Premier Helical Tubing

THE PREMIER and HELICAL TUBING

– by Roger Armstrong *


The early 1890s were a time of enormous technical advancement in cycle design and manufacturing technology, a time when the basic form of the modem bicycle was perfected and set on course for the next century. One of the more surprising inventions at this time was a 19th century equivalent of Reynolds 531 frame tubing, Helical tubing, which was developed and patented not by a tube manufacturer but by a cycle manufacturer.

The inventors & patentees were The Premier Cycle Co Ltd, formerly Hillman Herbert and Cooper of Coventry, who claimed at the time to be the largest cycle manufacturers in the world. Founded in 1874, this company had been important innovators in the industry, introducing such advances as the DHF (double hollow fork) in 1878 (later licensed to Singer), the Kangaroo front driving safety in 1884, and the first true cross frame safety in 1886. The driving force was William Hillman, a talented and practical engineer who had been in cycle manufacture from the birth of the industry in this country.

Many inventive and unusual frame designs were made by Premier in the closing years of the solid tyre era. Among these was the extraordinary mudguard frame of 1886–7 (see above) where the rear mudguard doubled as a main frame member with mudguard stays acting as seat stays; and the Model F of 1889–93 (illustrated below) where the entire frame was built of trough shaped or channel section steel.

With the coming of the pneumatic tyre, the need arose for a light and responsive frame of thin walled steel tube, but there were limits to how thin and therefore how light ordinary tubing could be made, before its efficiency was impaired. Helical tubing was developed and tested during 1891–2 and introduced in the autumn of 1892. These strange looking spirally wound tubes were the result of experiments to convert very high carbon bright rolled Swedish steel into tubes without reducing the carbon content.The chosen steel was non-ductile, in other words it was not capable of being drawn into steel tubes in the usual way without loss of strength.The solution found was to helically roll a thin sheet of steel varying from 0.008in to 0.017in thickness round a mandrel. A clamp was placed on one end to prevent its unwinding and the mandrel was withdrawn. A stout collar was then driven on the free end, and the whole tube brazed together. The brazing operation was carefully designed so that a complete film of brass was spread between the two layers of thin sheet mak- ing up the tube. Premier claimed that the brazing process was so perfect that every tube could be rung like a bell. In this way the tubes were tested and either rejected or passed fit for use.

The primary object was to reduce the weight of the frame without loss of strength and it was claimed that the resultant helical tube frames were 25% lighter, strength for strength than ordinary frames. In November 1893, Premier helical tubing was exhaustively tested at the testing works of Messrs David Kirkaldy in London (which still exists) to find its ultimate point of failure against solid drawn steel tube of comparable weight and diameter.The tests compared both pulling (elastic) stress and bending stress. It was found that ordinary steel tube had an ultimate endurance of 79,274lb/in2 pulling stress as compared to 121,542lb/in2 for helical tube. In the bending tests, solid drawn steel tube failed at 360lb while helical tube gave way at 942lb. Helical tubing, just like modern 531 or 753 thus had obvious advantages over ordinary frame tubing, but there was one problem. Due to the difficulty in making curved oval tapering tubes, fork blades on Helical Premiers are always in ordinary weldless tubing, as indeed are fork steerers. Premier eventually found a way to make the curved tube needed for a loop frame (in about 1904) but forks stayed in weldless for some reason.

The 1893 Premier catalogue lists a complete racing machine at 20lb weight, which was certainly fairly light for this date, but not exceptional. (See 1893 catalogue on following page). Equipment was minimal, but it was mostly steel. Handlebars, seat pillar, pedals, inch pitch chain and chainset. Hubs were cast bronze until 1898 and very heavy indeed with forged steel bearing races. Lugs, bracket and chainstay bridges were all cast, and these were much heavier than used today. Some of the weight saving came from fitting the lighter 1892 pattern Dunlop tyres and it was stated that the machine would be 2lb heavier using 1893 Dunlop racing tyres. It may be thought that the new helical tube Premier racing models would be attractive to the racing men of the day, but Premiers are rarely seen in period photographs of racing on road or track in the 1890s. Perhaps there were other factors that made Premiers less suitable. The 1893 catalogue lists a range of 14 machines, a number of which had solid tyres. Seven of this range were built with helical tubing. Prices varied from £10 guineas for a basic solid tyred safety to £32 for a tricycle in helical tubing.

The tubing used in 1893–4 was quite slender, with 7⁄8 in section top tubes and 1in down tubes. By 1896 larger section tubing was in use with 11⁄4 in seat and down tubes and 11⁄8 in top tubes giving a stiffer, more responsive frame.The 1896 range consisted of 11 machines, some of which were still available with cushion tyres as an alternative to pneumatic. All without exception had helical tubing. Prices were much the same as listed in the ‘93 catalogue though the top of the range bicycle, a machine of the highest quality, had increased in price by £1 to £30. Weights of all machines were listed in the catalogue ranging from 20lb for the racer to 32lb for the full roadster with chaincase. All weights given were with pneumatic tyres.

Sales had been increasing. 20,000 machines were sold in 1894, 21,000 in 1895 and 33,000 in 1896 according to company literature. These figures cannot however be relied on since they do not tie up with the numbering of surviving machines of known date. A better idea can be got from looking at the number sequences at the end of this article, these being given as a dating reference, based on existing Premier frames checked against information from the makers’ catalogues and the occasional bicycle where the bill of sale survives.

1896 was the height of the society cycling boom and the year that Premier gained the royal appointment, when the Princesses Victoria and Maud of Wales acquired Premier bicycles. For 1897 the company changed its name to the New Premier Cycle Co, adopting the Prince of Wales plumes as its crest, proudly displayed on catalogues and on the gold filigree head transfers.The catalogues carried a huge list of very blue-blooded patrons in descending order, beginning with royalty. The 1898 catalogue states that 40,000 machines were sold in 1897.

*  Roger Armstrong is a bicycle collector and historian, and the marque specialist for Premier cycles. This article appeared in Boneshaker, issue 167, Spring 2005.

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