Without bicycles, motor cars might not exist
“Get off the road!” – an angry barb a small minority of motorists yell at cyclists – ought to become the longer, but historically more accurate, “hey, cyclists, thanks for the roads and the cars!” I shan’t be holding my breath but let me explain why the subject matter of motoring.co.uk may not have existed without the critical involvement of a bunch of pushy Victorian and Edwardian cyclists. Who cares, some might think – history is bunk. I don’t think it is, the past influences the present and, anyway, Henry Ford’s famous quote has long been taken out of context.
Let me start with Henry. He’s assumed to be the kick-starter of mass-motoring but did you know he was a keen cyclist? The young Ford cycled to work on his prized lightweight bicycle when, in 1893, he was an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit, and he still cycled to work when he was making his first motor cars. Ford’s 1890s lightweight bicycle would have been an antique in 1940 when the 77-year-old carmaker, still with an eye for the latest tech, rode three miles every evening on an English sports bicycle, reported Time Magazine.
Henry Ford and his bicycle. Image: The Henry Ford
Ford had other links to cycling – his first car was the Quadricycle, an automobile with bicycle wheels, tyres, and bicycle chains (as Ford kept all his receipts we even know the brand of bicycle chain he used).
Cars may not look like bicycles these days but a lot of the technology for the first motor cars was a direct transfer from the world of cycling. Some cyclists, such as Sterling Elliott of the US, became wealthy men because their cycle-tech patents were taken up by automobile manufacturers (many of which had started as cycle manufacturers). All of the proof for this is in my new book, Roads Were Not Built For Cars, a history of roads, cycling and motoring. Automotive historians are well aware of the vital contribution of bicycle technology to motoring. Writing in his 1988 social history The Automobile Age, James J. Flink made a brief, little noticed claim: “No preceding technological innovation – not even the internal combustion engine – was as important to the development of the automobile as the bicycle.”
Other automotive historians have said similar but the bicycling beginnings of motoring are not well-known outside of academic circles.
Early motoring was highly reliant on the cyclists of the 1890s. Not only did motorists later benefit from the improved roads first lobbied for by cyclists, but those motorists were often the same people who had originally done the lobbying. Cyclists and motorists of the late 1890s and early 1900s were not from separate tribes – they were often the exact same individuals. Cycling became “poor man’s transport” only in the 1930s – pioneer cyclists were moneyed and influential. These transport progressives created motoring, too.
Carl Benz’s Patent-Motorwagen, the first true automobile, was a motorised two-seater tricycle made from parts sourced from Germany’s biggest bicycle shop. Benz was an enthusiastic cyclist, and never owned a horse-and-carriage.
This is Heinrich Kleyer, owner of the Frankfurt bicycle shop which supplied cycle parts to Carl Benz for making the world’s first automobile. Kleyer’s Adler bicycle company later made motor cars.
The first promoters of motoring were cyclists, and were used to lobbying thanks to their earlier promotion of cycling. These promoters had often been officials of cycling organisations. The ultra-exclusive Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland – later to add the Royal prefix and to house itself in a plush HQ on Pall Mall – was founded in 1897, by cyclists. Ernest Shipton would have seen no irony in being a committee member of the influential Automobile Club as well as being, at the same time, the long-standing secretary of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. Henry Sturmey was a cycling journalist to his dying day, wrote a classic 1877 book on cycling and gave his name to Sturmey-Archer bicycle gears in the early 1900s, but he also founded The Autocar, the world’s first weekly motoring magazine (which is still published, without the definite article). In the mid-1890s Sturmey was editor, at the same time, of both The Cyclist and The Autocar. He was one of many cycling-fixated committee members of the Automobile Club. The first automobile manufacturers tended to be cyclists, too: from the Dodge and Duryea brothers in America to the co-founders of Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin in Britain. In my book I list 64 motor marques which had bicycling beginnings, including Cadillac, GMC and Chevrolet.
Without cycles and cyclists, motoring would have evolved very differently, and perhaps in a far inferior form. Cyclists became the first and staunchest evangelisers of motoring because they had been the first to awaken to the possibilities afforded by self-determined mobility – free from fodder, free from timetables, free from rails. And, as they were intimately aware of the benefits that came from the provision of smoother surfaces upon which to glide, pushy Victorian cyclists agitated for highway reforms. In America cyclists formed the hugely influential Good Roads movement. In Britain there was the trail-blazing Roads Improvement Association, a campaigning body founded by cyclists in 1886, ten years before it was legally possible to drive a motor car on British roads.
In my book’s foreword, AA president Edmund King kindly said: “This brilliantly researched book should help to demolish many of the Car v Cycle arguments, and put us all on a much safer road for the future.”
Carlton Reid is the executive editor of BikeBiz.com. He drives a Nissan, one of the few car brands that doesn’t have a bicycling beginning. His book on motoring's cycling beginnings is Roads Were Not Built For Cars. This has 170,000 words, a 21-page index and 90,000 words of notes and references.
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