EVOLUTION OF BICYCLE FRAME STYLES
From the first days of the bicycle, inventors experimented with variations in the machine’s geometry, adapting them to make it easier or more efficient for the rider to use. Different frame styles have always interested me, so I have an example of many styles in the Oldbike Online Bicycle Museum. This page is a short history of the evolution of the bicycle, linking to relevant pages where you can read further about particular frame variations from the beginning until the 1900s.
(I’m currently editing and updating this page)
The first bicycle was invented by Baron Karl Drais of Mannheim, Germany, patented in January 1818. Also known as a ‘dandy horse’ or ‘hobby horse’ it had no pedals, instead being ‘walked’ by the rider. In France it was known as the Draisienne, and another name for it in England was the ‘swift walker.’ A disadvantage of the design is that it had to be built to order to take account of the rider’s height; it was fashionable in 1818 and 1819 but soon went out of vogue. Below, you can see Ivan Krivanak, from the Czech Republic, on his hobby horse. I photographed him at the IVCA cycle rally in France in June 2011.
There is obviously no film of an 1818 Dandy Horse taken at the time. But Buster Keaton’s 1923 film Our Hospitality, which was set in 1830, featured a replica built by the film’s technical crew, and it’s interesting to see one being ridden in costume in 1923. Here is a link to a clip from the film.
1818-1819: JOHNSON’S LADIES WALKING MACHINE
Denis Johnson was Great Britain’s first cycle manufacturer, making his own version of the Draisenne in 1818. The first major frame variation was Johnson’s 1818/1819 design for a lady’s version of the Draisenne, created to make it easier for women to mount the machine …and therefore avoid ridicule within the strict conservatism of the day. He had two riding schools, in the Strand and Soho, and he exhibited it there in May 1919. It is a steerable machine propelled by the rider’s feet.
The only original example of the Johnson’s Ladies’ Walking Machine known to exist is owned by the Science Museum (above). My friends have built a faithful replica seen below.
1820s Onwards: TILLER & TREADLES
Various three and four wheeled machines were designed over the next three decades, using pedals, treadles and hand-cranks, but without any great success due to their weight and lack of velocity. Children’s tricycles from the 1880s onwards often used a similar ’tiller and treadle’ design; being of much lighter weight, they functioned effectively. You can see one below.
1830: KIRKPATRICK MACMILLAN
Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Scottish inventor is credited with the creation of the first pedal-driven bicycle. A MacMillan style machine (below) is on display at Glasgow Museum
There are various claims for the invention of the first velocipede, but it was developed in France during the 1860s. The first successful manufacturer was Michaux. The first British machine was built by the Coventry Machinists Co (later Swift Cycle Co). An example of a British velocipede (also commonly called a ‘boneshaker’) can be seen below.
1870s- 1891: THE ORDINARY
The velocipede was superseded by the Ordinary, a similar style machine, ie a front-driver, but with a larger front wheel and smaller rear wheel. (My focus in this museum is on the Safety Bicycle rather than the Ordinary, so I have mostly ignored it).
1870s-1880s: FRONT-STEERING TRICYCLE
Both the 1869 velocipede and the later Ordinary required athletic ability to be ridden, and they were also expensive machines. This restricted their use to gentlemen (who, in Victorian times, were traditionally taller than working class people). Women were restricted by Victorian convention, whose dictates considered it inappropriate to sit astride a vehicle (hence the ‘side-saddle’ pose for horse riding). Although some rebellious women did ride men’s bicycles, gentlewomen who favoured the idea of propelled independent transportation could use a tricycle.
While blokes would race their machines and follow up their exertions with a pint of beer down the pub, women would traditionally ride around Hyde Park, stopping for tea afterwards. This variation in style and use could be compared in the later context of the difference between riding a motorcycle and driving a car.
