Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Early 'Modern' Adult Bicycle in the U.S: 1930s-50s


The influence of 3-speeds in the US is a topic of interest to me, especially the fate of early American-made three speeds. I have spent a fair amount of time over the past few years going through old catalogs and looking at old three-speed style bikes in the US.

The Earliest Years: 1910s- mid-1930s

I think the earliest effort to "import" the notion of a three speed utility bike to the US is the Sears Chief of the WW1 era. Sears actually bought the rights to have Sturmey hubs made in the USA during WW1. This was the "tricoaster" model, known as the Model S, built under license in the USA. The bicycle was aimed at the older youngster or adult: it had a medium-sized frame and 28 inch wheels. Unfortunately, it suffered from the American affinity for wood rims and glue-on, single tube tires. In any event, by the 1920s, the growth of the automobile in the US increasingly sent bicycles into the realm of children's toys.

Adult bicycles did exist in this period, but often took the form of diamond frame bikes with single speed coaster brakes, and particularly seemed to have been aimed at Western Union and courier servicemen. These often still retained the 28 inch wheels and single tube tires, even after the children's cruisers were going over to clincher balloon tires. You'll see 1930s-era catalogs with the occasional adult-type bike, but clinging to the old technology.

The Lightweight "Rebirth" in the US: late 1930s-WWII

However in the years just before WWII, a couple of things began to take place. First, English bicycles began to trickle into the country, particularly in the northeast and first around Boston. Hamilton Osgood had studied in England and brought back a love of English 3-speeds. At first, his operation was a home-based business of him assembling Raleighs and selling them. At the same time, Hercules Cycle and Motor was increasing its exports to the US, also selling bikes mostly on the coasts. Boston was a fitting place, as others have mentioned, academia was a big part of Boston and it was trendy in those days for the wealthy college set to spend a semester or year in exchange study in England. Some of them brought back a love of bikes, and had the urban setting in Boston in which to make the English bikes useful.

At the same time in the US, several makers tried to expand the market of domestic bikes from kids to adults. Cleveland Welding; Huffman; Manton & Smith; Westfield Manufacturing, and Schwinn all began making the first truly "modern" adult bikes in the US. They felt there was a huge, potentially untapped market for cycling in the adult realm. So they began producing diamond frame, "lightweight" utility type bikes for leisure and touring purposes. Schwinn was particularly aggressive and actually had catalogs devoted solely to lightweight adult bikes prior to WWII. This included three speed options powered by the Sturmey AW hubs.

The combination of increasing imports from Britain in the 1930s and the rebirth of the lightweight, adult-oriented bicycle by American manufacturers created what one could call a "rebirth" of the adult bicycle in the US. Unlike the Sears Chief of the 1910s, these newer bicycles had clincher tires; modern rims; and construction with a certain consciousness of keeping weight reasonable. Unlike the children's bikes of that era, the focus was on an overall, rideable bike rather than bloated accessorizing.

The bicycles of this period also are the first truly "classic" adult bicycles in the US. These are the "light roadsters": bicycles with 26 inch wheels; cable brakes; hub gears or coaster brakes; clincher tires; and fillet brazed; internally brazed; or lugged and brazed frames.

Still, the overall population of adult cyclists in the US remained small. The automobile and rail transportation offered alternatives. But unlike the earlier period of the 1920s and early 30s, the late 1930s saw at least some signs of life in adult cycling, particularly in northeastern cities, and especially in the Boston area. There were certainly adult cyclists all over the US, but the northeast was probably the hottest area of activity.

WWII and the Adult Utility Bicycle

WWII created a real opportunity for the adult utility bicycle to be noticed in the US. With the rationing of fuel, bicycles became an option for workers in certain vital industries. Bicycle makers continued to make adult bicycles early in the war, and were allowed to deplete existing parts stocks before transitioning to war production. Several bicycle companies, including Cleveland Welding and Westfield continued producing bikes throughout the war, including adult diamond frame models aimed at transporting workers to their jobs. These often were single speed coaster models, but were very much in the spirit of the classic, three-speed light roadster.

War-era bicycles often have parts that normally would have been chrome plated painted in black because of the strategic nature of certain metals used in the plating process. It is almost certain too that pre-war English bicycles and American three speeds were pressed into service for some commuters.  We will never know how many such "pressed into service" bicycles there were, but they did provide transportation to some workers during the war. 

