The reputation which these machines have gained in all parts of the world, both on the road and on the track, during the past years, dispenses with the necessity of eulogising their merits.
The SWIFT SPECIAL PATH RACERS stand in the unique position of being the most perfect cycles for path racing. Possessing an unrivalled record on all the racing tracks, in record making and record breaking, they have ever held the foremost place. Built with that care and precision which characterises all ‘Swifts,’ that they are machines par excellence for racing men is beyond question: practical demonstration has for years past proved the truth of this.
– 1898 Swift Sales Brochure
Despite a downturn in the cycle industry at home in the years preceding WW1, like all the top manufacturers, the Swift Cycle Co had an undiminished market in the Colonies. The disadvantage of selling abroad was that prices needed to be lower. The top manufacturers had kept prices artificially high in the home market; though, luckily for the industry, international prices did not affect British sales. The main advantage, however, for export sales was that the latest models were not required in the various outposts of the British Empire. Instead, they just needed well-built bicycles made by companies of good repute. There was no real competition: although, by the turn of the century, U.S companies started dumping their bikes abroad at bottom prices, customers soon discovered that the wooden wheels and tubeless tyres on American bicycles were totally impractical. Locals bought American bikes if that was all they could afford, while upmarket customers plumped for the British bikes which would last forever.
Army officers and civil servants made up a large proportion of the customer base abroad. This Swift is a classic example of that type of bike. The ‘Special’ had been the company’s name for their series of path racer; the badge on this one declares it to be the SPECIAL COLONEL MODEL. Despite the name, this is not a military bicycle, nor is it a racing machine. Capitalising on a military style of name – indeed, that of an officer – it was aimed at an upmarket clientele with disposable income who might wish for a lightweight leisure bicycle with sporty looks rather than a regular workhorse. Its Eadie Coaster and front rim brake with inverted lever provided practicability. Drop handlebars, wooden wheels (with pneumatic tyres) and nickelled parts complete the picture, which is essentially a bicycle with the latest (for 1909) components but made in a style popular ten years before. The illustration above is of the 1898 Swift Special Path Racer, built before the company introduced their trademark duplex forks and six-point chainwheel. Below you can see the 1915 Swift Imperial Road Racer.
1912 Swift Gent’s Royal Club
‘Special Colonel Model’ Road Racer
26″ Wooden Wheels
26 x 1 3/8″ Pneumatic Tyres
The transfers (decals) on this Swift, on the headstock, seat post and rear mudguard, are in very good condition.
I bought it from George Littlewood, who is the Humber marque expert. He thought the transfers and the reddish-brown paintwork were original; it’s not easy to tell the difference.
However, I’ve now discovered that it was restored 40 years ago, by a well-known cycle enthusiast when he was just 12 years old. It was his first restoration. You can see a newspaper report on it further down the page.
Hi Colin, your Swift was restored by a mate of mine Martyn Parkes in 1975. He was 12 at the time, his first restoration. Amazingly it is brush painted with blackfriars enamel, nickel is by Wenlock Platers of Hull (now defunct) & transfers were supplied by the late John Pinkerton. Martyn’s father restored a c1905/7 BSA tricoaster/beaded edge etc at same time; I still have that machine to this day.
The Swift won the first of its 3 BSA trophies for the Best Maintained Pre-1914 Machine at the 1976 National – I believe it subsequently won a major award at the National more recently in George Littlewood’s ownership. It’s a fabulous machine which I’ve ridden many times. I am hopeful it remains in the UK. Incidentally, Martyn did tell me the frame size is a whopping 26. Hope the above is useful, kind regards Paul
As Paul remarks, this Swift definitely is a fabulous bicycle. The wood wheels are in excellent condition, it’s ready to ride, and the new owner will be very proud to have it in their collection.
FROM THE 1898 SWIFT CATALOGUE
1915 SWIFT CATALOGUE
SWIFT CYCLE Co Ltd
LONDON SHOWROOMS & REPAIR WORKS
132-134 Long Acre, Covent garden, London
Although Swift Cycle Co adverts claim its formation, as the Coventry Machinists Co in 1859, written history of james Starley shows the date as 1861:
May 14th, 1861, Starley left Newton, Wilson & Co and, with Josiah Turner and Silas Covell Salisbury, an American, went to Coventry to embark in the sewing machine trade. Salisbury and Starley patented a sewing machine. They rented part of the premises of a Mr. John Newark, on the site later occupied by the Swift works but the business did not prosper.
Local interest in finding work for under-employed watchmakers and those from the ribbon trade led to the formation of the European Sewing machine Co to make sewing machines, which retained the services of Messrs. Turner and Starley. The works were initially in Little Park Street, later in King Street. Soon a larger factory was needed where the ‘European’, ‘Godiva,’ ‘Express’ and ‘Swiftsure’ sewing machines were made. The company became the Coventry Sewing Machine Co, then the Coventry Machinists Co and later Swift Cycle Co.
Like many cycle manufacturers based in the Midlands, Swift Cycle Co Ltd had a showroom in London. Theirs was in Long Acre, Covent Garden, a centre for businesses connected with the cycle industry and motor trade.
Long Acre’s most famous cycle manufacturer is Denis Johnson, who had a workshop at 69-75, Acre House. His Hobby Horse – he called it a pedestrian curricle – was an improved version of the German Draisene, invented by Karl Drais. This forerunner of the bicycle was also known as a Swift Walker. He made at least 320 machines in early 1819 and, in May of that year, introduced a dropped-frame version for ladies to accommodate their long skirts. He also opened riding schools in the Strand and Soho.
For about six months the machine had a high profile in London and elsewhere, its principal riders being the Regency dandies. About eighty prints were produced in London, depicting the ‘hobby-horse’ and its users, not always in a flattering light. Johnson’s son undertook a tour of England in the spring of 1819 to exhibit and publicise the item. Nevertheless, by the summer of the same year the craze was dying out, and a health warning against the continued use of the velocipede was issued by the London Surgeons.
In Johnson’s machine, like that of von Drais, propulsion was simply by ‘swift walking’, with the rider striking his (or her) feet on the ground alternately. However, it led directly (albeit after a long delay) to the invention of the bicycle in the 1860s, when rotary cranks and pedals were attached to the front-wheel hub of a machine based on Johnson’s.
The coachbuilding trade dominated Long Acre in the nineteenth century – in 1906 41 buildings in the street were occupied by firms associated with transport, a mixture of traditional coachbuilders and those connected with the motor trade. By 1916 the transition to motor cars and related trades was almost complete. The Mercedes showroom was at number 127 to 130, close to Daimler and Fiat. At number 132 in 1929, John Logie Baird made the first British television broadcast.