…Well worthy are ‘Gladiators’ to take their place by the side of Humber and Clement cycles. Wonderful, indeed, has been the rise of the Societe Francaise des Cycles Galdiator. In 1891 this now famous mark was the property of MM J. Aucoc and Darracq, the last named of whom is a familiar figure at all the race meetings. The renown obtained by the Gladiator Company is very largely due to the persistent efforts and great engineering and mechanical skill of M. Darracq, who has brought triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets to the highest point of perfection. Hardly had the Gladiator Company completed two years of existence ere it was compelled to increase its plant and the number of its hands in proportion, while at its manufactory at Nantes, it was simultaneously producing the excellent ‘Phebus’ machine.
– The Illustrated London News, 10th October, 1896
The 1896 merger of three of the leading French cycle companies – Gladiator, Clement and French Humber – was a turning point in the world of automobile manufacture, and The Gladiator became a top-selling car in Great Britain after the turn of the century.
During the 1890s, the Gladiator bicycle was one of France’s most prestigious machines.
1898 Gladiator de Route
SOCIETE FRANCAISE DES CYCLES GLADIATOR
18 Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, France
The Gladiator name was better known in Great Britain as the marque of an early car manufacturer, although the company started as a bicycle company. What is particularly interesting is that, two centuries on, Gladiator bicycles are well known again because of the fabulous 19th century French posters that were designed by famous artists of the day.
Cycles Gladiator was formed by Alexandre Darracq and Jean Aucoc in 1891, and production started at a factory in the eastern outskirts of Paris at Pre-Saint-Gervais. Apparently their cheap prices caused problems for the British bicycle industry and, in 1896, an English financial syndicate that included Harry Lawson of Dunlop bought the cycle firms of Clement, Gladiator, and the French branch of Humber. The range of cycles was expanded to include tricycles and quadricycles, a motorized bicycle in 1902, and then motorcycles and cars.
Clement and Darracq initially joined the board of this conglomerate but Darracq soon departed to pursue car-making on his own account. Cars under the names of both Clement and Gladiator were on the market by 1900 although they were of different design, Clements being made in Adolphe’s own factory on the bank of the Seine at Levallois-Perret, whilst Gladiators came from the original Pre-Saint-Gervais establishment.
Gladiator’s first cars came in voiturette form with a 4hp single cylinder horizontal engine mounted in a tubular frame, with cycle wire wheels and handlebar steering. By 1899 the company was making front-engined and transversely-mounted 2 1/2 and 3 1/2hp Aster-engined cars with wheel steering. With pedal controls, a two-speed gearbox and chain drive to the rear axle, the Gladiator was one of the prettiest voiturettes available.
Stanley Edge of the Motor Power Company introduced the Gladiator to England in 1900. The cars sold at £183 15s/- and business was very successful: by 1902 production was over 1,000 cars per annum, with more than 800 sold in England. Edge moved to marketing Napiers in 1905, at which time Gladiator established its own London agency. They were situated in what was then London’s centre for automobile showrooms, Long Acre in Covent garden, London.
Clement had resigned from the Clement-Gladiator concern at the end of 1903 but retained the Levallois-Perret factory to make Clement-Bayard motorcars (that were sold in England under the name Talbot) but Clement-Gladiator continued to use his name on the shaft-drive cars made at Pre-Saint-Gervais, whilst chain-driven products were marketed as Gladiators. The Gladiator name was dropped from cars in 1920.
Cycles Gladiator’s Paris address at 18 Boulevard Montmartre is now a Starbucks coffee shop. Perhaps a better memory of it is Camille Pissarro’s 1897 painting of Boulevard Montmartre –
FRONT BRAKE, PASSING THROUGH THE HEAD TUBE
GLADIATOR CYCLE POSTERS
1897 GLADIATOR ELECTRIC TANDEM
H. O. Duncan in ‘The World on Wheels’ (1926) shows a photo of a Gladiator Motorised Tandem, invented by Pingault, a French electrician, and built by the Gladiator Cycle Company of Paris. It was thought that a powered machine would be cheaper than paying for teams of pacers on multi-seat tandems. The Pingault electric tandem was demonstrated at the Catford track on Good Friday, 1897, and caused a sensation according to Duncan by ‘beating all world records up to 100 miles’ (although there were no world records established). Unfortunately, the meeting was not reported in ‘Cycling.’ It seems that the machine was fitted with a small lever to adjust the electric power to suit the speed required by the riders. The riders pedalled an exceptionally high gear aided by the electric motor. The weight of the accumulators made steering tricky and increased the danger if there should be a crash. Patents for the tandem had been bought by the British Motor Syndicate, as Gladitor had already become part of Harry Lawson’s empire.
This photo appeared in Pearson’s Magazine, Volume XII for 1901, and was reproduced in their 18th May, 1950, issue by ‘Cycling’ where it was stated to have been taken at Herne Hill.
Gladiator Electric Tandem photo and article with thanks to Les Bowerman, Boneshaker Magazine, Issue 116, page 29, Spring 1988