Walter Dorwin Teague. Raymond Loewy. Norman Bel Geddes. Wilbur Henry Adams? No history of American industrial design would be considered complete without exploring those first three names. Yet Erie, Pennsylvania native Wilbur Henry Adams (1906–1958) had the education, training and career to match any of them, and many of his ideas predate the other moderns. Adams was a gifted fine artist who transformed himself from the son of a small town roofer to a Jazz Age architect to a modernist bon vivant in the span of a decade.
At just twenty six, Adams was ready to strike out on his own, opening a studio in Cleveland and working with his wife, Arleen, a talented artist and interior designer. Adams found instant success with his 1934 transition to the burgeoning field of industrial design, and the couple returned to Erie, settling in the country on Wolf Road where Adams worked from a studio in the barn on the old Metcalf estate.
Erie was a hub of industrial activity and an important part of the industrial corridor bridging the Midwest and the Northeast—Adams’ clients readily followed him to this now seemingly removed location. Adams designed, styled, and streamlined everything from toilets to tractors to the SkyWay Drive-In, all while raising prize chickens, four children and living the life of a country gentleman.
Adams developed a relationship with Mayo Roe, owner of the Colson Company, of Elyria, Ohio, sometime in the early 1930s. Colson was a well-known manufacturer of wheeled vehicles, particularly wheelchairs, auto coasters and tricycles. The greater Cleveland area—geographically close to Akron, home of both Goodyear and Firestone—was a hub for the burgeoning bicycle industry. Advances in pneumatic rubber tires, which made riding human powered vehicles a far more enticing pastime than their earlier wooden or metal rimmed counterparts, the so-called “boneshakers had, was one of many reasons for the fantastic domestic growth in the demand for bicycles of all kinds.
Adams held nearly two dozen design patents for a range of Colson products, including wheelchairs, magazine racks, and laundry carts. It was his bicycle designs, however, where his eye for streamlined style most closely matched the engineering needs of the product along with the consumers’ desire for a functional yet modern vehicle. He took over design of the entire Colson bicycle line following the success of his 1936 Commander two-wheeler and Cadet tricycle. Colson also produced bicycles for other companies such as Goodyear, and Adams’ likeness and industrial design credentials were often touted as a selling feature.
Like most manufacturing concerns, Colson was retooled for the production of war matériel from 1942–1945. Although Colson and Adams attempted to circumvent the curtailment of domestic use of metal and rubber through the creation of a wooden tricycle, there was not enough demand for this version and very few were produced. Adams also designed products to satisfy the growing need for wheelchairs and other hospital equipment for war casualties. The Evans Corporation bought out Colson in the early 1950s, and while Adams’ relationship with the company ceased, they continued his designs well into the 1950s.
Though Colson bicycles enjoyed an excellent reputation over many years for quality and design, by far the most interesting styling exercise was the Colson Twin Bar tricycle, designed by Wilbur Henry Adams.
1938 Colson Zephyr Twin Bar Tricycle
Front Wheel: 20″
Rear Wheel 14″
With a 20″ front wheel, this was the largest of the Colson Twin Bar tricycle models on offer. This example is unrestored, with some rust in the front fender and one snapped pedal crank, but the Twin Bar styling is so superb that condition is unimportant.
ZEPHYR TRICYCLE HISTORY
1881 ZEPHYR TRICYCLE
Zephyr Cycle Co: Manufacturer of ‘Coventry Zephyr’ and ‘New Coventry Zephyr’ high-wheelers from Lower Ford Street, Coventry, Warwickshire, from c.1881-83 by Messrs. Richardson and Ellson. Also made a ‘Dual Tricycle’ by arrangement with its inventor, William Jeans. This tricycle could be driven by either of its 48 in. wheels with the gearing being different in each case, either for hills or flat running. Production appears to have been from 1882-86. Various other types of
‘Zephyr’ tricycles were produced including the double driving ‘Coventry Zephyr’, ‘Special Automatic Zephyr Roadster’, the ‘Zephyr No.2 Roadster’, ‘Zephyr Convertible Tandem’, ‘Hill climbing Zephyr’, ‘Zephyr Sociable’, ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘Imperial Rob Roy’. Had an address at 13 Onslow Place, South Kensington, London, in 1898.
The first Zephyr tricycle was built by the Zephyr Cycle Co in 1881 (illustration above). Other British companies that used the name in the early years include Albert Watkins of 16 Barford Street, Birmingham; Richardson, Ellson and Co, of Midland Architectural Works, Coventry, who offered the ‘Coventry Zephyr’; Robert Mebes of 214 Great Portland Street, London who, in 1898 made the ‘New Zephyr’; Tom Harris of London who advertised ‘Referee,’ Umpire’ and ‘Zephyr’ high wheelers; B. Hallett & Sons of Bridport, Dorset, manufacturers of ‘Hallett’, ‘Meteor’ and ‘Zephyr’ high- wheelers; Fortescue Bros of West Street, Reading, and 27 Northam Road, Southampton, who made the ‘Zephyr’ in 1898; Dumble and Robinson of Churchill Road, Walthamstow, London, maker of the ‘Zephyr’ in 1898;
In America, Lindsay Bros of Milwaukee included a Zephyr in their range of bicycles in 1898; East Side Cycle Co of Buffalo, NY, had the ‘Banner’ and ‘Zephyr’ around 1895-96. Steelcraft Co made a Lincoln Zephyr pedal car that followed the lines of the Lincoln-Zephyr automobile, produced between 1936 and 1940.
The Zephyr Cycle Co, later acquired by Dayton-Huffman, produced the prototype Zephyr Bicycle, seen below: apparently three were made. It may have influenced the famous Bowden design.
The Zephyr tricycle featured here has only its name in common with the above manufacturers. But its pedigree, as seen above, is sound, and its design is unique.
1938 COLSON CATALOGUE EXTRACT
1938 STREAMLINE ZEPHYR COASTER WAGON
Colson Zephyr info with thanks to Patrick and Scott from www.thecabe.com
Wilbur Henry Adams info with thanks to – http://erieartmuseum.org/exhibits/exhibits2014/WilburHenryAdams/WilburHenryAdams.html