The manufacture of bicycles represents one of Coventry’s most important industries, with the city leading the way in terms of the development of a national cycle industry. Some of the most famous names in the industry have their origin in Coventry.
It is a well-known story that difficulties in the 1860s in the weaving and watchmaking industries meant that skilled, willing workmen and women were ready to seize any new opportunities that emerged in the labour market. In 1863 the Coventry Sewing Machine Company was formed to take advantage of these skills, and five years later the firm was persuaded by their Paris agent, Mr. Rowley Turner, to embark on a new venture by accepting an order from France for 400 velocipedes. (A velocipede is a cycle operated via pedals on cranks fitted to the front axle. The best-known version is the penny farthing). The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war brought an end to the French connection, but this change of direction encouraged the firm to produce cycles for the domestic market, and in 1869 the Coventry Machinists Company was born. The works’ foreman was James Starley and he soon left the Machinists to start up on his own, later joined by William Hillman. In 1871 they launched the Ariel ‘Ordinary’ bicycle, a variant on the penny-farthing design.
The 1870s and 1880s saw the arrival of a number of cycle firms, including Bayliss and Thomas (Excelsior Cycles); Townend (Wellington St., later Lower Ford Street); Singer (Challenge Works, Alma Street); Centaur (West Orchard Works); Hillman, Herbert & Cooper (Premier Cycle Co.); whilst J.K. Starley – James Starley’s nephew – established a company in 1878 which was the fore-runner of the Rover Cycle Company. A very significant move was the establishment in 1880 of the Rudge Company – an amalgamation of the Tangent and Coventry Tricycle Company with the Wolverhampton firm of Dan Rudge – with Coventry becoming the manufacturing base. This later became Rudge-Whitworth. The list of firms and types of bicycles seemed to be forever growing, and Coventry was clearly regarded as a prime location for cycle firms new or old. Business was booming. Factories were extended, new ones built, and more firms were attracted to Coventry. By 1891, half of all those employed in the UK’s cycle industry were working in Coventry.
As Coventry’s cycle industry grew apace, the emphasis was always upon quality cycles rather than mass production. Cycling was something of a hazardous activity, and much emphasis was placed on the safety of different models and styles of bicycles. These passed from the velocipede through the tricycle to the so-called safety cycle, with J.K.Starley (of Starley & Sutton) producing ‘The Rover’ in 1885, the first suitably practical version of the safety bicycle. With its diamond frame, sloping front forks, wheels of similar diameter, and pedal-driven by a chain to the rear wheel, it incorporated many of the features utilised in cycle manufacture to this day. In 2014 the Institute of Mechanical Engineers recognised the significance of this achievement with an Engineering Heritage Award to J.K.Starley’s Rover safety bicycle. Hot on the heels of the Rover bicycle was the development of the pneumatic tyre by John Boyd Dunlop.
Given the multitude of companies operating in Coventry, some inevitably failed, whilst others enjoyed continued success, including Rudge-Whitworth, Premier, Swift, Singer, Triumph and Rover. In the 1890s the Premier Cycle Co. alone employed 600 workers and produced 20,000 cycles per year, and it is estimated that total production of cycles in the city stood at 300,000 in 1906. Not all firms, of course, were involved in every stage of manufacture, and the industry relied on a large range of (often local) suppliers of components and accessories. One such firm was Bluemels, located at Wolston on the outskirts of Coventry.
Despite all this progress, competition was intense, both at home and from abroad, and new technology was attracting attention in the city with the nascent motor cycle and motor car industries. Many of the companies mentioned above would embrace motor cycles and/or motor cars alongside cycle production, but the balance was swinging strongly towards motorised transport. For many, it was only a matter of time before they abandoned cycle production altogether. The cycle industry did indeed continue alongside these changes, but production (and the number of firms involved) had been much reduced by the 1920s, with other cities such as Birmingham and Nottingham becoming the major suppliers. By the 1930s much of the cycle production of the UK took place outside Coventry in the hands of companies such as BSA and Raleigh, and the post-war period saw the end of cycle production in the city. One interesting example is the Coventry Eagle Co. (founded in 1890) that moved from cycles to motor cycles and then returned to the production of cycles in Coventry after the Second World War, only to be eventually relocated elsewhere.
With the resurgence of cycling as a leisure activity in the 21st. century, sales of cycles from UK outlets has increased, but most of the cycles and/or their components are imported. One firm that tries to rely on British manufacturers for supplies is Pashley Cycles of Stratford upon Avon. Pashleys began life in Birmingham in the 1920s but moved from Aston to Stratford in the 1960s, and continues to thrive today.
In this brief introduction it has only been possible to mention a few of the firms involved in Coventry’s cycle industry. Readers are referred to Damien Kimberley’s book on Coventry’s Bicycle Heritage, with information on all known cycle manufacturers in the city.