1886: THE PREMIER CROSSFRAME
With the Ordinary being too difficult for most people to ride, inventors searched for solutions. By the 1880s, various contraptions addressed the issue, but Hillman Herbert & Cooper was the first company, in 1886, to introduce a successful machine onto the market: the ‘Premier’ was a crossframe, and its steering arrangement was centrally located, the style that continues to this day.
My range of Premier bicycles covers six different frame styles (below), but not the first Premier crossframe. I create additional museums for such specialist subjects, which you can link to below. Because the Premier was the first production crossframe, it is titled the Premier & Crossframe Museum.
1886-1900s: THE CROSSFRAME
A variety of crossframe styles are covered in the Premier & Crossframe Museum, from a very basic 1886 example, to 1887- 1890 styles that have different steering heads (below).
There is also a rare 1889 semi-diamond crossframe, which was halfway between the crossframe style and the conventional diamond frame bicycle that superseded it, ie its rear portion was triangulated for additional strength. This machine also has an additional strengthening stay between the steering head and the pedals: once an upper stay had been added too, in the next stage of evolution, you essentially had a diamond frame bike: ie the upper and lower stays were expanded into frame tubes and the centre crossframe member was removed.
The first crossframe design went out of fashion by 1891 as diamond frame bicycles took over (although some manufacturers such as Peugeot continued to offer them for sale, particularly in rural areas of France). If you look at the pictures of the first crossframes (below), you can see that the steering head was obviously its weak point, and they had a habit of breaking there; this weak point was an essential reason for improvement and, therefore, pivotal to the bicycle’s evolution.
The crossframe came back into fashion, although as a much more ‘modern’ design, in 1898 with Raleigh’s crossrame patent (The model was subsequently called the ‘X Frame’). Many different companies subsequently made crossframes and, so as not to infringe on Raleigh’s patent (and have to pay Raleigh patent fees), they changed their own design in various ways. There was pressure on the manufacturers to prove how strong their bicycles were and, though I’m not sure that a crossframe is stronger than a diamond frame bike, the crossframe machine stands out from the crowd and elicits discussion …obviously points that helped the companies sell them. The Raleigh Superbe X Frame was actually for a time the most expensive bicycle on the British market.
1897-1934: ‘PATENT TRIANGULAR FRAME RALEIGH’ (LATER CALLED ‘RALEIGH X FRAME’)
I enquired about the derivation of the term ‘X frame’ and marque enthusiast Andrew Millward explained to me:
In the 1901 Book of the Raleigh ie the complete catalogue, there is reference to “Superbe” models and X frame in it.
In the 1897 and 1898 catalogue the ladies’ X frame/superbe is described as the “Raleigh patent Lady’s safety frame” No 1 Nottingham made and No 2 Lenton made.
In 1900 they are collectively (the gents’ model was added in 1899) referred to as “Patent Triangular Frame Raleighs”, but the model name for gents No 20a and lady’s No 16 was “Modele Superbe”.
The term “X” frame was a term used to describe the various X- frame designs appearing around this time eg Referee, Centaur etc and was used in the cycling press and by technical writers such as Archibald Sharp.
1886: ROVER SAFETY BICYCLE
By definition, a ‘Safety Bicycle’ differs from a front-driving ‘Ordinary’ in that its pedals and chainwheel use a chain to drive the rear wheel. The first is credited to Harry Lawson in 1876. Although various other prototypes were made, the first successful model was made by John Kemp Starley, named The Rover.
1889-1893 PREMIER VERTICALLY-DIVIDED SEMI-CIRCULAR TUBING
1888-1894: LADIES SINGLE TUBE BICYCLE
The evolution of bicycles made specifically for women started with Denis Johnson’s machine in 1818/1819. The introduction of the safety bicycle in 1886 was so greatly welcomed by the cycle industry because they realised that women might now start to buy bicycles as well as men. They would have observed the popularity of tricycles among the aristocracy …Queen Victoria even endorsed their use. Within just a few years, bicycles with a drop frame were produced so that women did not have to cock a leg over a high frame; the first model had a single curved down tube.
