Much history has been written on the bicycle industry. Most consider the ‘golden age’ to have ended by the start of the 20th century. At one time there were hundreds of manufacturers, by the 1920’s there were only a few left. What happened?
The world was changing. In the cities horse drawn trolleys were replaced with efficient electric ones. The automobile was rapidly becoming affordable to many. In 1909 you could buy a model ’T’ ford for $825. Motorcycles were also becoming readily available for less than half that. Bicycle sales were in rapid decline.
With most of the bicycle manufacturers from the previous century either gone or absorbed into the few that were left a new marketing strategy was needed. Some went into the Motorcycle business including Pope and Schwinn. Others in the industry went on to produce automobiles or other consumable goods. Even Pope gave automobiles a try. But for those that stayed in the bicycle business the answer was the youth market.
Youth sized machines were available even from the earliest days of the bicycle. These generally were scaled down versions of the adult bikes. They were expensive and only the very wealthy could afford such a luxury. The new strategy would be to create inexpensively made bikes for children. These would include tricycles, sidewalk bikes, and scooters. The older children were not forgotten either. Adult sized bikes would be equipped with cross brace handlebars, fake gas tanks, battery operated headlights, extra truss rods on the fork, anything to make it look like a motorcycle. These would be aimed at the teen age boys.
– Ken Kowal (‘Mr. Columbia’) *
The Pope Mfg Co was founded in 1877. Ken explained to me that although Columbia’s actual 50th anniversary was in 1927, the company introduced their Anniversary models, with ornate gilt decals applied throughout the frame, halfway through 1926 to capitalise on the event. This paint scheme was used on their bicycles for one and a half years only. However, Columbia also did something that totally confused cycle historians since:
I can’t see a 50th Anniversary decal on it, so assume late 1926 to early 1927. The catalogue illustration for the 1927 Junior Roadster, Model E7, is shown below, while the 1926 catalogue models are revealed further down the page.
1926 Columbia ‘Junior Roadster’
50th Anniversary Model
Frame No 960690
This Junior Roadster has survived since the age of the Great Gatsby. What’s more, the ornate gilt details on the paintwork and its decals (transfers) have survived too. American bicycles built by the ‘quality’ manufacturers such as Columbia used higher standards of paint than average, but nevertheless the odds are stacked against a bicycle being found nine decades later with such details intact.
This example has had modern 27″ tyres fitted to its 28″ wheels; these tyres, with old-time tread pattern, are perfect for display and gentle riding but for hard riding and cornering tubeless tyres would be needed. A practical alternative would be to fit one of my retro metal wheel sets for regular riding and re-fit the original wooden wheelset when exhibiting the bike. The saddle top is worn with age and taped up; it’s usable but should ideally be replaced. Otherwise this is a wonderful original relic of a bygone age, the type of bicycle a local paperboy would favour due to its strong construction, and exactly the model that young teenage boys would be dropping hints about to their parents in the run up to christmas.
The overwhelming majority of American bicycles used a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy, their frames being 22″ to suit a rider with an inside leg measurement of around 30″. This precluded most female riders, who would have bought dedicated open-framed girl’s bikes. Nevertheless, many women preferred the men’s style of bike …and why not? Look at those flowing lines and racy dropped handlebars. Bicycles like this copied motorcycle design of the day. In the twenties, in particular, many women took on the men at their own game and rode motorcycles. With all the attributes of a full-size bicycle, including 28″ wheels, it’s hard to tell this bicycle has a lower frame. The key is in the ‘camelback’ style of frame whose top tube drops down toward the saddle. This useful kink in the top tube to lower its centre of gravity means this machine is suitable for both a short and tall rider.
1926 COLUMBIA CATALOGUE
Columbia was one of the top American cycle manufacturers, and the marketing ideas of the company’s founder, Colonel Pope, in the 1890s helped to launch the advertising business as we know it today. So subtle aspects of Columbia marketing can be interesting to observe.
The placement of the models in a cycle catalogue reveals which the company wishes to promote most. The first three featured in the 1926 Columbia catalogue are the men’s Columbia Roadster Model D12 and D6, the Ladies’ Sports (D10), and the Junior Roadster (D7). But the illustration of the Junior is larger than that of the adult machines. So I would suggest that the catalogue is mostly aimed at selling to teenagers.
But it is not only clever marketing that makes the Junior Roadster – Model D7 – as large as the adult machines – it is also its innovative design. Because it is actually identical in size to the adult man’s bicycle except for the drop in the top tube. Without this drop, it would be a 22″ adult size frame. As the catalogue illustration summarises:
The top bar drops at the seatpost, otherwise the same as Model D6, except it can be supplied in the colour illustrated above.
This was a revolutionary idea for a youth’s bicycle that was not used in Great Britain at this time. While the American manufacturers directed their products at teenagers, the British market was primarily for adult bicycles, and kid’s bicycles were made in much smaller sizes for younger riders.
To read about the history of
* Columbia info with thanks to Ken Kowal – http://vintagecolumbiabikes.com