When Britain rode bicycles: the idyll before the onslaught

The role of Raleigh in the depiction of utopian cyclists in the mid 1900s is described by EDGAR NEWTON.

You can sometimes pick one up for £20 at postcard fairs: a copy of the 1951 Raleigh Catalogue, boasting the new delights of full-colour printing, and testifying to their pride in British-made bicycles for an assured and discerning mass-market. You can also find sets of postcards showing the imagery with which Raleigh used to associate their bicycles ('bikes' seems the wrong word somehow): idyllic country escapes, romantic young love away from parents, or pleasant cycle journeys from work, amidst a sea of cycling, smiling workmates.

The 1951 catalogue displays the pinnacle of development for Raleigh's bicy­cles with Sturmey-Archer hub gears and dynamo, representing a powerful combination evolved over half a century, from the happy day in 1902 when Henry Sturmey and James Archer persuaded Raleigh to produce the new Sturmey-Archer gears. By 1951 Raleigh had built the world's largest and most modern cycle factory, with its own water well and gas plant.

The firm had always been committed to mass manufacture since its acquisition by Frank Bowden. Bowden was a wealthy lawyer who had taken up cycling to improve his health after retiring in 1877 from business in Hong Kong. He was completely cured by riding a machine built by three mechanics in a small workshop in Raleigh Street, Nottingham. Bowden was so impressed by its products that he bought the firm and introduced a remarkable entrepreneurial flair. By 1896 - in less than ten years - it employed 850 people in the country's largest cycle factory. The All Steel Bicycle' slogan was born at this time when pressed steel lugs were developed with the help of American machine-tool experts, making them a significant improvement on the heavy and brittle cast lugs still used by com­petitors.

There is not a derailleur to be seen in the 1951 catalogue, although they were common on the continent. However, the whole cycle industry was about to be won over by the derailleur design which appeared that year. Early systems were often fragile and difficult to maintain, whereas hub gears had a proven record of reliability and low maintenance. Competition with derailleur systems encouraged Sturmey-Archer to develop lighter hubs with a range of ratios to suit different applications. In 1948 the firm introduced an alloy shell which weighed a third of the steel model. The elegant mechanism of the hub gear was not matched by derailleurs until, in 1951, Campagnolo invented a folding parallelogram derailleur which moved in a smooth arc with the springs protected within the parallel box.

The Raleigh dynohub was first introduced in 1937. This was complemented by a dry battery unit with an automatic filter switch to change from dynamo to batteries as speed fell and vice versa.

So, in the early 1950s, there was an appealing and strong identity to the models which Raleigh manufactured. The 531 framed Lenton Sports was 'chosen by Reg Harris (with 4-speed gear) for his road training', while the Raleigh Clubman available with a 3- or 4-speed hub was designed for 'the modern Club Rider and Time Trialist'.

Despite Raleigh's outward confidence, their customers' attention was turning to more powerful transport. Wartime austerity was being relaxed, and there was a fascination for almost any motor driven gadget. The cycle industry itself flirted with motorisation: Cyclemaster, PowerPak and Minimotor were clip-on attachments which provided a drive to the front or rear wheel of the bicycle. So sudden was the demand that cycle dealers wanting to take on a Power Pak agency had to join a three-year waiting list. Then came the full moped, which was to develop eventually into the scooter.

So the motor-driven spoils of affluence would soon dominate both the road and the imagination. By the beginning of the sixties people could no longer reasonably be portrayed in advertisements as cycling to the factory or the golf club. Another golden age of cycling had come to a close.