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MOTORISTS’ FRONT OF JUDEA: What Have The Cyclists Ever Done for Us?

REG: Cyclists have bled us white, the bastards. They don’t pay road tax, they run red lights. And what have they ever given us in return?
XERXES: Pneumatic tyres.
REG: What?
XERXES: Pneumatic tyres.
REG: Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.
COMMANDO #3: And ball bearings.
REG: Yeah. All right. I’ll grant you pneumatic tyres and ball bearings are two things that the cyclists have done.
MATTHIAS: And the roads.
REG: Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don’t they? But apart from pneumatic tyres, ball bearings, and the roads…
COMMANDO: Lightweight steel tubing.
XERXES: Chain driven differential gears.
COMMANDOS: Huh? Heh? Huh…
COMMANDO #2: Dust-free highways. Tractors. Automobile advertising.
REG: Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.
COMMANDO #1: And central Government administration of roads.
COMMANDOS: Oh, yes. Yeah…
FRANCIS: Cars and planes.
REG: Cars and planes?
FRANCIS: Yeah, America’s first car was built by the Duryea brothers: they were bicycle builders first. And powered flight, Reg, that was developed by the Wright Brothers: they owned a bike shop and built bikes.
REG: All right, but apart from the pneumatic tyre, ball bearings, differential gears, roads, motoring, car ads, and aviation, what have cyclists ever done for us?


MFJ3 1280

The first edition of ‘Roads Were Not Built For Cars’ was funded via and, thanks to 604 lovely people, it raised an amazing £17,407. When the book went on sale to the public all 1100 copies were bought within days. A revised second edition was published in 2015 by Island Press of Washington, D.C. Print and digital versions of the book – Kindle, ePub and an all-singing, all-dancing iPad edition – are available now.


Cyclists do not pay ‘road tax’. Nor do motorists. It’s Graduated Vehicle Excise Duty – or car tax – and is a charge on vehicular emissions, with the least polluting vehicles paying less or even nothing. If cyclists were to pay VED, they would pay £0, the same as low emission cars. ‘Road tax’ was abolished in 1937.

‘Riding through red lights: The rate, characteristics and risk factors of non-compliant urban commuter cyclists’ is a 2010 study in Accident Analysis and Prevention by the Monash University Accident Research Centre, Melbourne, Australia. It used a covert video camera to record cyclists at 10 sites across metropolitan Melbourne from October 2008 to April 2009. They found that of 4,225 cyclists facing a red light, only 6.9% didn’t stop.

When a cyclist runs a red light, he or she is taking an extreme risk that could result in death or serious injury, almost always to the cyclist alone. Motorists also run red lights: when they do so, the risks are to others as well as themselves.

The first practical pneumatic tyre was made in 1887 by John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian, for his son’s bicycle. Dunlop founded the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co. Ltd in 1889 to market this bicycle tyre. The detachable pneumatic tyre was introduced in 1891 by Édouard Michelin. This was also a bicycle tyre. Like many motorcar brands (Rover, Peugeot etc.) Dunlop and Michelin were bicycle brands before they were car brands.

Ball bearings were patented in Paris in 1869 by Jules Pierre Suriray, a bicycle mechanic. The advantages of a bicycle equipped with parts using ball bearings was demonstrated by Englishman James Moore, winner of the world’s first bicycle road race, Paris–Rouen, on November 7th 1869. 100 riders took part. Moore completed the 80-mile course in ten and a half hours, riding a bicycle with solid rubber tyres and an oversized front wheel with ball bearings in the hub. Not riding a bicycle with ball bearings – but completing the course nonetheless – was ‘Miss America’, a French woman married to Rowley B Turner, the English velocipedist who was one of the first to bring one of the French contraptions to England, thereby kick-starting the British bicycle industry.

Many motorists assume that roads were built for them. In fact, cars are the johnny-come-latelies of highways.

The hard, flat road surfaces we take for granted are relatively new. Asphalt surfaces weren’t widespread outside of towns until the 1930s. So, are motorists to thank for this smoothness? No. The improvement of roads was first lobbied for – and paid for – by cycling organisations.

In the UK and the US, cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces for a full 30 years before motoring organisations did the same. Cyclists were ahead of their time.

When railways took off from the 1840s, the coaching trade died, leaving roads almost unused and in poor condition. Cyclists were the first vehicle operators in a generation to go on long journeys, town to town. Cyclists helped save many roads from being grubbed up.

Rural roads were unsurfaced and would be the colour of the local stone. Many 19th century authors waxed lyrical about the varied and beautiful colours of British roads.

Cycling organisations, such as Cyclists’ Touring Club in the UK and League of American Wheelmen (LAW) in the US, lobbied county surveyors and politicians to build better roads. The US Good Roads movement, set up by LAW, was highly influential. LAW once had the then US president turn up at its annual general meeting.

The CTC created the Roads Improvement Association in 1886 and, in the same year, organised the first ever Roads Conference in Britain. With patronage – and cash – from aristocrats and royals, the CTC published pamphlets on road design and how to create better road surfaces. County surveyors took this on board (some were CTC members) and started to improve local roads.

Even though it was started and paid for by cyclists, the RIA stressed from its foundation that it was lobbying for better roads to be used by all, not just cyclists.

By the early 1900s most British motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind, motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.

A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:

“The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.”

The dust kicked up by cars on dirt roads in the early days of motoring was a major health problem and its suppression was of pressing importance, should motoring wish to gain public acceptance.

Dust had also been a problem for cyclists. Highwheelers were nearly two metres off the ground so their riders weren’t bothered about dust, but riders of Safety bicycles, closer to the ground (which is why they were safer than high wheelers), were very concerned. The main anti-dust campaigner of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century was William Rees Jeffreys.

Rees Jeffreys is known today as an arch motorist, one of the first people to advocate for motorways, but Rees Jeffreys had started his 50 year career in the improvement of what he called “despaired and neglected roads” as a cyclist. In 1900 he was elected a member of the Council of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and was a representative on the Council of the Roads Improvement Association, an organisation founded by the CTC in 1886. Rees Jeffreys was Secretary of the RIA by 1901 and argued that the organisation should reign back its pamphleteering of country surveyors and should instead focus on political lobbying: he wanted the CTC to push for a “a Central Highway Authority and a State grant for highway purposes.”

Cyclists wanted better road surfaces. They lobbied for smoother surfaces and for “dustless” roads. Rees Jeffreys became an advocate for spreading tar on Britain’s roads. He wrote:

“In 1902 I went to Geneva as the representative of the Cyclists’ Touring Club at the Annual Congress of the International League of Touring Associations. M. Charbonnier, Cantonal Engineers of Geneva, showed me an experiment he was making with hot tar on the road between Geneva and Lausanne.”

Five years later, Rees Jeffreys and the RIA organised competitions to find tar-spreading machines. The roads of Great Britain were gradually capped with asphalt. The work started by cyclists led to solid, sealed roads from coast to coast; roads which helped motoring become first a mania and then a form of mass transport.

Sealed roads are taken for granted now but the work of the CTC’s Road Improvements Association – and influential figures such as Rees Jeffreys – led not just to swifter, cross country travel but created health benefits, too.

“It is not only difficult, it is impossible, for the present generation to appreciate what their parents and grandparents suffered from dust and mud,” wrote Rees Jeffreys. “Not only were houses made distressingly uncomfortable by dust, but household work was increased greatly by the mud and dust which children brought into the house on boots and clothes. The dust cased many ailments and diseases of the eyes, nose and throat.

“Few reforms brought so much direct benefit to the people as a whole as that which in so few years made the British roads dustless.”

Reforms started by cyclists.

The first successful lightweight tractor was built in 1902 by bicycle designer and racer Dan Albone of Biggleswade. At the age of just 13 Albone designed and built his own high wheel Ordinary. At the age of 18 he formed the Ivel Cycle Works to market his bicycles, and his innovations. Ivel Cycle Works went belly up in 1893 following the end of the bicycle boom. Albone used many of his innovations developed for bicycles in prototype motor bicycles, in cars and in his Ivel Agricultural Motor, the first practical motor tractor. (Incidentally, Albone also developed an early women’s Safety bicycle and later produced automobiles, too).

The weight of an average Safety bicycle in 1892 was 42 pounds; by 1897 it was 22 pounds, with speciality bicycles weighing as little as 16 pounds. Bicycles were one of the first items to be mass-produced and to benefit from Ford-style factory production, before Ford. Lightweight drawn steel tubes developed for bicycles were adopted by the new automobile industry and later by the aviation industry, too.

