The 1930s bicycle craze

228171160abd0b30de1fd875c621c37dFound among a pile of newspaper clippings at Jot HQ is this substantial analysis in the 2 December 1935 issue of the Financial Timesof the thriving bicycle industry.

It was prompted by the large number of exhibits at the twentieth International Bicycle and Motor-Cycle Show, which had opened by Transport Minister Hore-Belisha at Olympia a few days before.

Reading it one recalls the similar rise in the popularity of cycling that followed the spectacular success of the Team Britain cyclists at the 2012 Olympics in London. The sales of bikes of all kinds—from mountain bikes to state of the art racing machines was something that had not been seen since, perhaps the thirties. Suddenly, quiet country lanes were thronged each weekend with lycra-clad twenty-somethings careering down hills. Parents were seen cycling with their children in leafy suburbs. And six years on, the craze for cycling doesn’t appear to have waned.

Back in 1935 the rise in popularity was measured in share prices and output. The Financial Times—ever alert to trends in the market—published a fascinating analysis of bicycle companies and their rising profits over a three year period. The trend, it seems, was for companies who had hitherto focussed on turning out cars and motorcycles, to take on cycle manufacture or to increase their production. One of these ( and positioned at the top of the list )was the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA), which back then was perhaps better known for its motor-bikes. Others were Matchless Motor Cycles, New Imperial Motors, Humber and Triumph. The sales figures of Raleigh, the specialist cycle manufacturer, which had been founded in 1886, weren’t quite so impressive. Perhaps they had become complacent in the face of new competition.

In the immediate years following the end of the First World War cycling had diminished in popularity due mainly to the huge loss of life suffered by those who formerly had made the machines and those younger people who would otherwise have used them. This ‘dislocation’ in the industry continued to affect sales into the late twenties, but by the early thirties improvements in road safety, a greater awareness of the threat posed by motor vehicles, and a desire for a healthier life-style among all age groups, created a huge demand. Add to these factors significant improvements in mechanised bicycle manufacture and it could be said that in 1935 ‘ a bicycle equal to or better than the representative pre-war machine , which cost about £10, can be bought for—-say £6 ‘. This was the average weekly pay of a skilled worker in London. Moreover, many more cycles for children were made available at this time—and thanks to the abandonment of those ridiculous skirts and dresses that had made the pastime awkward for women in the Edwardian era, more ladies had taken up cycling.

The sales figures quoted in the Financial Timesreport are stupendous. Production increased threefold in the six years to 1934, from 500,000 to 1,500,000 ! Exports increased enormously too. For the ten months to 31stOctober 1935 exports rose from 224,790 to 314,182. That’s a lot of bikes. One can’t imagine the same numbers being exported today.

As for the health benefits of cycling, the message was the same in 1935 as it is today.

‘Cycling is admittedly one of the most beneficial pursuits for the improvement of physical efficiency. Every effort is being made in many countries to foster the sport, for cycling provides not only an outlet for surplus energy, backed up by modern civilisation, but mental relaxation unobtainable from any other mass and cheap sport. The great growth of cycling, rather than resulting in additional traffic restrictions, promises to force further schemes of road development, with, perhaps the more general addition of sanctuary lanes.’

But the pastime of cycling was even more popular in Europe and the United States.

‘Abroad, cycling has made great progress. Throughout Germany, Scandinavia, France and many Continental countries the cycle is found everywhere. The last census showed 7,000,000 bicycles in France. In the United States production has increased 25 percent during the past year and the following quotation from ‘Real America’ gives some idea of the present situation that has there developed:-

‘From Hollywood to Park Avenue, ladies in shorts have taken up that favourite pastime of the ‘ nineties’ . Girls in swanky finishing schools, debs in Westchester County, movie-stars in Beverley Hills —all have joined in bringing back to popularity the rubber-tyred broncho of the late Victorian days. Fair cyclists now spring along the broad walk at Atlantic City, where such diversion was once taboo; and new wheel clubs have been breaking out virulently in Chicago, Washington—everywhere. Bicycle races have spring up all over the country.’

 The figures for Great Britain show that in 1935 there were 10 million bicycles, the greater proportion of which were ‘very old ‘, and thus only fit for the ‘ rust heap’. This figure of 10 million when compared with France’s 7 million comes as a surprise. Perhaps at that time the French hadn’t fully developed as a nation of cycle-lovers, although the Tour de France had been going for some time.

The picture for cyclists and cycle manufacturers in 1935 was very encouraging, according to Hore Belisha. However, the Minister warned in his opening speech that cyclists continued to face dangers on the road. He admitted that it had   alarmed him to hear that casualties to cyclists were mounting and had, in fact, increased by 144 per cent in the past seven years, whereas in the same period casualties to pedestrians had only increased by 16 ½ per cent. One of these casualties was, of course, the cult writer Denton Welch, who as an art student was knocked off his cycle by an inattentive motorist on Whitsun Bank Holiday in 1935. He eventually succumbed to his terrible injuries thirteen years later aged just 33. [R.M.Healey]




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