A Lea-Francis was a ‘dream bicycle’ in its day and, such is its rarity over a century later, it remains so today.
But which quality three-speed gent’s bicycle might you buy in 1909 if money were no object?
A cheap option for a quality bicycle would be a machine built with BSA Fittings. For example, John Piggott Ltd advertised the same in Cycling magazine of June 1908, for 7 guineas.
The Imperial Triumph with three speed was £13 10/-.
A Gentleman’s Elswick Special Cross Truss with Sturmey-Archer three speed was £13 15/- 6d, and the Royal Premier was 14 guineas.
The basic Dursley Pedersen Cantilever was £12 17/- 6d; extras were another 22/- 6d.
Rudge-Whitworth’s most expensive machine (a No 6 Aero-Special de Luxe Featherweight with Sturmey-Archer Tri-Coaster hub brake) was £14 12/-.
The Golden Sunbeam with two-speed epicyclic gears was 15 guineas, and with three speed it was 16 guineas.
As you can see from the 1907 Lea Francis catalogue illustration below, the Lea-Francis Men’s Bicycle with Sturmey-Archer three speed was 16 guineas.
Raleigh’s top of the range Modele Superbe X Frame was £17 10/- with no extra cost if paid in 12 monthly instalments.
Prices are approximate because some were taken from previous year’s catalogues and some from year later. Prices fluctuated from year to year, and cash purchases were often cheaper than advertised in the catalogues. But we can see from this comparison that Lea-Francis prices were toward the upper end of the quality market. A Lea-Francis machine was built to such a high standard the company enjoyed almost cult status.
Like their competitors in the top end of the market, their components were made in their own factory in order to guarantee supply and also to prevent unscrupulous companies making cheap copies of their machines. The company proclaimed in its catalogue that their front brake was ‘the most expensive fitted to any bicycle in the world’ and that it was ‘produced literally regardless of cost.’
LEA FRANCIS: SPECIAL FEATURES
The handlebar has the Lea Francis patent concealed roller lever brakes. The rod operated mechanism for the front brake is concealed within the steering tube, and connected to a stirrup to pull up the brake blocks onto the rim. This brake is both elegant and efficient and was much admired at the time.
The Lea Francis patent ‘trip motion’, illustrated below, was a mechanism that the company introduced in 1899, at a time when tall bicycles were mounted from the back, via the rear step. Once applied, it prevented the pedals rolling backwards, so the rider could step firmly onto a pedal and ride off immediately.
1909 Lea-Francis Men’s Cycle
Tall 28″ Frame Size
BSA Three-Speed Hub / Lea Francis Gear Trigger
Concealed Roller Lever Brakes
Lea Francis patent ‘Trip Motion’
Frame No 22651
The Lea Francis featured here is in good riding condition – assuming you’re tall enough. At 28 inches, the company’s tallest advertsied frame size, it would suit a rider with an inseam around 36 inches.
Cosmetically, this 118-year-old roadster is weathered; the bright parts are tarnished and the paint is faded. That’s no great drawback if you like your bikes to have that ‘lived in’ look. All its parts are original except that I’ve replaced the handlebar grips with attractive period style replicas. And, if you look closely, you’ll see that the rear part of the front mudguard does not have a valance to its edge, so it was obviously replaced at some point in its life.
The ‘Men’s Cycle’, as it’s described in the catalogue, oozes character. Various unique components set it apart. The unique Lea Francis gear trigger, the brake levers, front brake and trip motion turn it into an instant talking point as soon as it’s spotted by fellow enthusiasts.
This particular example has an additional feature – maybe it could be descibed as its ‘party trick?’
As you can see in the catalogue illustration, Lea-Francis fitted old style mudguards to their bicycles, without a forward extension. But by 1909 other companies’ bicycles sported full front mudguards.
If you preferred the ‘modern’ look, it was possible to buy a short mudguard extension as an accessory, and that is what has been fitted to this machine. However, on a Lea-Francis, the front brake is applied to the tyre via a rod inside the steering head and a small plate that bolts to the top of the brake stirrup. This is the only place to attach an accessory mudguard extension. So, as a result, when the front brake is applied the mudguard extension lifts up too.
LEA FRANCIS: SPECIAL FEATURES
LEA FRANCIS PATENT CONCEALED ROLLER LEVER BRAKES
LEA FRANCIS PATENT HEAD LOCK
1907 LEA-FRANCIS CATALOGUE
FROM ROGER S. THORNE’S LEA-FRANCIS ARCHIVE
Roger S. Thorne was a Lea-Francis bicycle owner in the 1960s. His Lea-Francis was also a 1908 model though, from the description on the display board he used when taking his bicycle to shows (reproduced below), it was slightly different from the machine featured here.
He knew A.G. Wilson, who worked for the Lea-Francis from 1897 to 1908, and he corresponded with Peter Pringle of the Lea-Francis Owner’s Club.
I bought these letters at an auction in 2010 (along with the original 1901 Lea-Francis catalogue referred to in the letters) and am pleased to be able to publish them to be shared by fellow enthusiasts of this fascinating marque.