The Overman Victoria, seen below, continued this style for longer than other manufacturers. As you can from its illustration, a single down tube does not give a bicycle the appearance of strength. There would be stress at the steering head, though the main weak point would be at the bottom bracket. For this reason, the majority manufacturers discontinued the Single Tube design in favour of various styles incorporating extra bracing.
In consideration, women did not usually ride their bicycles much, and would be unlikely to race them like men. Ladies’ bicycles always had an upright position because it was very unseemly for a woman to be seen leaning over to ride: in some societies in the early days women were pelted with stones just for being on a bicycle.
1889-1895: THE ‘UPSLOPER’
The first diamond frame bicycles took on various frame styles, but the ‘upsloper’ became the most common. The advantage of an ‘upsloper’ is that the bike is lower at the rear, making it easier to mount. The frames of early machines were also shorter in length than later bikes, so a higher front end allowed more clearance for the rider’s knees; even so, it can be awkward to steer some of them around corners, requiring co-ordination of knees, pedals and handlebars.
Raleigh also made an open frame diamond bicycle in the same year …also the first bicycle to have detachable cranks (The Raleigh ‘Changeable Patent’)
1891-1893 COLUMBIA TWIN TOP TUBE with OPEN FRAME
Colonel Pope was America’s leading cycle manufacturer. The open frame style of the 1891 Columbia is reminiscent of the Rover Safety Bicycle. This model, and also the next Columbia bicycle, have twin top tubes that follow through to the seat stays. This is a very advanced machine for 1891.
1891-1893 COLUMBIA TWIN TOP TUBE with SEAT TUBE
Colonel Pope also bought up every cycle patent he could get his hands on. This model is similar to the Light Roadster above, with twin top tubes, but is not an open frame. It came out for only one year, to celebrate the American Centennial, and features a rear band brake and elliptical chainwheel.
1893-1899: CRYPTO BANTAM
A variation on the theme of the front-driving ordinary is the Crypto Bantam, essentially an ordinary with much smaller wheels.
1896-To Date: DIAMOND FRAME BICYCLES
The development of lighter frame tubing allowed the introduction of the conventional horizontal top tube in 1895. It was such a sudden transition to this new standard pattern that ‘upslopers’ became ‘dinosaurs’ almost overnight, and the larger manufacturers dumped their old stock of ‘upslopers’ by selling them cheaply in rural areas and overseas.
1896-1897 diamond frame bicycles could be considered ‘transitional’ models, as they still used the components of the earlier machines, ie heavy chainwheels with inch pitch chain and fixed wheel sprockets. But slotted cranks (pedals fixed with a nut to the pedal cranks) had now given way to conventional pedals, and seat tubes were now wider: the clamps that fixed the saddle frame to the seat pillar became standardised with Brooks Patent for the ‘Cycle Saddle Attachment Boss’ which is the style still in use today.
The freewheel hub was introduced in 1897 for the 1898 season, and with it the coaster brake.
1895-1900: REAR STEERING TANDEM
Tandems are a distinctive bicycle frame style, though I will not cover them in depth here. This style of rear-steering tandem, with links from the rear steering head to the front steering head, was introduced in 1895.
1890s-1940s FOLDING BICYCLES
Folding bicycles were considered a useful addition to the military arsenal, although there was extensive resistance to bicycles within the Armed Forces by Cavalry officers, who already felt that their days were numbered. The bicycle replaced the horse in civilian life because it did not need food or stabling; in the event horses in the military were not replaced by bicycles, but by cars and motorbikes.
1898-1900: TRIUMPH RESILIENT
Triumph introduced its Resilient frame in 1898, again as a response to the question of frame strength. Bear in mind that the manufacturers were constantly striving to make bikes lighter – there is very noticeable difference in the weight of machines from 1886 onwards – and obviously there was consideration by the public and cycle press about how the refinement of frame tubing affected strength. Triumph considered this machine to be a ‘spring-frame’ and although maybe it is not truly one of those, it is a unique design in its own right.