Rifles used tubes, too, but gun barrels were machined from solid billets of steel. Innovators created new ways of making lightweight steel tubes, specifically for fast, high-wheeler bicycles, the red Ferraris of their day. Gun maker William Charles Stiff of Birmingham formed the Credenda Cold-drawn Seamless Steel Tube Company to market his bicycle tubing. Stiff had perfected his process by 1882 (a US patent was granted in 1886). He stretched steel billets into long, thin-walled tubes that could be cut and welded into frames for bicycles. The process was time-consuming: it could take three weeks of stretching, baking and thinning, with up to 16 pulls over a die and mandrel. The result was a lightweight, card-thin tube 1.125 inches in diameter.

Highwheeler ‘Ordinaries’ made from such expensive, technologically-advanced tubes became lighter, yet stronger. The Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, used Credenda tubes from England for the ‘Penny farthing’ used by Thomas Stevens on his circumnavigation of the world between 1884 and 1886. Stevens – “perched on a lofty wheel, as if riding on a soap-bubble” – was the first cyclist to ride around the globe. He had been born in England in 1854 but emigrated to the US in 1871. His derring-do exploits gripped the Victorian world.


“Creeping noiselessly up behind an unsuspecting donkey-driver [in Turkey], until quite close, I suddenly reveal my presence. Looking round and observing a strange, unearthly combination, apparently swooping down upon him, the affrighted katir-jee’s first impulse is to seek refuge in flight, not infrequently bolting clear off the roadway, before venturing upon taking a second look. Sometimes I simply put on a spurt, and whisk past at a fifteen mile pace. Looking back, the katir-jee generally seems rooted to the spot with astonishment, and his utter inability to comprehend. These men will have marvellous tales to tell in their respective villages concerning what they saw; unless other bicycles are introduced, the time the “Ingilisiu” went through the country with his wonderful araba will become a red-letter event in the memory of the people along my route through Asia Minor. Crossing the Yeldez Irmak Eiver, on a stone bridge, I follow along the valley…having wheeled nearly fifty miles to-day, the last forty of which will compare favorably in smoothness, though not in levelness, with any forty-mile stretch I know of in the United States.”

His travels on his “lofty wheel” showed that self-propelled, independent, international travel, while exotic, was possible. And Stevens’ journey had been made possible with lightweight, cold-drawn steel from England. His 50-inch Columbia was light enough to hoist over a railway bridge to escape a passing train, with Stevens “letting the bicycle hang over.”

Reynolds’ famous “double butted” lightweight bicycle tubes were created in 1897 by A. M. Reynolds and J. T. Hewitt of Birmingham’s Reynolds Tube Company. This had started in 1841 as a maker of steel nails and was making bicycle tubing by 1889. (Reynolds 531 double butted tubes were introduced in 1934).


Differential steering has an ancient history but chain-driven differential gearing for “Sociable” cycles was invented by James Starley, “father of the British cycle industry.” Differential gears are essential for automobiles. The rack and pinion gears on a differential axle, attached to a driveshaft, allows each of the powered wheels to spin freely of the other, while providing power to both.

In 1877, Starley made a four-wheeled machine for two riders, seated side by side. Each rider could pedal independently which brought the problem that the stronger rider could cause the four-wheeler to side-slip.

“It was while riding this machine with his son that the need for a differential gear became manifest [to Starley],” said bicycle collector and friend-to-the-inventors Horace William Bartleet in Bartleet’s Bicycle Book of 1931:

They were going uphill, and Starley senior adjured [his son, Bill] to “wire in.” This the hefty youth did, but as the power applied was only effective to his own driving wheel, it tended to push the steering round. In half a minute Starley said: “Get off. I have it.”

They pushed the machine to the top of the hill, had tea at a village, and returned. That was on a Saturday…On Monday his father called William to get up, while he went to a brass founders, and within an hour Bill was working on the castings – two bevel wheels and one pinion…Starley caught the 8 a.m. train to London to see his patent agent, and the invention was protected forthwith.

Thus was evolved the differential gear, used to-day on practically…every motor car.

In an 1937 information film explaining the workings of differential gears General Motors’ Chevrolet didn’t explain that the technology was developed for cycles.

