It’s interesting to compare American and British bicycles of 1894. At first, for example, Colonel Albert Pope, maker of the Columbia bicycle, gave little credence to the Safety Bicycle, which had, across the Atlantic, revolutionized bicycle design. At that time, Great Britain was way ahead of its rivals in bicycle design. But the Americans soon caught up.
By 1894, America had stolen ahead. The Premier, below, retains the typical ‘upsloper’ style introduced in 1892. Gormully & Jeffery were one of America’s top companies, and you can see that the G&J Rambler (on the next page) is a much more ‘modern’ design.
1894-1895 was the cusp of the new bicycle frame style that remained virtually unchanged for the following 60 years.
1894 Premier Model A93
with Helical Tubing & Left-Hand Chainwheel
Frame Number 89120
This Victorian Premier is one of the most exciting finds I’ve encountered so far, in over thirty years of the vintage vehicle hobby. It particularly fascinates me because it sports two features that made the Premier stand out from its competitors: helical tubing and left-hand chainwheel. In an age of homogenous vehicle design, I’m drawn to styles that are different.
Only a few Premier bicycles from this era have survived so, historically, this is an important machine.
I am able to positively identify this Premier as 1894 because I managed to decipher the word ‘1894’ when I rubbed away the paint at the near-side top of the seat tube (below). My best guess so far for the partly readable words above ‘1894’ is ‘PATENTED 1892.’
Manufacturers were eager to reduce the weight of bicycles in the formative years of bicycle development. The reward for a successful company would be a bicycle that could be more easily ridden by women – the female market was to be a major factor in the first ‘bicycle boom years’ around 1895.
Helical tubing was introduced by Premier in 1892. It revolutionized tube design. You can easily see the helical spirals in the photo above.
However, it’s easy to see now, in retrospect, that the first few years were experimental: the helical tubing on 1893 and 1894 Premier bicycles was too thin, and the frames were weak. The top tube of this bicycle had a large hole in it when I purchased it (above & below).
It took some work to repair the top tube. First the entire bike was scrubbed with a wire brush. The top tube was weak so the damaged area was cut into a square and the top tube sleeved with another tube inside. Then another short length of tubing was cut up to provide several small lengths; these each had a bolt through them, which coincided with threaded holes in the sleeved tube. After they were inserted, the tops were ground off, and the hole was brazed over.
It would have been much too difficult to cover the damaged area with helical tubing! The idea was not to hide the repair, but to make the bicycle strong enough to ride. Although the smooth surface of the repaired area is different from the helical parts, once painted it does not stand out too much.
This bicycle was found with its original major components intact, missing only grips, mudguards, saddle and seat tube. The wheels are not correct, but will do for now. I’ve added handlebar grips and a saddle (and put a chain in place) for these photos. I’ll locate more appropriate parts in due course.
I enjoyed documenting the correct fittings and tying up the frame number with its year of manufacture.
PREMIER LEFT-HAND CHAINWHEEL
As you can see in these photos, Premier fitted the chainwheel on the left side (near-side).
In the early years of development, bicycles might have a chainwheel on either side. There was no standardization at this time.
But marque specialist Roger Armstrong explains that Premier used a left-hand chainwheel for a longer time than seems logical, up until the end of the 19th century:
‘Helical tubing was not the only Premier oddity. Before the turn of the century Premier cycles also had left-hand drive. That is to say, the chain was on the left side of the machine. This sort of eccentricity was understandable during the development phase of the safety bicycle. Several other makers used left-hand drive prior to 1895; Sparkbrook was one. But by 1895 left-hand drive was an anachronism and by 1896 positively archaic. Having the drive on the left side of the machine leaves the rider vulnerable to soiled clothing or worse when wheeling the machine. This could be a matter of some importance in the society cycling era when the bicycle was to many a mere fashion accessory, bare ankles infra dig amongst female riders and dresses very long. This feature may also have made the make unpopular with racing cyclists who frequently need to change gearing. Interchangeable chainwheels made the Raleigh popular with racers, so it might follow that non-standard drive on a particular make would have the opposite effect.
Left-hand drive unaccountably persisted on Premier bicycles until the end of 1899 when the growing popularity of the freewheel, and the drive for standardisation in the industry seem to have prompted a change. Left-handed Micrometer freewheels were however made and are now extremely rare. The reason for hanging on to left-hand drive is difficult to fathom. Here we have a company calling itself the ‘Largest Cycle Maker in the World’ with factories not only in Coventry but also in Germany & Austria. There were depots in France, Switzerland, Australia, Finland, India, Russia and Belgium. An international company of high repute, an innovator as we have seen, patronised by royalty and winner of many design and manufacturing awards, yet they clung to an obsolete design feature for at least seven years after its time had passed. Was the company catering for a niche market in left-handed riders or had it become set in its ways? Quite possibly the company management were out of touch with their market.The directors were no longer active cyclists and this was a weakness that occurred in other cycle manufacturing companies later on. Whatever the reason, left hand drive is now one of the features that particularly appeal to me as a collector and historian, though the survival rate of pre-1900 Premiers is not high.’ *
This was how it was found.
FRAME NUMBER UNDER BOTTOM BRACKET
TOP OF SEAT TUBE
* Roger Armstrong is a bicycle collector and historian, and the marque specialist for Premier cycles. This article appeared in Boneshaker, issue 167, Spring 2005.