The precursor to the modern-day bicycle was the 1817 Draisine, named for its German inventor, Karl von Drais. This two-wheeled machine lacked pedals, so cyclists straddled the bike and pushed it along with their feet. Despite their primitive design, these "swift-walkers," as they were sometimes called, were quite popular in 19th-century Europe and the United States, but as novelties rather than a serious means of transportation.
Around 1863, the wood-and-iron velocipede or "boneshaker" appeared in England and France. This was the first true bicycle, with pedals attached to the front wheel so that riders could propel themselves up hills. Some models had a rear "spoon" brake; most had a bell to keep horses from being spooked.
Because gears for bicycles had not yet been invented, the only way for engineers to increase the speed of a bike was to enlarge its front wheel. This led to the development of high-wheel bicycles in the latter part of the 19th century.
High-wheel bikes (also called penny-farthings) were eye-catching and not as difficult to get onto as they looked, but they were next to impossible to stop once they got going, which often resulted in crashes that would send the rider flying head first over the handlebars. Smart riders learned to ride downhill with their legs draped over the handlebars to mitigate the impact of sudden stops.
Manufacturers tried to solve the "header" problem with models like the Star and the Eagle, which placed the bike’s small wheel in front of the large one to give the rider a slightly better center of gravity. Tricycles with a small wheel in the front, two large wheels in the back, and a seat between them were another solution, favored by women in elaborate Victorian dress as well as professional men, for whom high-wheelers were not an especially dignified mode of transportation.
By the end of the 19th century, the high-wheelers were replaced by so-called "safety" bikes, which resemble the bikes we ride today. The key was a chain to drive the rear wheel.
In addition to steel, wood such as hickory and bamboo was used to construct the frames. Elliott Hickory Cycle Co. of Boston went so far as to tout the wood used in its bikes as "...
Some of these turn-of-the-century bike builders would go on to become prominent manufacturers of automobiles. George Pierce was making bicycles more than a dozen years before his company produced its first Pierce Arrow in 1903. The Pierce bicycle’s "monoshock" suspension was a far cry from the boneshaker bicycles of a half-century before. Similarly, Lozier cut its teeth on its line of Cleveland bicycles before becoming a renowned builder of luxury cars in 1900.
For collectors of antique racing bikes, the bicycles produced at the beginning of the 20th century are of particular interest. Track bikes by companies like Peugeot were designed to be stiff and responsive, with deep-drop handlebars to reduce the rider’s wind resistance. Chainless drives were also tried but quickly discarded. And by the 1930s, John "Pop" Brennan was producing frames that are considered prototypes of the contemporary handmade bicycle-frame industry.
The arrival of the derailleur in 1908 changed everything. Americans were slow to accept the device, and the English thought three gears were quite enough, but the French embraced the device. Consequently, a culture of cycling evolved in France, while bikes in the United States largely fell out of favor.
The vintage balloon-tire cruisers from the 1930s to 1950 brought the bicycle back into fashion in the U.S. In 1941, Colson made the Cruiser and Super Cruiser models for Firestone and the Clipper for Goodyear. Many vintage bikes from this era had fake gas tanks to imitate the ones on motorcycles, and built-in headlights and taillights. Some were gloriously painted two-tone jobs; others showed off their aluminum and chrome.
Murray was another company that had its own line as well producing bikes for third parties. In Murray’s case, it supplied bikes to Sears. Its house brand was the Mercury. Among other collectible brands from the pre-war era are Shelby, which made the gorgeous Speedline Airflow, whose sweeping and curving lines suggested movement even when the bike was standing still.
But it was the Schwinn that really changed the American perception of the bicycle, in particular with the 1933 Aerocycle with its awesome Buck Rogers design. The Auto Cycle followed, as did the heavily fendered and chromed Phantom and Jaguar.
By the middle of the 20th century, Schwinn was, as Schwinn collector Jim Snell puts it, "where bicycles came from for Christmas." In the 1960s and 1970s, if you were the luckiest kid on the block, that meant you spent Christmas morning riding your high-handlebar, banana-boat seat Stingray, Apple Krate, or Grey Ghost, some of which had a black-handle "Stik Shift" attached to the frame. Also collectible are the three-speed Schwinn Paramounts and Travelers from the 1950s and 1960s, and the classic 10-speed Varsity models from the 1960s and 1970s.
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The bike brand that helped Latvia rediscover its cycling heritageThe Guardian (blog), May 6th
Photograph: Stefan Jacobs/Erenpreiss. Toms is almost entirely self-taught. He restored his first vintage bicycle at the age of 12, and has spent the intervening years poring over books and websites, and picking the brains of Latvia's few surviving bike...Read more
Places to go, things to doVineland Daily Journal, May 6th
May 9: Bicycle collection, 9 a.m.-noon, Atlantic County Utilities Authority, Environmental Park, 6700 Delilah Road, Egg Harbor Township. Rain or shine. Bikes collected will be refurbished and donated to needy children through St. Nicholas of Tolentine...Read more
Bike Week comes to Portsmouth Public LibraryYork County Coast Star, May 5th
A display of vintage bicycles is just part of the fun planned for Portsmouth Public Library's Bike Week. Getty Images ... Join this leisurely vintage bicycle ride around Portsmouth in your finest summer sporting attire to benefit the Wentworth Lear...Read more
Embacher Collection: One Off Moulton Special makes cut for world's most ...Western Daily Press, May 5th
The Embacher Collection made up of over 200 vintage bicycle models is one of the most significant and exciting bicycle collections in the world. It will be auctioned in the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna on May 19, 2015. The collection was assembled...Read more
Pedals for Progress bicycle collection slated for June 6 in FlemingtonNJ.com, May 4th
Pedals for Progress, in its continuing effort to recycle bicycles properly, is having a used bike collection sponsored by Flemington Presbyterian Church and Flemington Rotary Club. Anyone with an adult or child's bicycle in repairable condition is...Read more
Embacher bicycle collection to be sold at auctionBikePortland.org, April 27th
If you dreamed about owning one of the amazing bicycles from the Cyclepedia exhibition when it was at the Portland Art Museum in 2013, now is your chance. Michael Embacher, the man behind the much-heralded Embacher Collection, has decided to part ...Read more
First annual California Eroica vintage bicycle festival 'a real success'Paso Robles Daily News, April 15th
The Eroica vintage bicycle festival commenced this weekend in Paso Robles. Over 500 cyclists participated in the event. “I think that the response was really fabulous,” said Eroica representative Mark Riedy. Riedy explained that the event this year...Read more
Collecting vintage bicycles and motorbikes is John Stansbury's passionKansas City Star, April 10th
John Stansbury said his 40 or more vintage bicycles and motorbikes are “like my kids,” but none is dearer than his unrestored 1901 Steffey motorbike. Stansbury, 65, of Overland Park, beams as he talks about his stable of bikes, motorbikes and riding toys...Read more