Before the AA and RAC were given the rights to erect road signs, and before the Government did the same for ‘national’ roads, the CTC – and the National Cyclists’ Union, forerunner to British Cycling – had the authority to erect official road signs. They placed them at the top and at the base of hills, warning cyclists of particularly steep slopes.

Winton_auto_ad_car-1898AUTOMOBILE ADVERTISING
The Winton Motor Carriage Company of Ohio placed the world’s first ever automobile advert. It appeared in Scientific American in the issue for July 30th 1898. The Winton Motor Carriage Company was founded and run by Alexander Winton, a Scottish bicycle maker who created the Winton Bicycle Company in 1891. He specialised in shaft-drive bicycles. After the bike boom popped in 1896 Winton turned his hand to making cars (with tangent-spoked bicycle wheels). The 1898 advert worked: Winton sold 22 cars that year. Winton was the first person in the United States to sell an automobile commercially. His manufacturing company was bought by General Motors in 1930.

Royals and aristrocrats were members of Britain’s Cyclists’ Touring Club, and in America in the 1890s, the ‘bicycling bloc’ was courted in order to successfully elect the President of the United States. The League of American Wheelmen was the only lobbying group to have its own room at the 1896 campaign HQ of the Republican party.

The Bicycling Boom of the 1890s was followed by Motoring Mania in the early 1900s and many of the individuals who had been influential in cycling went on to become influential in motoring. In the US, General Stone, Horatio Earle, Edward Hines and Albert Pope helped make the League of American Wheelmen into a formidable, non-partisan political force and one that laid the foundations – sometimes literally – for the US highway system. In the UK, William Rees Jeffreys – see above – came from a cycling background and helped create our modern road administration.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George said William Rees Jeffreys was “the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world.”

Rees Jeffreys was the first secretary of the Roads Board, founded in 1910. This was the first central authority for roads in Great Britain since the Romans. The Roads Board later became part of the newly-formed Ministry of Transport.

The local and national legislative structures put in place by cyclists were later used to great effect by motorists, many of whom had been cyclists long before they were automobilists.

Had these influential figures not spent many years lobbying for good roads when they were cyclists, they would not have been as well equipped when it came to lobbying on behalf of the automobile.

Pioneer motorists knew how to push for good roads. They knew this because they had been cyclists first.

“What the bicyclist did for roads, between 1888 and 1900, was to rehabilitate through traffic, and accustom us all to the idea of our highways being used by other than local residents. It was the bicyclist who brought the road once more into popular use for pleasure riding; who made people away both of the charm of the English Highway and of the extraordinary local differences in the standards of road maintenance and who caused us to realise that the administration, even of local byways, was not a matter that concerned each locality only, but one which the whole nation had an abiding interest.”
The Story of the King’s Highway (1913)


“I often hear that the automobile is the parent of good roads. Well, the truth is, the bicycle is the father of good roads.”

Chief Consul, League of American Wheelmen Michigan division, 1898-1906. In 1905 Earle introduced legislation which created a State Highway Department: he was the first Commissioner. This Department is now the Michigan Department of Transportation. Earle is known as the ‘Father of Good Roads’

John Kemp Starley, originator of the Rover safety bicycle (yes, 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 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 horseless carriage 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 (also see above), the leading light of the League of American Wheelmen, and who had been elected to the Michigan Senate in 1890 (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.

Ford promoted his cars by demonstrating how fast they could go. To do this he hired bicycle racing champions, Barney Oldfield and Tom Cooper.

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.

One of the key engine parts used by Singer, Ford, Aston Martin and all other automobile manufacturers was the spark plug. The best known brand of spark plug was created by Albert Champion, a French bicycle racer who moved to the US. Champion won the 1899 Paris–Roubaix one-day race. In 1904 he founded the Champion Ignition Company to make spark plugs; in 1909 the name changed to AC Spark Plug Company, after Champion’s initials. Today the brand is known as ACDelco. Champion spark plugs were used in the rocket engines that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon.

Harry Lucas

Harry Lucas

Another automotive company which was formerly a bicycle company is lighting specialist Lucas Industries of Birmingham, famous for its ‘Motoralities’ horns, pumps and lights. Before ‘motoralities’, the company produced ‘Cyclealities’, including bells and the King of the Road oil bicycle lamp. Founded by Joseph Lucas in the 1860s as a dealer in paraffin, Lucas later made lamps for ships. Joseph’s son Harry was a keen cyclist and Lucas branched out into bicycle lighting in 1878. The King of the Road lamp was the leading lighting brand of the day fitted to many penny farthings. By 1888 Lucas was employing 50 people; 700 by 1897 in the peak of the bicycle boom.

