1896 S.H Justin ‘Spitfire’
They come from far Cathay, from Egypt’s desert sands,
Siberia’s waste of fields and the Arctic frozen lands.
They would come from Mars and Saturn, if a pathway could be made,
To buy the Spitfire cycles, the best bikes ever made.
– S.H. Justin
The road from Bristol to Weston-Super-Mare was well used by cyclists by the end of the 1890s. According to the Bristol Mercury Penny Guide Book: ‘The cycle run or drive down is worthy of consideration; the road is a well known one and in the summer months often resembles a pilgrimage route, for Nimrods and Jehus may be counted by the score and hundred.’
This Spitfire Safety Bicycle was manufactured in Bristol in 1896 by S.H. Justin & Co. At that time, a few cycle companies were located in that area, in particular the Nimrod Cycle Co.
Samuel Justin worked for Nimrod for many years, and toured the world with the most famous American cycle champion, A.A Zimmerman.
Justin made this Spitfire model after returning to England to set up his own bicycle company, S.H.Justin & Co.
S.H. JUSTIN & Co
17 Stokes Croft, Bristol
S.H. Justin & Co was formed in March 1896. The company produced ten styles of bicycle which included King of Racers, Royal Road Racers, light roadsters and ladies light roadsters. Tandems were offered from 1897 and the Kantor in 1898. In 1898 the firm was known as Justin, Samuel and Co. In 1899 the Spitfire range was priced from £10 to £14.
Founder Samuel Justin was formerly an agent for the Nimrod Cycle Co. He visited Australia several times to sell Nimrod cycles. In 1894, the managing director of Nimrod, W.J. Walford, helped set up Zimmerman Mfg Co of Chicago.
The bikes were manufactured by Nimrod of Bristol, and the company’s top of the range bicycle was the Nimrod Zimmy.
By the end of 1894, Nimrod were turning out 200 bikes a week. They had an order for 1000 for France. The company’s machines held the West of England road records and were strong and fast. Samuel got an order for 2000 for Australia. Nimrod and Raleigh were the leading brands in Australia in 1895, and Samuel organized Australian road races, with Zimmerman on his Nimrod going up against Raleigh. He returned to Bristol in April 1895 with another foreign order, 50 military cycles for the Japanese government. With production now at 300 bikes a week, and 400 employees, Nimrod was advertised as ‘one of the largest cycle companies in the world.’
Samuel became Zimmerman’s tour manager, and he also raced, as part of a triplet team. Nimrod Zimmy machines won many races worldwide, and other crack riders used Nimrod bicycles too. Unfortunately, a rift evolved between Walford and Zimmerman, as a result of which Samuel left the Nimrod company, on 22nd February, 1896. The following month he started his own company in Bristol, with a factory at at 2 Ropewalk, warehouses at 1 Stokes Croft, and a branch depot and riding school at King Square Avenue.
On 8th April 1896 he started selling The Spitfire both locally and worldwide. With his excellent connections, he specialized in export. His first catalogue of 1896 stated that all machines were made on the daywork system and that they did not employ boy labour. It also stated that he had studied requirements of foreign and colonial customers on his world tours, gaining knowledge of the roads and requirements of the riders. Several types of bikes were in this catalogue: racers, roadsters, tandems, triplet and quadruplet cycles. The racers weighed 20-26lbs, costing £23-£26. On the issue of this first catalogue, Samuel said that ‘business was doing well, especially ladies cycles.’
Samuel took every opportunity to advertise his cycles. In May 1896 he advertised in Cycle Track Journal, and in 1899 in Bicycling News. His bikes were exhibited for five years from 1896-1901 at the Stanley Cycle Show, the main event in Great Britain, which was held at the Agriculture Hall in London. At the 1897 Show, from 19th-27th November, Justin Cycles had stall no 93. In 1903 he also had a stall at the Bristol & West Show advertising Spitfire cycles and motors, with 12 cycles and one motorcycle on display.
In January 1897, Samuel built the smallest rideable bicycle for the three year old son of Lord Brassey, Governor of Victoria, Australia. The wheel diameter was 12″ and it was fitted with pneumatic tyres. The weight was 10lb and it was 17″ high. He also built one slightly larger for the Governor’s daughter.
By May 1897 he was to better this record by making an even smaller bicycle – the smallest in the world – for his two year old son (Frank Justin). The overall height of this bicycle was 12″. It weighed nine and a half pounds, and was fitted with Dunlop tyres.
In 1899, Samuel Justin was one of the first men in Bristol to own a car, a de Dion Bouton and, by 1901, there was so much demand for the Spitfire bicycle that he had to lay down a larger plating plant, dynamo and gas plant in order to cope with the amount of work. The demand included a large output sold to India, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies.
This bike was restored many years ago by my friend Dave, who rode it regularly. He lives in Bristol, where this bicycle was made. It has a coaster hub and I found it a well-made sturdy machine providing an easy and pleasant ride.
Considering how many Spitfires were manufactured, this is a very rare bike these days. Of course, the vast majority of them were exported.
FRONT FORK DETAILS
From 1895, with the increasing popularity of both photography and cycling, companies started making camera kits to fit to bicycles.
This 1896 Justin Spitfire Safety Bicycle has been set up with a Cycle Kodak kit, using a Kodak No 2 Bullet ‘Model of 1896’ camera and tripod.
The case is installed behind the saddle, and the tripod fits between the straps of the toolbag mounted on the crossbar.
For more about this bicycle and its camera: