Early Bicycle Manufacturing

Bicycle Development

Bicycles were developed from the hobby-horses and velocipedes that appeared in France in the late 1770s. The early machines were heavy, cumbersome, totally impractical, and were basically toys for the wealthier members of society. In the early 1800s Nicephore Niepce, an early photographer, built a machine that could be steered and ridden, but much development was still necessary before the machine could readily be used.

Around 1817 Baron Von Drais, a wealthy German engineer, constructed a hobby horse with an easily steerable front wheel, padded saddle and an armrest that enabled the rider to give powerful thrusts with his feet. The rider sat astride the vehicle with both feet reaching the ground and propelled the machine with a running action. Considerable numbers of the machines were made and they became known as Draisiennes and speeds of 7 or 8m.p.h. could be easily be attained.  The manufacturers optimistically claimed that an average speed of 15m.p.h. could be achieved on a journey, but this could be dangerous to say the least considering the conditions of the roads at the time. The Draisiennes weighed about 50lbs and cost around £11, and so were very expensive at the time.

The next breakthrough in the development of the modern cycle was the invention of pedals and cranks. Cranks first appeared on a quadricycle in around 1819, but the first application of the crank to a bicycle was made by Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatric McMillan in 1839. He built a machine that used fore and aft cranks rather than rotary ones and this became the first practical hobby horse.

A French style bicycle. Courtesy of the late Jim Boulton.

Pedals didn’t appear until 1860 when a maker of pram wheels in Paris fitted pedals and a crank to the front wheels of his hobby horse.

There were many claims as to who was first to achieve this breakthrough, but it is generally accepted that either Pierre Michaux or one of his mechanics made the first prototype. Michaux soon began producing the machines that were known as Velocipedes. They had wrought-iron frames, iron-tyred wooden wheels and weighed between 80 and 100lbs. They were extremely heavy and uncomfortable to ride and became known as “Boneshakers”.

They were a great improvement on anything that had been produced before except for the now forgotten McMillan machine.

Velocipedes were first exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and soon versions were built in the UK. An early manufacturer was the Coventry Sewing Machine Company, whose representative, Rowley B. Turner visited the Paris exhibition and persuaded the company to produce machines for export to France. Whilst in Paris he purchased a machine, as did Charles Spencer and J. Meynal, and they rode them from London to Brighton, much to the interest of the general public.

Mr. Turner obtained an order from a Paris house for 500 machines and the Sewing Machine Company obtained suitable machinery and plant for their manufacture.

They also made many improvements to the original design and changed the name of the company to the Coventry Machinists’ Company Limited.

The venture ran into difficulties due to the Franco-Prussian War and so the machines were sold on the home market.

An early English bicycle. Courtesy of the late Jim Boulton.

Sales were high and other manufacturers soon appeared, mainly consisting of blacksmiths and coach builders, and large numbers of machines were made until the appearance of the bicycle in about 1870.

A penny farthing. Courtesy of the late Jim Boulton.

The first successful bicycles, known as the “Penny Farthing” or the “High Wheeler” were a great improvement on the “Boneshakers”. The front wheel was greatly increased in size to produce a higher speed machine, because a greater distance could be covered for each turn of the pedals. At the same time the rear wheel was reduced in diameter and solid rubber tyres were soon used along with lightweight steel instead of heavy iron frames.

Front wheel diameters increased from 50 or 54 inches to 62 or even 64 inches for the fastest racing machines, placing the rider a great distance from the ground. A fall could be a serious thing, especially when going at speed and such mishaps became known as “headers” or “imperial crowners”. The brakes were inefficient, making stopping difficult, and the bicycles were difficult to mount and dismount. They could however cover long distances at speed and so became very popular.

There were other alternatives for those who preferred a lower machine. “Penny Farthings” were not suitable for women who found them impossible to ride due to the long skirts and dresses that were worn at the time, and also children, whose legs couldn’t reach the pedals. Tricycles satisfied their needs and many and varied types were produced. Unfortunately they could easily run away on hills or overturn. Something better was necessary and the answer to the problem was found in rear wheel drive and gearing.

Up until now all machines had front wheel direct drive, which resulted in steering problems because the rider’s legs were in the way. In September 1879 the modern type of bicycle called the “Safety” bicycle was patented by John Lawson. It had a small front wheel and a larger rear wheel with a pedal and chain drive. From now on the “Penny Farthings” were known as the “Ordinary” bicycle and would soon become a thing of the past. The first really practical bicycle with equally sized front and rear wheels was developed by John Kemp and William Sutton in 1885 and built at Coventry using the name “Rover”. The new machines became very popular and large numbers were sold.

Another important development was the appearance of pneumatic tyres. They were originally invented by R.W. Thompson in 1845 but little interest was shown until John Boyd Dunlop, a veterinary surgeon of Belfast developed them for cycle wheels in 1888. The Dunlop tyre initially consisted of an airtight inner tube of indiarubber, covered with one or more canvas coverings for protection. This was soon developed into the Clincher tyre which allowed repairs to be easily made.

Modern looking bicycles appeared in 1890 with the invention of the diamond frame, thanks to Thomas Humber, and reliable variable gears were available in 1902. All of the major components of the modern bicycle were now in place and large numbers of companies produced them. Ladies cycles were quickly introduced and the industry rapidly grew with demand far outstripping supply. Large numbers of small manufacturers appeared to take advantage of the new market, but the bubble quickly burst and many of them soon went into liquidation, loosing vast sums of money in the process. Luckily the well established companies survived and prospered to employ thousands of men and women in a growing vehicle industry that centred on Coventry, Nottingham and Wolverhampton.