American satirist P.J. O’Rourke is from Toledo, Ohio. This is now a train wreck of a city, claims P.J., partly because many of the automotive jobs the city relied on seeped away. Toledo, like Detroit, was once a major centre for making cars. Why? Bicycles. As O’Rourke explains, this is because “Toledo was America’s bicycle capital, with 22 bicycle manufacturers in 1898. Then came the automobile.”

(A month after writing about Toledo’s bicycle history O’Rouke famously penned a scathing piece for the Wall Street Journal about bike lanes: “Although the technology necessary to build a bicycle has been around since ancient Egypt, bikes didn’t appear until the 19th century. The reason it took mankind 5,000 years to get the idea for the bicycle is that it was a bad idea.”

Twenty two bicycle manufacturers is pushing it. There were fourteen or fifteen in the peak year of 1898 (including bike brands such as Gendron, Yost and Lozier and many accessory brands) but there’s no disputing that Toledo was one of America’s foremost bicycle manufacturing centres and the absolute reason for the later auto factories being in town. In most cases these weren’t new concerns taking over defunct factories, Toledo’s auto factories were set up by bicycle businesses and used bicycle parts to craft the early automobiles, most of which were steam powered. (Gasoline wasn’t the only fuel for the new bicycle-based motor cars, steam and electricity were more popular than petroleum in the early 1900s).

Toledo’s first automobiles were built in 1899 in the huge Lozier factory by the Albert Pope-owned American Bicycle Company (Pope was the father of the US bicycle industry, one of the first to spot the market potential of English high-wheelers). In the Lozier factory, 1600 workers made bicycles alongside automobiles. The American Bicycle Co became the largest cycle manufacturing concern in the US. At the Madison Square Garden Auto Show in New York in 1901, the American Bicycle Company – with its Pope-Toledo gasoline-powered car brand – was the largest exhibitor.

Other bicycle makers in Toledo also made automobiles. The Snell Fittings Company partnered with the Kirk Manufacturing Company – two of the largest US manufacturers of bicycle accessories – to produce, in 1903, the Yale automobile.

A former bicycle man, John North Willys (his name is pronounced ‘Will-iss’), bought Pope’s bicycle plant to make cars for the Overland Motor Company. It was the Overland Motor Company which, in 1941, won the contract to manufacture Jeeps for the US military in the Second World War. The Willys MB Jeep, made in a former bicycle factory, is the oldest off-road vehicle and SUV brand (there’s still a Jeep plant in Toledo). The Jeep inspired a number of other 4×4 vehicles, including the Land Rover, made by the Rover car company of the UK, a car company that started life as a bicycle company. The 1885 Rover Safety – recognizably a modern bicycle by 1888 – “set the fashion to the world”. The Polish word for bicycle is ‘Rower’, a derivative of Rover.

German car makers also produced bicycles before they produced cars. The Opel car company started making cars in 1899. Prior to that, the company made bicycles and it continued to make bicycles alongside automobiles until February 1937. Opel was one of the top manufacturers of bicycles in Europe, having sold 2.5 million bicycles since making its first one in 1886. It later went on to become one of the top automobile makers in Europe. The company was founded by Adam Opel, originally as a sewing machine maker. He never lived to see the company’s first automobile.

The Opel brothers were all champion cyclists on Opel bicycles

The Opel brothers were all champion cyclists on Opel bicycles

Adam Opel’s sons – Carl, Wilhelm, Heinrich, Friedrich, and Ludwig – were all champion bicycle racers on Adam Opel machines. Wilhelm took over the company after his father’s death and started the production of automobiles.

At the official opening of Eurobike, the world’s biggest bicycle show, in Friedrichshafen, Germany, on 28th August 2013, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor quoted Adam Opel. She said he wrote: “The bicycle combines what is pleasurable with what is useful like no other invention.”

Robert Bosch

Robert Bosch

Opel sold its bicycle business to NSU of Germany. NSU later went on to become part of Audi. Naturally, NSU too had made bicycles before it made motor cars.

