High Wheel Bicycle, High Wheeler, Penny Farting and Ordinary are all terms used to describe the first vehicle to be called “bicycle”. This bike has a very strong character with its large front wheel and much smaller rear wheel. The frame is a single tube following the circumference of the front wheel, then diverting to a trailing rear wheel. The type was popular from 1870 until the development of the safety bicycle (modern bicycle) in the late 1880s.
Elegant, simple, efficient and perhaps a little bit precarious, the Ordinary developed from the Boneshaker (or Velocipede) as a response to need for speed, lightness of design, better performances and greater comfort. As the front wheel grew larger, there was a corresponding reduction in the size of the rear wheel in order to lessen the overall weight of the machine. Although the model was shortlived, it became the symbol of the late Victorian era.
Between 1870 and 1880 scores of patents were taken for this design and scores more for improvements, such as rigid spoking system, front-operated rear brakes, seat springs, pedals and the general adoption of ball bearing for the wheel spindles.
The first all-metal bike to be mass-produced was called the “Ariel”. It was patented by James Starley in 1870 and remained in production for nearly ten years. It was the first machine to incorporate the centre-steering head and “lever tension” wheels, in which the radial spokes were held taut by a pair of levers attached to the hubs and rims.
By the mid 1870´s there were manufacturers all over Europe and only in England there were some twenty firms making bicycles. The Coventry Machinists´Company made great strides in improving the bicycle and for several years their “Gentleman´s” bicycle was considered the height of perfection. In 1878 it was succeded by the “Club Model”, a classic touring machine combining speed and utility with beauty. The frame was made of tapered oval steel and the spine closely followed the curve of the front wheel. All the components, including rims, were refined and made hollow to save unnecessary weight.
After 1878 new models were produced at frequent intervals. One example is the “Matchless” of 1883, whose design marked a further technical advance in construction. Weight was reduced by means of steel tubing for both the front fork and the frame, and use of hollow rims for the wheels. Overall performance was further improved by use of ball bearings. Handlebars were at first straight, but later, as the front wheel became larger, they were dropped in design. A great variety of saddles was produced to meet the general desire for greater comfort. There were many different kinds of brakes both on the rear wheel and on the front wheel. Many riders had some form of road warning device, in the shape of bell, gong or whistle. There was also a variety of candle and oil lamps, designed to be carried either on the front forks or on the hub of the front wheel. The hub lamp was suspended by means of an integral bearing on the hub of the front wheel and within the spokes.
Despite the introduction of so many fittings designed to give a safer and more comfortable ride, the roads were the actual problem. They were in a poor condition and on such surfaces it was difficult to maintain stability, and a heavy fall forward over the handlebars (“taking a header”) could be fatal. But most riders learned to fall correctly.
By this time, bicycling was a sport for athletic young men, who were proud of the scars they incurred in mastering their mechanical steeds, since once mastered the Ordinary moved with a smooth graceful motion. Many of these young men joined clubs to pursue their pastime and soon the Ordinary became a cult among a huge body of cyclists. Club bicyclists tended to be snobbish towards non-members. They had their own uniforms of tight knickerbocker suits, in dark colours so the dirt from the road did not show, and pillbox caps which displayed the badge of the club at the front. At meetings, the club bugler would sound a few notes to summon the riders before they set off together on their club run.
The bicycle was also acting as a social leveler. Given independent transport, working men (although the bikes were still very expensive for a worker) could move out to the suburbs and pursue a healthy lifestyle.
In the 1880´s bicycling as a sport was growing increasingly popular and the races drew huge crowds. High wheel bicycles was the formula 1 of its time.