The Chainless – or Shaft-Drive – bicycle started out as a study in engineering that would assist in the development of powered vehicles. For a while in its early years it might have been a feasible alternative to chain-driven machines. But, by the turn of the century, chain design became standardised and the Chainless became more of a novelty.
It still is a novelty a century later, interest having grown again in recent years, with prices of good Chainless bicycles rising accordingly.
The Columbia Chainless and the Belgian FN (Fabrique Nationale) Cardan became the market leaders in America and Europe respectively, each with top build quality and higher production figures than any other manufacturer.
Although more expensive to build than a conventional bicycle, the price of the Columbia Chainless was subsidised by Colonel Pope and the model was aggressively marketed to try and turn it into a mainstream bicycle. By 1924 it was no longer listed in the Columbia catalogue.
Even John D. Rockefeller was photographed (in 1913) alongside his Columbia Chainless bicycle…
1916 Columbia Men’s Chainless ‘Model 604’
Columbia’s GOOD FOR A LIFETIME claim would appear to be true …this example is still going strong nearly a century after leaving the factory. It was owned and restored by a museum in America before being sold when the museum closed down.
It is in good all round condition and ready to ride. My road test reveals the coaster brake to be weak (common with early American coasters) but otherwise it’s an enjoyable ride. It obviously gets plenty of looks from any serious cyclist who passes by.
The first shaft drives for cycles appear to have been invented independently in 1890 in England and America.
A. Fearnhead, of 354 Caldonian Road, London developed one in 1890 and received a patent in October. His prototype shaft was enclosed within a tube running along the top of the chainstay; later models were enclosed within the actual chainstay.
In America, Walter Stillman filed for a patent on a shaft-driven bicycle on Dec. 10, 1890 which was granted on July 21, 1891.
The League Cycle Co of Hartford CT, which started business in 1892, appears to have been the first American company to sell a Chainless bicycle, in 1893. The New York Times reported the demise of this company on 3rd July, 1898: ‘The League Cycle Co, manufacturers of bicycles, made an assignment yesterday. The bond of the assignee is $50,000, which is believed to be about the amount of the liabilities.’
DRAWING OF FEARNHEAD SHAFT DRIVE, 1891
W. STILLMAN AMERICAN PATENT OF SHAFT DRIVE, 1891