There have been American invasions of this country by makers of agricultural machinery, boots, domestic machinery, typewriters, motor cars, and, of course, bicycles.
Of those articles enumerated all have come to stay except bicycles. Various opinions have been expressed as to the reason why American bicycles did not attract popular favour in this country. They were largely advertised, important firms rented expensive shops for retail purposes, and at one time it looked as though the American bicycle would catch on. The attempted invasion failed; a small army reached our shores but it got swallowed up and the officers retired with discomfiture.
The reason may be explained as follows. American makers produce one pattern of any article in large quantities and expect all purchasers at home and abroad to buy what they make. The American bicycles that reached this country were no exception to the general rule. They were made for American boulevards and asphalte roads of cities and were totally unsuited for touring and general riding conditions in this country. The mudguards and rims were of wood, the tyres were single tubes that could only be repaired with rubber plugs (a method not understood in England), the brakes were inadequate for our hilly roads, and the only redeeming feature of these machines was lightness. They arrived at a time when home manufacturers were at their wits end to supply the demand or practically none would have been sold, and those that were disposed of mostly caused trouble and loss of custom to the retailers.
To-day, American manufacturers have changed their tactics, and although no very serious effort has been made to further the export of bicycles from the United States to Europe, the trade ‘over there’ have not lost sight of the possibility of capturing some of the European markets, if not our own British one. Enquiries have been instituted by the American Chamber of Commerce as to the pattern of machine most likely to be demanded, the names of large buyers, their methods of payment, etc., etc. It would be, therefore, unwise to say there is no possibility of a recurrence of American bicycle exports to England; the machines will, however, require to be vastly different from those that were first sent over.
At the time of writing there is an import duty on foreign bicycles of 33 per cent, ad valorem, which constitutes a bar to American exports and it is questionable if, when this tariff is removed, American bicycles could be sold in this country at a profit. By the time our Government has decided to remove the tariff, English cycle makers may be able to reduce prices which, of course, like the cost of other manufactured articles, have gone up considerably.
In 1914 excellent English bicycles could be bought for about £8 8s., and if such prices ever return when tariffs are removed, then I do not imagine there will be very much chance for American machines in this country.
– The Cycle Industry, Its Origin, History & Latest Developments, 1921
The demise of the American cycle industry as a result of corporate greed illustrates how patent law – rather than invention – was the primary force affecting the evolution of vehicles. After Dunlop patented the pneumatic tyre, the American cycle industry adopted the patent-free ‘single tube’ tyre in order to avoid Dunlop’s patent. However, by 1911, the American tire industry became a monopoly, and single tube tyres became the only option available for bicycles in America. This killed the demand for cycles in America; and other countries were not interested in buying them either.
Patents for bicycle innovations became an industry in its own right, not necessarily leading to use of the relevant item. In England, Frank Bowden bought many interesting patents in the early years of the industry: for example, Raleigh introduced the first detachable chainwheel in 1890. In America Colonel Pope bought every available patent and implemented many on his bicycles. As a result, American bicycles of the 1890s were innovative machines with many excellent features. This was the heyday of the American cycle industry. Because of the high volume of bicycles produced in America at the time, there are now more survivors from this era than contemporary British machines. So if you hanker after Victorian transport, they represent the most viable option.
Impracticality is not an obstacle to vintage bicycle collectors. Indeed, ‘white elephants’ are often the most collectible items. 1900-1932 American bicycles with wooden wheels and single tube tyres may be more difficult to ride and maintain as a result of the above issues, but their designs are still fabulous. This page illustrates some innovative American bicycle designs from the current Oldbike Museum collection, in chronological order, with links to their individual pages.
PLEASE CLICK ON THE TITLES TO VISIT THEIR PAGES