some automotive historians, often explicitly written – that motorcars evolved directly from horse-drawn carriages. This is not so. In fact, if a paternity test were possible, it could be strongly argued that motorcars have more bicycle DNA in them than carriage DNA. Extending the metaphor, the automotive industry grew from seeds planted in the fertile soil that was the late 19th century bicycle market. The early motorists – especially the ones who raced for a living – tended to have been cyclists before they were seduced by the greater speed and power of motoring. The first car purchasers were rich and posh, and many would know how to mount and steer their new motorcars because the first motorcars were very much like the tricycles they had only recently given up. A member’s list for the 1904 Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland shows that many of the members were proud to display their love for cycling and committee members were officials of cycling organisations, too (E. R. Shipton was editor of the Cyclists’ Touring Club Gazette; Henry Sturmey – who gave his name to Sturmey Archer gears – was also a cycling journalist: wrote a classic 1877 book on cycling and also founded a motoring magazine). The first automobile manufacturers tended to be cyclists: from Henry Ford to Charles Duryea in the US, and Charles Rolls and Lionel Martin in the UK (Rolls Royce and Aston Martin were both co-founded by cyclists). Many of the first car parts were bike parts: the first motorcar wheels were heavy-duty spoked bicycle wheels, and they were later shod with that great cycling innovation, pneumatic tyres.
MOTORING’S DEEP LINKS WITH CYCLING
There were many motorised road-going machines before the birth of the motorcar – mostly steam-engines of one form or another – but the first true car was the one developed by Karl Benz in Germany. Benz was a cyclist and went into business with cyclists. In 1883, he co-founded a gas engine business with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger, owners of a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Cie flourished and enabled Benz to experiment with bicycle technology to create his first motor vehicles. Unlike the horse carriages of the day, which used wooden spoked wheels, Benz used wire spoked bicycle wheels for his first Motorwagen. He also used the same differential gears and chains used on the bicycles of the day. The first true motorcar was a tricycle with a motor, and shared no DNA with horse carriages.
The second customer for Benz’s third design – the first commercially available automobile in history – was Emile Roger, a Parisian bicycle manufacturer. In the UK, the Benz Motorwagen was promoted as a “motor velocipede” not a motor carriage.
John Kemp Starley, originator of the Rover safety bicycle (Land Rover cars were developed by the company created by JK Starley), is one of Britain’s most unsung engineers. As well as developing the bicycle that “set the fashion to the world”, JK worked on an electric car. His battery-powered tricycle, above, was developed in 1888.
Over in the US, Charles Edgar Duryea was the designer of the first-ever American-made gasoline-powered car. His brother, Frank, built this ground-breaking machine. Charles, the elder of the two, trained as a mechanic and after completing his studies he worked in a bicycle shop in Washington D.C. in the mid-1880s. By the end of the decade he had designed and patented a number of bicycle innovations, including a hammock saddle and, to take the sting out of the rough roads of the day, a variety of frame-mounted spring suspension devices.
He was talent spotted by bicycle maker Harry G. Rouse of Peoria, Illinois and the two went into business together as the Rouse-Duryea Cycle Company. This company – via gun and sword maker Ames Manufacturing of Chicopee, Massachusetts – made the Sylph ‘comfort’ bike for men and women.
An 1892 trade catalogue for the company said:
“Our Mr. C.E. Duryea is well known as one of the most prolific practical cycle inventors in America, and as the originator of number cycling features of great value.”
In 1891, Charles designed a gasoline-powered engine but didn’t progress with it. His brother – who had joined the Rouse-Duryea Cycle Company – carried on working on the engine, and perfected it. In 1893, Charles Duryea made the first trip in an American-made, gasoline-powered ‘automobile.’
By 1896 – while still working in the bicycle trade – Charles and Frank Duryea offered for sale the first commercial automobile in the US, the Duryea Motor Wagon. One of these was bought by Henry Wells of New York.
On May 30th 1896 Wells drove his Duryea Motor Wagon into New York City to take part in a motorcar race organised by Cosmopolitan magazine (then called The Cosmopolitan). While racing on public roads, he crashed into Evelyn Thomas, riding a Columbia bicycle on Broadway near West 74th Street. Wells became the first motorist arrested for what would later become known as dangerous driving.
Thomas had been planning to attend a Civil War Memorial Day service but, instead, was hospitalised with a fractured leg. While in hospital, she was visited by Horatio Earle, the leading light of the League of American Wheelmen, and who was elected to the Michigan Senate in 1900 (It was Earle, a cyclist, who pushed through legislation to create the State Highway Department and who later pushed for the earliest freeways in America).
Thomas related her story to Earle and both agreed that cyclists’ rights on the highway would need protecting from a new menace on the road.
Duryea’s Motor Wagon sold in low numbers (13, in fact, unlucky for some, including Ms Thomas), but a vehicle inspired by the Duryea vehicle would soon sell in its millions. But the Model T wasn’t the first motorcar built by Henry Ford. He called his first vehicle the Quadricycle: it used four bicycle wheels, it was chain driven and it even had a bicycle lamp on the front. All of this is natural enough: Henry Ford was a cyclist and even when he had a car factory he rode his bicycle to work.
Another famous car racer was also a cyclist. And, in fact, remained a cyclist. Or, strictly speaking, a tricyclist. Lionel Martin was the co-founder of the famous motor marque Aston Martin, the British sports car driven by 007 James Bond. Martin was a racing cyclist and was the holder of a number of long-distance records, including tandem and tricycle records. He was a tricyclist to his dying day. Literally. He was killed in October 1945 after being knocked from his tricycle by a motorcar on a suburban ‘rat run’ road in Kingston upon Thames. Ironically, he got into motoring after being thrown from his tricycle in 1900 by a waywardly-driven motorcar. “I saw the monster approaching and I threw myself and ‘iron’ into the nearest ditch, counting myself lucky to escape with my life,” he later wrote. He and his business partner Robert Bamford became specialists in taking ordinary cars and ‘souping them up’ to go faster. The Aston Martin name came from a hill climb race at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire (close to the modern day Aston mountain bike course in the Wendover woods). Martin drove a modified Singer car very fast up this climb and, when Bamford & Martin Ltd needed a name for their new car brand, they chose to combine the words Aston and Martin. Singer cars were produced by a company that, of course, had started life as a manufacturer of bicycles. George Singer’s bicycle company was one of the earliest, having been founded in Coventry in 1874, and produced high-wheelers at first and Safeties later. George Singer, while still a maker of bicycles, was Mayor of Coventry three years in succession from 1891-1893.
The Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls – aristocract, playboy, daredevil and co-founder of Rolls Royce – developed his love for speed at Cambridge University, where he won a cycling Half Blue, a university sporting award. Rolls had a collection of bicycles from solos up to four-man tandems. That’s him on the left, on a four-man tandem. I’ve cropped out the other riders and will print the full pic in the book. I’ve licensed the pic from the Science Museum.
In the university newspaper, Rolls gives tips on how to mount a bicycle: “You will first find it necessary to hop two or three times or more till proficient, when one hop should be sufficient.”
KEEP READING, AND WATCHING
In this blog article I’ve just scratched the surface of early motoring’s direct link with cycling. There will be much, much more in the book, available for Kickstarter pre-order right now.
Even if you don’t plan to buy a book, or Kindle or iPad version, do watch the video below. It shows another motoring link with cycling: an 1897 horse, autocar and bicycle repository. This is in my hometown of Newcastle and is a globally-significant example of an extant bicycle/car showroom from such an important cross-over period. In the video I ride an 1890s bicycle in the former Cooper Motor Mart. It’s now an architect’s HQ. Ryder Architects rescued the building and renovated it beautifully.