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Time Travel: Coventry, the bike capital of the world

Coventry has many historical claims to fame, from the story of Lady Godiva to its famous destruction in the Blitz in November 1940 to (dare I say) the world-famous University of Warwick. It’s also known for its motor history – a number of the most famous names in the British motor industry became established in the city last century, from Triumph to Jaguar. What is perhaps less known is that this industrialisation is linked to an industrial pool based on bicycles. Indeed, for a period of around 20 years towards the end of the 1800s, Coventry was the bicycle manufacturing capital of the world. Here’s a look at our city’s cycling heritage. 

They were popular, and in 1868, the company took an order for 400 of them to be exported to France

Coventry had been a key industrial city in the 18th and early 19th centuries, linked mainly to ribbon weaving and watch and clock-making. It was growing, thanks in part to the opening of the Coventry Canal in 1769 and the associated economic benefits, but disaster struck after 1860. Due to cheap imports following the Cobden-Chevalier free trade treaty, the market was flooded by cheaper French materials and workers. It caused a slump for a little while, but the skills acquired helped fuelled Coventry’s next phase of business. 

As ribbon weaving and other forms of fabric-making were important, a sewing machine industry emerged. The Coventry Machinists Company (founded in 1863 as the Coventry Sewing Machine Company) decided to diversify to grow its business, and opted to make bicycles. They were popular, and in 1868, the company took an order for 400 of them to be exported to France. However, as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, the company decided to focus on the home market instead. 

A key name in the story is James Starley, the foreman of the company, was interested in bicycles. Probably inspired by a French design called the ‘velocipede’, he developed the penny-farthing design in 1870, and the company began producing these bicycles. He also made several other improvements to the bicycle and, that year, he departed to go into business with William Hillman (of Hillman car fame) – the duo developed the Ariel, a lightweight all-metal bicycle. Starley’s nephew John Kemp Starley invented one of the first modern bicycles, which included familiar features such as a chain-driven rear wheel with equal-sized wheels on the front and rear. This bicycle was produced by Rover from 1885. 

Coventry’s Premier Cycle Company claimed to have the largest bicycle factory in the world

From there, the bicycle industry expanded. Humber opened a factory in Coventry in 1886, one of the 248 cycle manufacturers based in the city at the time – the industry employed almost 40,000 workers. By 1871, 70% of the cycle industry was concentrated in the Midlands, and Coventry’s Premier Cycle Company claimed to have the largest bicycle factory in the world. By the 1890s, the city had developed the largest bicycle industry in the world, and the name ‘Coventry’ became a stamp of quality engineering and fine craftsmanship – if you bought a Coventry bicycle, it was going to be good. 

So, what happened? There was a gradual shift to Birmingham as the centre of the industry from 1896 onwards, and so the industry contracted in Coventry. Only a few bicycle makers survived, but they started to turn their attention to motorbikes and cars. From 1925, Singer, Swift, Riley, and Triumph all ceased the bicycle side of their businesses, and, by the end of WWII, there were only two Coventry bicycle makers remaining – Associated Cycle Manufacturers and Coventry Eagle. The former was taken over by Raleigh in 1954, and the latter moved to Smethwick in 1959, ending the city’s bicycle story. 

The motor industry sustained Coventry and brought it to new heights. Even in the 1930s, the city was noted for its wealth, and it topped a national purchasing power index in 1937. Indeed, its industrial output was one of the reasons it was attacked by Germany in 1940. It’s hard to imagine now that Coventry was such a major player in the bicycle industry – if you ride a bicycle nowadays, it’s likely that much of the machine will owe a lot to James Starley and the innovations that happened in our city. 


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