In 1938, the Compax Mfg Co. Inc. introduced its Compax Vagabond Folding bike. This bike was designed for easy transport and was targeted to apartment dwellers, yachtsmen and vacationers along with daily commuters. It did not take long for Westfield Mfg Co, the makers of Columbia bikes, to take note of this bike – they wanted it in their line of bikes. The very next year Westfield purchased the company and patent for this bike. In 1940, the first Westfield made Compax bikes went into production now called the Compax Sports Traveler.
The 1940 and 1941 Westfield Compax bikes differed slightly from the Compax Company’s bike but kept all of the important design features that made this bicycle unique, folding handlebars and a take-apart frame.
Vacationers were not the only target Westfield Mfg had in mind for this bike. For several years war was brewing with Japan and the idea of a lightweight compact bike was being entertained by the US Military. Almost two years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the US Marines were experimenting with take-apart bikes and used a Westfield made Compax in Marine Paratrooper trials. These tests would lead to the Paratrooper name and legend. The fact of the matter is the U.S. Military never approved these bikes for paratrooper use. This did not mean the makers of Columbia bicycles did not give up on the idea of selling these bikes to the military. Many were purchased by the military for use on bases. The following is the pre-war publicity picture depicting the marine paratrooper trials. This picture was used by Westfield Mfg during and after the war in ads to promote their participation in the war effort.
– Ken Kowal (“Mr. Columbia”)
Columbia bicycles were used by the military during WW1, and the company were keen to supply the military during WW2 as well. Their bicycles were used by civilian personnel at military bases and the military tried out the Compax ‘folding’ bicycle too. Nevertheless, although bicycles were vital for secondary service during WW2, their use by the American forces in the field of war was limited. It seems that the US Army did have them in reserve, but there are no records of their specific use during war-time missions.
After the war, Columbia capitalized on the military use of their bicycles, and the folding Compax model was named the ‘Compax Paratrooper’ for the civilian market; this name is visible on the head-badge, while the transfer (decal) on the down tube reads ‘Compax Sports Traveler.’
1947 Columbia ‘Compax Paratrooper’ Folding Bicycle
Adjustable Kelly Handlebars
Bendix Coaster Brake
The diagram below illustrates how this bicycle folds …except that ‘America’s first folding bicycle’ does not actually fold at all! – rather, it breaks into two parts. Nevertheless, it is a neat design and ideally suited for its target market. Later folding bicycles were, of course, lightweight machines: what I particularly like about the Compax Paratrooper is that it is the only ‘folding’ balloon-tire style bicycle.
From the earliest days of cycle manufacture, Colonel Pope established a pattern of buying up every patent possible. As a result, Columbia bicycles featured the most innovative designs. Half a century later, the Compax Paratrooper follows this same tradition, and the bike itself does not disappoint.
The handlebars are ‘Kelly Adjustables’ first introduced around the turn of the century (mostly used on Racycle bicycles). Another nice design touch is its ‘gothic’ fenders, and I like its minimalism too: no lamp brackets or accessories pictured in the catalogue illustrations.
This was actually a revolutionary design for its time, being a true unisex bike – like all balloon bikes, it is a heavyweight machine that rides like a man’s bike rather than a girl’s bike. It is reminiscent of British 98cc autocycles of the thirties, which also had an open frame so that either men or women could ride them. In fact, though it’s not a traditional style of man’s bike, everything about this machine suggests masculinity: its name, its beefy appearance, its catalogue blurb aimed at truck drivers and airline pilots …I find it hard to imagine a paratrooper, when ordered by his sergeant to take one of these apart and mount it on his back, refusing on the grounds that a bicycle without a top tube is a woman’s bike.
This example has been nicely restored and is in very good all round condition. It unfolds efficiently (below), is fitted with new tyres, and the chrome is good throughout.
Above you can see the postwar Compax Paratrooper model; below is the army version, with wooden pedals.
The earlier girl’s version had twin down tubes (below).