The blog

Chapter Fourteen


The invention which had the most immediate influence on the early history of the automobile was the bicycle.
Rudi Volti, 2006

The first automobiles contained more cycle DNA than horse-drawn carriage DNA. In the late 1890s and early 1900s there was a seamless transfer of technology, personnel, and finance between bicycle and motor car companies. Pioneer racing drivers, motoring journalists and automobile event organisers tended to have cut their teeth in the world of cycling. Officials in the early motoring bodies often kept on working for cycling organisations.

Writing in his 1988 social history The Automobile Age, motoring historian James J. Flink made a brief, little noticed claim:

No preceding technological innovation – not even the internal combustion engine – was as important to the development of the automobile as the bicycle.

Engage reverse gear. Not even the internal combustion engine! Quite some claim. Flink didn’t back up his claim with pages of evidence. I shall now do so.
Motor car manufacturers benefitted from products, production techniques, materials, innovations and tooling either developed specifically for cycles, or perfected for them. “Cycles” rather than “bicycles” because some of the technological developments used on the first motor cars – such as differential gearing – were lifted from tricycles. And, in the late 1880s, from a quadricycle came the knuckle-bone axle, a key development used on many of the early motor cars, and which, before the patent ran out in 1907, made Sterling Elliott a wealthy man. Elliott, whom Thomas Edison called a “genius,” was a bicycle magazine publisher and, in 1896, the president of the League of American Wheelmen. Elliott’s knuckle-bone concept was developed for a four-wheel cycle designed for his wife …