I do not think this could truly be called a bike "boom", however. The use of bicycles for commuting was still limited to cities and towns where one could actually get to work on a bicycle. In some areas of the US, this remained impossible. Again, northeastern and midwestern cities provided the geography and industrial settings that made utility bike use by war workers practical. 

The Automobile Ascendant: 1946-53

After the war, the workers who had used the bicycle for transportation largely reverted to automobiles where possible. This was the dawn of the golden age for the automobile in the US, a time when cars became the all-encompassing status symbols we know today. This also saw the resurgence of road and highway construction friendly to automobiles. Bicycles were largely sidelined.

There continued to be a niche market in the US for adult utility bicycles, particularly three speeds. Some GIs brought back an affinity for the English-style bicycle, though we will never know how many actually brought back bicycles, and that number was probably fairly small. Most of the so-called "bring backs" I have encountered turn out to be post-war bicycles from the 1946-50 period.

However, Britain rapidly took on an "export or die" thinking, and that included bicycles. A larger number of Raleigh bicycles, and some Hercules as well, entered the US, and continued to be most popular in the northeastern US. Again, these urban centers rich in college campuses offered a fertile ground for bicycle use. But overall, automobiles dominated the landscape in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

American makers also returned to producing adult bicycles at first. Schwinn produced its classic New World; Continental; Superior; and Paramount lines. Westfield continued making Sports Tourists and Sports Roadsters. Other makers also produced small numbers of adult bicycles.

Schwinn and Westfield held out the longest, but by the early 1950s, both had largely given up on the adult market. By 1953, Schwinn had re-oriented its three speed utility line-up to focus on high schoolers and teenagers.


After looking over as many adult utility bikes as I could find; catalogs; and focusing on the largely 'boring' world of three-speed style bikes, I reached a few conclusions.

First, the realm of adult bicycling never matched children's sales in the US. The balloon tire, single speed bicycle sold many more times over the number of adult, utility bicycles. In fact, Schwinn's adult cycling line often ran a loss and was subsidized by the very strong sales of kids' balloon tire bikes.

Second, we need to be careful about over-generalizing in some cases. It's very tempting to say the entire effort from the '30s-50s to sell adult bikes was a total bust. But that's not really true. In some areas, adult bikes sold well. This was particularly true of Hercules and Raleigh bikes in the northeast. Raleigh and Boston developed a special connection that lasted many years. The three-speed English bikes were campus favorites for many years. However, in some parts of the country, adult bicycles never really had much of any showing.

World War II represented a modest opportunity, but the automobile was the love interest for many Americans. This is a pretty obvious point on its face, but what makes it interesting is that many  more Americans became involved in bicycling during the gas rationing of WWII. This included individuals who commuted on bikes to vital war industry jobs in major cities. However, it seems that the majority of these people reverted to automobile use. Americans have always loved their cars on the whole, and the 1940s-50s would prove to be the heyday of the American automobile.

There was a wonderful range of quality in adult bicycles. There are a couple misconceptions about adult bicycles in the 1930s-50s period. First is that (1) there were no adult bikes in the US in that time; (2) American companies just didn't make adult bicycles in that time; and (3) what bicycles did exist for adults were largely either junk or one-off exotics.

None of those hold true. First, although children's bikes dominated, there was a healthy number of imported British bikes and American-made utility bikes in the U.S. They may have been fewer than balloon tire cruisers, but they certainly could be bought in the right places. This was especially true in the major cities of the northeast and midwest. Second, many major American bicycle manufacturers created their own take on the adult bicycle, often in an array of quality levels and price points. They generally copied British-style designs and even employed Sturmey Archer hubs; aluminum hubs; stainless steel fenders; aluminum accessories; and other quality items.

In the end, we do well to seek out the British bikes and American "lightweight" utility bikes of the 1930s-50s. They were often practical; well-made; and could fit an average sized adult. Many still are in decent shape today and can be ridden with just a little work. I think they repay that effort many times. I certainly love mine, whether it's a Schwinn practical New World or Westfield Sports Roadster; a sporty Schwinn Continental; a stately Hercules roadster; or a classic Raleigh Sports. Don't be afraid to look for these bikes and to own them. They may not be as exotic as a 1970s Italian racing bike, but they are wonderful machines.



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