Who buys tricycles for young children? The answer is not children, but parents or grandparents.
Cycle makers realised this fact very early on. The very first velocipedes were expensive to make, and their novelty value kept resale prices high. By the mid-1890s there was increased competition. The ‘quality’ cycle manufacturers did not cut corners in production, so maintained high sale prices for the bicycles; but some cycle builders started flooding the market with cheap badly-built bicycles. Many customers could not tell the difference, at least until a few weeks after buying the bike …because cheap bicycles often fell apart by then.
There was less profit in making children’s bicycle and tricycles. One way to keep costs down was to ignore the innovations being used in the latest adult bicycles and instead make them using the earliest – very simple – design features. Victorian children’s tricycles therefore used a very basic steering head design. While you may think that the parents and grandparents would prefer the latest gimmicks for their children’s toys, the reverse was true: they were nostalgic for the styles of their own younger years. (And collectors today like them for the same reason).
The early style of velocipede tricycle was actually made right up to WW2, and newer versions into the fifties. In the 21st century it’s not easy to tell the age of a children’s velocipede tricycle, particularly as many ‘patinised’ bikes were made in Eastern Europe recently to cash in on appreciating prices of antiques.
It’s impossible to tell the precise age of this example, but it is definitely late Victorian. So we could use this genuine one to help tell the difference between (much rarer) real ones and newer ones or recent fakes. I’ve compiled a guide below.
What makes this particular one different from the overwhelming majority of velocipede tricycles is that its maker’s name is etched into the steering head.
1890s Children’s Velocipede Tricycle
by Thos Hughes & Co, Birmingham
17″ Front Wheel
12.5″ Rear Wheels
HOW TO RECOGNIZE A GENUINE VELOCIPEDE TRICYCLE
PERFECTION is the biggest hindrance to working out an antique bike’s age. That’s why I try to avoid buying anything repainted/restored – you can never tell what has been replaced. Besides, what sort of person buys a piece of antique ‘art’ and destroys its originality? Imperfection is a good guide to antiquity.
A RUSTY FRAME is a good guide to age, but not absolute. My friend Dave phoned me recently to say he was at an auction and there was a very attractive pink ‘Speed King’ American velocipede tricycle just about to come up for sale. My immediate answer? – ‘Don’t bid.’ ‘But it’s rusty with faded paint,’ Dave interrupted; ‘It looks very old.’ I had likewise been taken in by rust and faded paint on a Speed King; however, they were reproduced in the 1990s, so there was plenty of time for them to rust and fade. He heeded my warning.
Not all pre-1900 children’s tricycles/bicycles have rust similar to this Thomas & Co, but it is one of several ways to confirm its age.
SQUARE NUTS are the first thing to observe. Nuts and bolts were often replaced, but if it still has some square nuts then you know it’s an early machine.
HANDLEBAR GRIPS are delicate, so they were often replaced. You can see one has been replaced on this machine (a long time ago, it seems), but the other is definitely early.
WHEELS & SOLID TYRES were used at least until WW2, so they are not the best guide. However early wheels were usually narrow and with a wider diameter.
HUBS were very basic on early machines.
PEDALS were also often replaced. This one has one later pedal on the offside (right side). But the nearside (left side) pedal is an early design.
SADDLE I assume this is a later saddle. It’s a rare and valuable early Dunlop juvenile saddle, but I don’t think it’s pre-1900. Nevertheless its style is pre-1900: I took a photo of its underside, so you can examine how the saddle joins to the seatpost. A genuine early machine would have this type of saddle clip.
STEERING HEAD As mentioned, early types of steering heads were used. I’ve photographed the steering at full lock and you can see that it does not turn very well. That, in my opinion, is a good indicator of an early bike.
PRICE It seems obvious, but if you want a genuine article don’t be fooled by so-called ‘deals’ at cheap prices, blurred photos, sellers with no track record and sketchy descriptions. Genuine antiques with provenance appreciate in value at an impressive rate and there’s no reason for sellers to undersell them.
THOS HUGHES & Co
32 Baker St, Sparkhill, Birmingham
Thomas Hughes of Birmingham made bone shakers in the early years of cycle manufacture.
Items made by the company around the turn of the century included children’s tricycles and bath chairs.
By 1923 they were building sidecars, and also coach-built bodies for the Austin Seven.
I also have an early 1900s Bath Chair made by Thos Hughes of Birmingham, pictured below