Robert Bosch, founder of Bosch, now the world’s biggest auto accessories maker.[/caption] From 1890 onward, Robert Bosch – founder of the world’s largest car accessories company – used a bicycle to visit his customers. “It not only got him there faster, but also saved him money,” says a Bosch corporate history.

On May 30th 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, asking for papers on man’s attempt to fly. He paid for the papers from his and his brother’s bicycle business. The accounts for the Wright Cycle Co. includes an 1899 entry of $5.50 “for books on flying.”

“I am an enthusiast but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine,” he wrote to the Smithsonian, revealing he was “about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business.”

He and his brother would take turns to man their bicycle store as they tested first a kite prototype and then larger scale gliders in 1900, 1901 and 1902. Their first powered aeroplane, on December 17th 1903, used bicycle chains and sprockets to link the propellors. Their aeroplane frames were made up of bicycle-type double-triangles. Wilbur’s visionary ‘wing warping’ technique of controlling an aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw was developed in 1899 after twisting an empty bicycle tube box with the ends removed. Wing warping is still used today, albeit with ailerons.

The Wright Brothers had used one of their bicycles to work out their ideal wing shape. The brothers took turns pedalling their converted machine in Dayton, Ohio. A handlebar-mounted wheel was fitted with two metal plates, one flat, one curved, ninety degrees apart. Orville and Wilbur used the device to measure air resistance.

“The results obtained with the rough apparatus…gave evidence of such possibility of exactness,” wrote Wilbur.

By riding along and generating some wind flow, the brothers were able to disprove earlier theories on lift.

The brothers later invented the wind tunnel to fine tune their early experiments in aerodynamics. This was a box six feet long and sixteen inches square on the inside. They mounted a fan attached to a sheet metal hood to one side and replaced a panel on the top of the box with a pane of glass so they could see inside. The fan moved the air through the tunnel at 27 miles per hour and the brothers tested hundreds of small sections of wings and wing shapes. High-tech wind tunnels would, of course, be later used to fine-tune the best aerodynamic shapes for bicycles…

By 1903, the brothers had achieved their goal of constructing a practical flying machine capable of remaining in the air for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of the pilot.

The earlier, smaller machines had been built and tested in the Wright’s bicycle store, in full view of customers.

In a later patent infringement case, the Wright brothers had to recall these early experiements to prove their patents.

Orville remembered spending long hours at the bicycle shop, waiting on customers, performing repairs, and constructing his kite.

“I was not able to be present when the structure was flown as a kite, but I operated the machine in our store before it was taken out to be flown,” Orville told the court.

The brothers were cycling enthusiasts. In 1892, Orville bought a new Columbia safety bicycle for $160. In the same year, Wilbur purchased a used Eagle safety bicycle for $80. Orville entered bicycle races put on by the YMCA Wheelmen. Wilbur liked to ride more slowly, taking in the passing scenery and, importantly, watching birds fly.

It’s therefore entirely possible that powered flight was conceived from the saddle.


Originally small-town publishers and jobbing printers, the Wrights were inspired by their new found passion for bicycles to open a bicycle sales and repair shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio in 1892.

As their business grew, the Wright brothers moved their bicycle shop six times and changed the name to the Wright Cycle Co. in 1894.

In April 1896, the Wrights introduced their first in-house bike, the Van Cleve. Catharine Benham Van Cleve Thompson, the Wright brother’s great, great grandmother, had been among Dayton’s first settlers. Later in the year, the Wrights introduced a second, less expensive model called the St. Clair. Again, the name was drawn from local history; Arthur St. Clair had been the first president of the Northwest Territory, which later became Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.


The Wright Bicycle Co. was profitable for many years. In 1897, their best year, they made $3000 between them at a time when the average American worker was doing well to make $500 per year. The Wright’s stopped producing own-label bikes in 1904. The bike store continued to sell branded bikes and P&A but was converted to a machine shop in 1909 when the Wright Company, an aircraft manufacturing business, started producing bicycle-inspired parts for aeroplane engines.



‘Roads Were Not Built For Cars’ contains lots of detail on the history of roads and how even many multi-lane highways were built that wide long before cars. The print book, iPad and Kindle versions, were available for pre-order on Kickstarter in April 2013 and, rather amazingly, blew through the funding target and reached a staggering £17,000. The book was subsequently published in September 2014, and sold out within days. In April 2015 a revised second edition was published by Island Press of Washington, D.C.


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