‘THE GATEWAY TO GOOD RIDING’
1897 Fowler Straight Frame Bicycle
THE IDEAL RESTORATION PROJECT!
Restoring a vintage bicycle from the 1890s is a wonderful (and healthy) way to spend your leisure time. This is an era before the advent of motorcycles and cars, when bicycles ruled the world! It need not be a complicated venture. If you find the right machine, you can do it on a budget, with parts freely available. And, with bicycles from the Victorian Age becoming increasingly scarce, and prices consistently appreciating, it’s even a sound investment. Consider this ‘Fowler Straight Tube Bicycle’ as a classic example…
Fowler Cycle Mfg Co was a top American manufacturer in the 1890s. Fowler was set up by Hill Mfg Co, where Schwinn first worked. The company owned the patent for the ‘truss frame’ which was a split seat tube, a gimmick that set it apart from their competitors. They also raced the famous ‘Fowler Sextet’ which was a multi-tandem used for publicity as they toured America. Their machines were built to a high standard using all the latest innovations.
The Fowler Truss Frame was their top seller, though its more expensive price required them to also carry a nominal range of normal ‘straight frame’ machines. The name of this 1897 ‘Fowler Straight Frame Bicycle’ is unique in cycling history, as no other company would need to name a model thus to differentiate it from other models with different frame designs.
This example requires restoration. This is how every restorer would love to buy a bicycle, i.e. complete with all its original components, and before anyone else has had a chance to spoil it …or to strip it to re-sell its components. Unfortunately the value of its individual parts – pedals, handlebars with original grips, hubs, wheels, saddle pan, forks, chain wheel, skip tooth chain, head-badge, etc – is around $1000, which means there’s a tendency to break such bikes for parts. I spend a lot of time hunting for parts to complete a bicycle to bring it back to life, which is why a complete original one such as this is a joy to find.
Freewheel hubs were not introduced until the following year, so this Fowler is a fixed wheel model; brakes were optional at this time. I prefer not to repaint bicycles such as this: too many have by now been repainted by over-zealous ‘restorers’ keen to show off their (sometimes dubious) skills; 117-year-old machines with original patina like this are increasingly rare.
The main issue with American bikes is always the wheels. American wooden wheels need tubeless or solid tyres. These original wooden rims are mostly sound, with a few cracks requiring a repair. The saddle requires a leather top. The easiest and cheapest way to put this bike on the road is to replace the wheelset with modern retro-look metal wheels (with a coaster brake) that use normal (retro-look) pneumatic tyres. Add a rear sprocket compatible with the ‘skiptooth’ chain.
Good wheels with a coaster brake obviously provide a safer ride and, after spending around £100 with this option, you could then ride it without any problems. After riding it, if you want to spend more money to recreate the look of the original wheels, you could order Italian wooden wheel rims that take retro-look pneumatic tyres, or rebuild the original wooden ones and buy retro solid tyres to fit. Either option would cost around £500. Or (for less outlay) if you want to keep it as a fixed wheel machine, you could buy steel wheel rims (that use pneumatic tyres) and have the original hubs respoked into them.
1897 FOWLER CATALOGUE
1897 FOWLER CATALOGUE