1900-1950s: DOUBLE TOP TUBE
As frame height increased to 28″, extra strengthening was required. The double top tube machine made its debut around the turn of the century.
1896-1920: TRUSS TUBE DIAMOND FRAME
The term ‘truss tubes’ covers a variety of frame styles, essentially referring to bicycles with twin tubes in different locations.
Elswick – in order to avoid the Raleigh crossframe patent – built their cross-frames with twin tubes that crossed.
Their ‘Cross Truss’ followed a similar pattern, with twin crossing down tubes. But, uniquely, it is a diamond frame machine.
1900-1920s: TRUSS TUBE LOOPFRAME
As with the above diamond frame ‘Cross Truss’ for gentlemen, Elswick made a loop frame for ladies following a similar pattern, with twin crossing down tubes.
1896-1900: DIVIDED SEAT TUBE
Another variation on the truss tube concept uses a divided seat tube and open bottom bracket. The Hill Cycle Co owned the patent for this innovation in America.
1902: SPRING FRAME
As well as frame strength, the other consideration for cycle manufacturers was riding comfort. There was much experimentation with suspension and, by the turn of the century, companies were anticipating the introduction of the new-fnagled ‘motor-bicycle.’ The addition of an engine and its increased speed would obviously place more pressure on a bicycle, so it was important for companies to develop stronger forks, better brakes and additional suspension. My personal opinion is that companies such as BSA tried out new components on their bicycles to assess their suitability for motorcycles.
BSA was a leading company who supplied components for builders to make their own finished machines. Their Spring-Frame (below), with hinge joints and coil springs, helped kick-start the Australian motorcycle industry.
The original ‘Giraffe’ safety was invented by S. McCormack of Dublin, and built by Humber in 1893. They exhibited it at the Stanley Show in November of that year. It was also produced under licence by New Howe Co. Ltd, J. K. Starley & Co., D. Rudge & Co AND John P. Lovell Arms Co in the USA. My Giraffe appears to date from around the turn of the century.
1899-1920s: TRUSS BRIDGE FRAME or ARCH BAR
Iver Johnson was the patent holder for the Truss Frame design, introduced at the turn of the century.
The machine featured below is a Columbia. It is believed to be an exhibition model, combining various innovations for which Colonel Pope held the patents: ie chainless drive, rear cushion frame. But he did not own the patent for the truss tube frame, and the Columbia truss tube (he called it an ‘Arch Bar’) was not formally introduced by Columbia until 1917. With top American cycle manufacturers spending as much time litigating against each other for patent infringement as producing bicycles, presumably it took Pope another 13 years before he was able to find a way around the patent issue.
The down-sloper became fashionable after the turn of the century, to assist with riders’ wind resistance in racing.
1901-1920s: GENT’S GIRDER FRAME
The Girder frame had an extra down tube above the normal down tube; the ‘Duplex’ was a variation whose tubing became divided between the seat tube and the rear of the bottom bracket where it met the rear stays. Royal Enfield owned the patent, introduced to provide a distinctive style and reassure customers of the strength of the frame.
1901-1920s: LADY’S GIRDER FRAME
ROYAL ENFIELD also made a Duplex Girder Lady’s model to complement the Gent’s (above).
Although this is essentially a loop frame with added girder features, by adding the extra tube Royal Enfield effectively created a cross frame!
EARLY 1900s: PREMIER TRUSS FRAME
Perhaps influenced by Royal Enfield’s Girder design, Premier created their own version, with the extra tube running from the top of the seat tube to the front of the down tube. Their top of the range Truss Frame also featured helical tubing, unique to Premier.
EARLY 1900s: CENTAUR FEATHERWEIGHT CROSSFRAME
Another variation on crossframe tubing is seen in the Centaur Featherweight: it has two cross tubes that end at the rear axle.
1910s: CENTAUR LIGHTWEIGHT with TWIN REAR STAYS & DUPLEX FORKS
Another minor frame variation is the two traditional Centaur features, which were twin rear stays and duplex forks. Humber also employed duplex forks on its Beeston-made bicycles.
1898-1914: DURSLEY PEDERSEN
The Dursley Pedersen bicycle features a unique design unmatched by any other manufacturer.
1935-2013: REAR VIBRANT TRIANGLE
The Rear Vibrant Triangle was patented in 1934, giving birth to the unique style of the ‘Curly’ Hetchins.
1936: ALUMINIUM OPEN FRAME SILVER KING FLOCYCLE
There was a worldwide slump in the cycle industry by the end of the 1890s; too many manufacturers had sprung up to cash in on the boom, forcing prices down. Many companies went to the wall. In America, a conglomerate was formed by Colonel Pope who made the Columbia, stifling competition but at least guaranteeing sales. With increasingly low sale prices, the American cycle industry found another way to make money: they forced customers to use 28″ wooden wheels with tubeless tyres; the cycle wheel and tyre industry were both controlled by cycle manufacturers. With guaranteed obsolescence of the wheels and tyres, riders would have to buy new items much sooner or buy a new bicycle. The result was that bicycles became a luxury rather than a necessity, and the market changed from adult buyers to teenagers who were not yet old enough to drive a car.
In 1932 Schwinn broke this stranglehold by introducing 26″ wheel bicycles with conventional pneumatic tyres. This greatly increased sales and, with this boost to the industry, the manufacturers started to innovate again. The 1930s was the era of the streamlined look in transportation, and the manufacturers started to employ well-known designers to create top-of-the-range cycle models to help advertise their products and sell their lower-priced machines. One example that stood out from the crowd – and still does – is Monark’s aluminium Silver King Flocycle which uses an open frame design and curved seat stays (as well as springing at the bottom bracket, chainguard fitted to the chainwheel and other innovations.
Silver King also created a slightly different open frame style in 1939 for an interim model called the 26X.
1936: OPEN FRAME CCM FLYTE STREAMLINED
Canada’s CCM company also had a top designer on board. Not to be outdone by American companies, they produced their own open frame version, but with the addition of reverse curved forks mirroring the curved rear stays.
1938-1942: OPEN FRAME ELGIN TWIN 20-60
Top American manufacturer Elgin also produced a distinctive open frame model, with many innovative features. This ‘dream bike’ was sold by the Sears Department stores.
1946-1949: ALUMINIUM MONARK SILVER KING ‘HEX-TUBE’
The last of the unique aluminium Silver King models introduced another amazing new innovation …hexagonal tubing.
WW1 & WW2: BSA FOLDING BICYCLES
Compare the two styles of BSA folding bicycles below. The folding roadster on the right was built for use in WW1. I’m not sure if BSA continued production after WW1, but this remained the current government military pattern bicycle until the beginning of WW2, when the first pattern BSA Airborne was conceived. The First Pattern Airborne (below, left) had a twin seat tube and was in production for only one year – with 1000 made – because of weakness in the frame. It was superseded by the 2nd Pattern BSA Airborne with single seat tube, of which 70,000 were manufactured.
1947: PARIS GALIBIER
During the 1920s, there was a demand for the production of lightweight frames due to the popularity of cycle racing. Small cycle shops started to spring up, many founded by ex-racers. In the 1930s advertising was banned from racing, and even the manufacturers’ names could not be fitted to their cycles. This helped to inspire the creation of different frame styles for easy identification. Harry Rensch introduced the unique Paris Galibier after WW2.
1940s-2013: CARGO BIKE
Denmark produced a distinctive style of commercial bicycle that is still in use today. It was originally known as a ‘Long John’ and the modern versions are called cargo bikes.
1960s RALEIGH VELOCINO SEMI-RECEMBENT