The first cycle lamps appeared in the late 1860s and were sold as extras for the bicycles of the day, which were known as velocipedes. Roads at the time were very poor, often consisting of a dirt track with many pot holes, and street lights were few and far between, making a lamp essential when riding after dark.

Early lamps consisted of candle lamps and oil lamps. Candle lamps contained a candle in a spring loaded tube, which pushed it up as it burned. This form of lighting was never popular with the cycling public because it gave very little light and would be blown out in the lightest breeze. The lamps did however have a limited success with lady cyclists because they were clean.

Candle lamps soon disappeared due to the far superior oil lamp, in which paraffin or coal oil was burned on a clean open-weave wick, to allow for a good capillary action. By 1882 mechanical or winding wick holders were in use, to allow a greater degree of flame control and oil consumption. The lamps were very popular and continued in use until the 1950s.

Two oil lamps from 1896.

In 1892 Canadians Willson and Moorehead discovered a method of producing Calcium Carbide in an electric furnace. If this was added to water, acetylene gas was produced, which when lit gave a brilliant white light. This was quickly applied to bicycle lighting, and the carbide lamps produced a very powerful light source. Inside the lamp, droplets of water fell onto the calcium carbide that was contained in a small bowl, and the gas produced was usually burned in front of a reflector. The rate of water flow could be adjusted by a small screw valve, which controlled the rate of gas production and the size of the flame.

The lamps were only popular with enthusiastic riders because a disagreeable smell was emitted, and the calcium hydroxide residue, which was left behind in the bowl, had to be frequently removed. It was also difficult to keep the filter and burner free of dust. Carbide lamps continued to be advertised until the late 1930s but their popularity remained with the old school of cyclists and the dedicated clubmen.

Electrically powered cycle lamps appeared in 1888 when Joseph Lucas of Birmingham produced a
rechargeable accumulator powered cycle lamp. It was very expensive, sales were poor, and by 1889 it had been discontinued. By 1893 other similar lamps appeared and the first dynamo-powered cycle light was introduced in about 1895. Two of the most successful products were the “Voltalite” and the “Dynolite”, which appeared in 1899. At the same time in America the Ever Ready company were
producing battery powered lamps with a wooden case. Their familiar pressed steel cycle lamps appeared in 1900 and remained much the same until recent times.

Wolverhampton's Cycle Industry

Wolverhampton’s cycle manufacturing industry has almost been forgotten. There were many manufacturers in the town, which during its heyday was the third largest bicycle manufacturing centre in the country. The town was an obvious candidate for the setting up of the industry thanks to the large numbers of skilled metal workers in the area and the entrepreneurial skills of the local manufacturers, who were always willing to fill a niche in the market.

There are two claims to the first cycle that was produced in the City. The least reliable was made by T. Johnson of 18 Peel Street, who possibly built a machine in 1859. The more reliable of the two is from Henry Clarke who built a tandem tricycle in between 1855 and 1860 with the help of a Mr. Panter. Having built the machine they rode it around the neighbourhood, much to the astonishment of onlookers.

Henry Clarke saw velocipedes in Paris during his return from the Crimean war and began to export wooden velocipede wheels to France in 1867 to 1868. At the same time he started producing machines under the name of Cogent, which later became the Wearwell cycle company. This was the longest surviving manufacturer of bicycles in the town, producing them for just over 100 years.

After the introduction of the iron tyre Mr. W.S. Lewis of Cleveland Road, Wolverhampton developed a wheel with a concave rim so that a solid cord of indiarubber could be fixed onto the tyre to give a more comfortable ride.

Henry Clarke

In the 1870s the town was famous for the bicycle races that took place in the grounds of the Molineux Hotel, on the site that is now occupied by the football ground.

Large numbers of spectators came from all over the country to watch the events that attracted the best riders of the day. The popularity of the races must have greatly encouraged some of the early manufacturers. 

Read about
bicycle racing

Wolverhampton also produced the ‘Rolls Royce’ of bicycles in the Sunbeam. John Marston who founded the company, was a perfectionist, always striving for the best. His machines were second to none, and the company was very successful. Our largest manufacturer, Viking, had a successful racing team and large numbers of machines were sold thanks to their many successes in competitions and trials.

Many of the manufacturers were very small. All of the necessary components that were needed to build a bicycle were produced locally, and a number of producers specialised in supplying parts to the trade. Some of the smaller manufacturers assembled machines from the readily available components and only required a small workshop with maybe one or two employees.

A typical manufacturer who sold parts to the bicycle trade.

Very few details of many of the smaller companies have survived; often all that is left is adverts in old trade directories.  So the information in this section is very patchy, to say the least. Many of the local cycle shops also made bicycles to order, assembling them from the parts that were in stock.

View a list of
local bicycle manufacturers

By 1972 it was all over. The last factory to close was ironically one of the first to open. Wearwell closed their Colliery Road works in 1972, after 104 years of bicycle production. Almost all traces of the industry have disappeared although several of the old factory buildings still remain. Hopefully future generations will remember that Wolverhampton was once a force to be reckoned with in the bicycle industry.

An advert from 1884.

Almost every cycle part was supplied to one manufacturer, or another, from nuts, bolts, and washers, to tubes, frames, gears, and wheels. One useful product that was sold to manufacturers was Pickard's lining apparatus, which greatly simplified, and cheapened the lining process.

Read about Pickard's
lining apparatus


“Wolverhampton Cycles and Cycling” by Jim Boulton. Published in 1988 by Brian Publications.

“Stories of Tinplate Working and Iron Brazier’s Trade, Bicycle and Galvanising Trades, and Enamelware Manufacture in Wolverhampton and District” by W.H. Jones. Published in 1900 by Alexander and Shepherd Ltd, London.

Return to the list
of manufacturers