1873 James Starley ‘Ariel’ Penny Farthing

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As well as being the first ‘ordinary’ (penny farthing), this model is historically significant because it indirectly led to the founding of three of the most important British vehicle manufacturers.

1. William Hillman subsequently founded ‘Hillman, Herbert & Cooper’ who made ‘The Premier’, the first successful safety bicycle. Hillman later made cars.

2. Starley’s company went through various transformations, eventually evolving into D Rudge & Co, which became Rudge-Whitworth.

3. Starley’s nephew J.K Starley worked for him, and subsequently founded Rover.

The Ariel name resurfaced in the 1890s as the Ariel Cycle Co.

1873 James Starley ‘Ariel’

The first model of ‘Ordinary’ Bicycle (aka Penny Farthing)

Tension wheels

46″ Front wheel

20″ Rear Wheel

This historic Ariel frame was found in a river and is very rusty. With time to spare during the 2020 lockdown, my friend Paul Knight decided to build a few replica 1871 Ariels with tension wheels for me to resell. (One went to Russia, another to New York for the HBO TV series ‘The Gilded Age’ and the third is for sale here). After Paul completed those, I managed to convince him to create the missing parts for this original one, and the job is now complete. This is its debut.
Most of my bicycles are in unrestored original cosmetic condition; occasionally they require repainting. Original parts are not available for a bicycle this rare, and the metalwork is beyond restoring. So I’ve presented it in a unique way, with re-fabricated parts on the rusty original frame. The contrast is quite dramatic. It’s not a riding bike but a historic display piece illustrating James Starley’s V section wheel and its unique system for spoke tensioning.


1) Starley & Hillman Ariel patent dated 11 August 1870, presumably when they were both working for CMC.
2) Starley left CMC 27 Nov. 1870 and was making Ariel’s by Christmas. see two letters to The Field. May 1872.
3) Hillman left CMC on 28 Jan 1871 and maybe joined Starley as the partnership became Starley & Co.
4) W.B.Smith had joined the partnership by 28 Feb 1872, the date of the Ariel open-head registered design and it became Smith & Starley & Co. after 24 Dec 1872 when The London Gazette announced that Hillman had retired from the partnership.
5) In 1874 Ariel bicycle production was passed over to their employees Haynes and Jefferis.
6) Starley patent 3595, 17 Nov. covers tangent spoking, together with his ladies model and two-man version, both highly impractical, but later developed into the Coventry tricycle.
7) The license for H&J to make the Tangent is dated 13 May 1876 (Coventry Record Office 153/14) Haynes and Jefferis began advertising it in Dec 1875 so I don’t thing Smith and Starley ever made Tangents.

8) The Tangent and Special Tangent were made up to 1880 but dropped by Rudge in 1881 although I think the wheel continued for a while on their Coventry tricycle.

9) Jan 1877, Voluntary liquidation of Smith and Starley

10) Nov 1878 Attempted flotation of Smith Starley & Co. apparently failed and the assets were purchased by Woodcock and amalgamated with Haynes & Jefferis as the Coventry Tricycle Co. In Nov 1880, it became D.Rudge & Co.
ABOVE: The remains of the original 1873 Ariel.
BELOW: In front of a reproduction 1871 Ariel. And the job in progress…




















“After the advent of the large front wheel, bicycling in Britain recovered from its temporary slowdown and enjoyed steady growth in popularity for the next 30 years. Fewer than 10% of the velocipede makers remained in the bicycle trade, which now required the skills of a machinist or gunsmith rather than those of a carriage maker or an iron founder. Companies became more specialised. Many of the new factory owners were themselves bicyclists, so the step from testing prototypes to launching production could be short. The term ‘ordinary bicycle’ was used in the early era of the high bicycle to distinguish it from other types. By 1891, however, the word ‘ordinary’ was being used nostalgically …the popular nickname was penny-farthing.”

– ‘Bicycle Design’ by Tony Hadland & Hans-Erhard Lessing, page 97

James Starley was one of the most innovative and successful builders of bicycles and tricycles, and is considered the father of the bicycle industry. His inventions include the differential gear and the perfection of the bicycle chain drive.

Starley was born in 1831 at Albourn, Sussex, the son of Daniel Starley, a farmer. He began working on the farm at nine, showing early talent as an inventor by making a rat trap from an umbrella tip and a willow branch. He ran away from home as a teenager and went to Lewisham, south London. Working as an under-gardener, in his spare time he mended watches and created devices such as a mechanism to allow a duck to get through a hole in a fence – it closed a door behind it to prevent a rat following.

His employer John Penn bought an expensive sewing machine, and Starley mended it when it broke down. He also improved the mechanism. Penn knew Josiah Turner, a partner of Newton, Wilson and Company, the makers of the machine and, in 1859 Starley joined its factory in Holborn, London. Turner and Starley subsequently started their own business, the Coventry Sewing Machine Co around 1861.

In November, 1868, chief engineer Josiah Turner’s nephew Rowley brought a new French velocipede to the Coventry Sewing Machine Co factory. As a result, the company resolved at a shareholders’ meeting in February, 1869, to embark on the production of velocipedes; they changed their name to the Coventry Machinists Co (and, in 1898, to the Swift Cycle Co).

James Starley and William Hillman left after to start their own bicycle business in St. John’s Street, Coventry. In the February 1882 issue of ‘The Wheel World’ it states: ‘Up to the end of 1870 the only manufacturers of bicycles in Coventry were the Coventry Machinists Co. Mr Starley senior left them on 26 November 1870, and Mr Hillman on 28 January 1871.’

When William Borthwick Smith joined the business (by 28 February, 1872), the company name became ‘Smith, Starley & Co,’ trading first at St. Agnes Lane and then at Ariel Works, Spon Street, Coventry. The partnership was dissolved when Hillman left in 1872.

Patent 2236 of 11th August, 1870, by James Starley and William Hillman (while they were still employed by CMC) – for ‘improvements to wheels and driving gear’ – led to the first successful all-metal bicycle with metal spoked wheels, which came onto the market in 1871 as the ‘Ariel.’ With the flurry of activity by inventors in the first few years of velocipede design, it can not be ascertained that the Ariel was actually the first ‘penny farthing’ or ‘ordinary’ bicycle to be built, but this was certainly the first successful model to be put on the market.
























Thanks to Nick Clayton for sending me the historic information