The Cycle Industry/Chapter 4

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There is little doubt that the pioneers of the industry had a hard up-hill struggle with materials in the early days of the bicycle. The parts makers all had to be educated to their requirements. We have read that the early velocipedes had cast iron frames, wood wheels, long bow springs for the saddle and steel tyres. No great difficulty there, because the carriage builders of that time were conversant with the parts required. When tubular backbones, wire spokes, ball bearings, special stampings and castings, india-rubber tyres, steel tyre rims, handles, saddles and other parts were required, makers of these had to be found, and not only manufacturers of the goods but those capable of making them to a specification. Coventry, the home of the cycle trade at that period, was not a manufacturing town in the sense that Birmingham was and is the centre of the steel toy manufacturing industry.

It was, therefore, natural that in their search for suitable unfinished and partly finished materials the Coventry engineers and mechanics turned to Birmingham and the adjacent Black Country towns to provide them with much of the raw and partly finished material. Sheffield supplied bar steel for bearings, wire for spokes, handles, made of horn on steel shanks, etc. Walsall provided saddles. Springs came from Sheffield and Redditch, and so on.

Without the beautifully drawn steel tube for back-bones and later for frames, which was produced by firms like the Weldless Steel Tube Co. and other firms now merged in Tubes, Ltd., it would have been impossible to produce a bicycle at the weight required. Other Birmingham firms made balls for the bearings; at one time these were cast or moulded like old-time bullets, placed in grinding machines and rubbed round (or as near to a sphere as possible, they were many thousandths of an inch out of round) with emery powder and oil. Each ball was worth a shilling at one time and the writer has paid that sum for them.

Then came ball making machinery, each machine specially constructed by the ball maker such machinery could not be purchased. One maker of balls, to produce them at a price, went into the country and used water power and more or less secrecy to keep his trade and knowledge to himself. Afterwards machinery was designed and first made by Mr. W. Hillman and erected at Coventry for cutting balls from steel wire. Foreign makers also flooded our markets with cheap balls. Imagine the early struggles of men like the late James Starley, George Singer, W. Hillman, Thos. Humber, and many others, every time they altered a part they had to make, with their own hands and tools, patterns in iron, brass, or gun-metal, take or send them to specialists in stampings, or to a coachsmith, and have the first few parts made, forged bit by bit by hand. These men had no draughtsmen, no pattern makers, everything was the product of their own heads. Gradually, when the pioneer work began to show results, manufacturers in a larger way of business were attracted by the requirements of the bicycle trade, but the above-named pioneers did most of the spade work.

The assistance of Birmingham was not exactly without its risk to Coventry, because in the production of parts and materials this larger city began, when slack times came, to look round for outlets for a production that Coventry could not always assimilate. Birmingham produced parts of bicycles but few complete machines. Large firms, notably Perry & Co., Ltd., the pen makers, the Birmingham Small Arms Co., and others, began to supply sets of fittings for small makers, who were thus enabled to make bicycles with the engineering part

The Cycle Industry (1921) p43.jpg

Fig. 13
The forerunner of a famous firm’s products

that required first-class machinery largely eliminated. The Eadie Manufacturing Co. was established at Redditch by Albert Eadie, Perry & Co.’s sales manager, and Robert W. Smith, a Coventry engineer from Rudge’s big factory. The B.S.A. Co.’s machinery at Small Heath, Birmingham, was not fully employed on rifle contracts, and the directors looked about for other suitable mechanical work to keep their staff employed. Bicycles were largely demanded. The firm’s engineer was at that time O. P. Clements, a Swede, who had come to Birmingham to organize the B.S.A. gun and rifle production. He was consulted about bicycles, the idea at first being to make complete machines. After he had thought over the question he said he knew nothing about bicycles but he could make the parts of bicycles, partly on machine tools used in the production of lethal weapons. From that time the B.S.A. Company has never relinquished its hold on the bicycle industry and has amalgamated with other concerns to make bicycles, motor-cycles and motor-cars. The bicycle-making side of the business was, until recently, presided over by Mr, G. A. Hyde, the patentee of one of the best free wheels for bicycles and known as the Hyde free wheel.

One might say that at one time while Coventry was known as the hub of the cycle industry, Birmingham produced very many of the parts from which Coventry gained its reputation as a bicycle producing centre. However, making good parts is not, as every cycle engineer knows, the end all and be all of a first-class bicycle. Coventry excelled all round in the production of perfectly made frames, hard, wear-resisting bearings, and in the finish of the completed article. Birmingham was the mass producing centre in the early days, and gradually the industry spread to Wolverhampton. It was established by Thos. Humber at Nottingham, by Albert Eadie at Redditch, and by others at London, Leicester, and many other places. Coventry is still largely dependent on Birmingham and district for most of the steel tubing from which bicycles are made, the steel bars for bearings come mostly from Sheffield, the springs for brakes and saddles from Redditch; saddles are made in Coventry but larger quantities are produced in Birmingham and Walsall. Tyres are almost wholly produced in Birmingham, some in Edinburgh, Leicester, and, again, some in Silvertown, Essex. The castings and stampings are produced in Coventry, Birmingham, Walsall, Dronfield, Oakengates, etc. Rims are made in Birmingham and Coventry.

The industry may now be said to have spread all over the Midlands, Yorkshire, and parts of London. In fact there are very few places now where something or other is not made which is used in the manufacture of bicycles. Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Bristol, London, etc., supply the enamels and paints used for the finishing of the frames and wheels. Yorkshire, Coventry, Birmingham, America, and before the war, Germany, supplied machine tools. Nickel plating materials are supplied from Birmingham but some of the material comes from overseas. Sweden sends the steel blocks from which the steel tubing is made. Tin plates for chain cases come from South Wales, celluloid for handles from Germany, leather for saddles from the Argentine, balls for bearings from Sweden, rubber for tyres and pedals from South America, Ceylon, Java, etc. So one might go on enumerating the different centres of industry that supply the cycle trade; but it does not require much imagination to compare the early struggles of the pioneer cycle mechanics with those of the present day, who have largely to fit together what is made for them by other producers.