BICYCLES: Rolling Through History

Approximately 17% of our population ride a bike for transport or for leisure, with more than 50% of those having more than one bike. We all grew up with at least one bike in the household, we rode to school, went to the shops for Mum, raced our mates in the parks and did magnificent wheelies around the block.

Bicycles are still the purest form of mechanical transportation for whatever reason we use them, allowing freedom the human spirit has embraced since the bicycle was invented back in the 19th Century by a daring Frenchman, Eugene Myer; it’s basic design morphing into the Penny Farthing by the 1870s. The huge popularity of cycling spurred multiple designers and hundreds of manufacturers to give birth to the “Safety Bicycle”, the basic design of a double diamond frame shape that still is the foundation of bike design today, and, really can’t be improved upon.

By the late 1870s, bicycles were being imported to Australia and as early as 1878, clubs formed and races organised shortly thereafter. Not surprising really, men being the competitive beasts they are, put them on anything with wheels and they’ll want to race each other. Bikes remained expensive though, but the craze continued rapidly and by 1900, a handful of brave entrepreneurs had started manufacturing in Australia. In particular, Tom Finnigan using his race winnings to set up shop in Melbourne giving birth to the “Malvern Star”, a name that along with Speedwell and Super Elliot, became not only household names but enjoyed huge racing successes and remain legendary names today.

So why collect old bikes and what to collect?

As with anything you collect, the interest comes from association with it, nostalgia can be very persuading. Some collect just to show off the bikes, some collect to ride them and many do both.

The design, materials used and often most importantly, the brand names play a big part. The periods of significant changes, like gear changing, with the introduction of derailleurs, lightweight materials like “Duralium”, Reynolds lightweight steel tubing, pedal cleats replacing toe straps, and effective brakes produced iconic components that have become collectable.

Bikes with direct racing pedigree are highly sought after, many being custom built for the top riders seeking an edge. Components were often mixed, mostly due to cost and availability, but the more complete a “group set” ( the sum of the individual parts ) the better, it showed a clearer direction by the rider or builder.

The British led the way with components from BSA, Chater Lea, Claud Butler, Raleigh, Brooks, Cyclo, Dunlop, Resillion, GB, and Williams adorned bikes from utilitarian commuters to track racers. Australian builders used the UK manufacturers predominately. We had the imperial system in place so the engineering technology remained basically the same right up until the early ’60s, when Asian components became affordable for mass production with the welcome introduction of the Metric system.

The Europeans in the meantime had been forging ahead with sophisticated designs and high-quality materials, Huret, Simplex, Zeuss and most famously, Campagnolo, set the bar for must have parts if you were keen on winning.

Ideally, bikes in sound original condition are best. To find one in “ as left in the shed after its last race” is rare. Bikes were often up-dated yearly, used for several disciplines, handed down to the kids, or just left languishing in a neglected state. Look for overall condition. Has it been re-painted poorly? Has it been thru the creek too many times? Has it seen the back of a truck or bus and bent? And can you identify any top end parts? Does it have some history, racing or otherwise? But most importantly, is it your size so that you can hop on it and strut confidently past the cafes gaining valuable admiration and kudos from other cyclists? Most frames are put together with joints where the tubes meet. These joints are the lugs, and the fancier the better. Some were signature designs by the builders, some modified production ones, Nervex being the most praised and copied. Fine pinstriping on the paintwork is another hallmark of a custom build, a skill that has all but disappeared.