…And yesterday at this time I was innocent! Yesterday he was alive – and I could laugh and play the fool, and now!
Oh God! put back Thy universe and give me yesterday! Too late! Too late!
– The Silver King, by Henry Arthur Jones & Wilson Barrett, act 2, scene 4
What’s in a name? In a competitive marketplace, it is not enough to invent and build a good product. It requires marketing, and the first job is to find a suitable name. This will become its identity and, for an inanimate object, the chosen name utterly defines its character for posterity, influencing future generations of its genre.
George Mallory Hendee was a celebrated cycle racer. But, by 1891, he could see that, with the introduction of Safety Bicycles, the ‘Ordinary’ was on the way out. Like many other racers, he decided to enter the cycle retail trade, starting out as a salesman for Merwin, Hulbert & Co, selling Swifts and other cycles from the top English manufacturer, The Coventry Machinists Co. In 1893, he rented one of the largest store rooms in Springfield, Massachusetts, selling a variety of machines.
By 1894, George M Hendee had entered an agreement with the Centaur Cycle Co of England to sell Centaur bicycles in America, operating from his business at 41-43 Taylor Street, Springfield. He mainly imported the Centaur ‘King of Scorchers.’ In order to promote his new cycle agency, he decided to rename the Centaur. While he was in England tying up business with the Centaur Cycle Co, he took the opportunity to explore English society. It’s not known if he went to theatre himself to see a play that was popular at the time, or if he just noticed its name. But, even a decade after its debut, newspapers and magazines of the day were still talking about a play that had revived English theatre. It was called The Silver King.
The Silver King was first staged at the Princess’s Theatre on 16th November 1882. It told the story of a man accused of murder who escapes to Nevada, where he makes his fortune before returning to England to find the real murderer. Victorian theatre had become bawdy, with minimal literate value, playing to the masses. It was generally considered that an audience would not respond favourably to stories unless they included a good deal of adultery and fornication. (Perhaps we could compare the situation with the formulaic movies of Hollywood two centuries later?)
Nevertheless, there was a movement to revive the quality of play-writing, and this new play by Henry Arthur Jones fit the bill perfectly. From the outset, The Silver King was hailed as a superior form of melodrama, and it revived English theatre by appealing to a complete cross-section of society:
‘The public was there, not alone the old, peculiar public of the pit and gallery, with a certain number of the rich and refined in boxes and stalls, and with whole, solid classes of English society conspicuous by their absence. No, it was a representative public, furnished from all classes, and showing that English society at large has now taken to the theatre.’
George Hendee now had the perfect name for his ‘new’ line of bicycles. The Centaur ‘King of Scorchers’ would henceforth be known in America as the ‘Silver King.’
…However, by the time he had placed prominent adverts to promote his new business selling Silver King bicycles for the 1895 season, this ‘upsloper’ style of bicycle went out of fashion in England.
Because of the boom in cycle sales – a massive sales splurge by the public around the world that had never occurred before – a high proportion of manufacturers’ profits were put back into development. Cycle tubing, in particular, at this time, was becoming lighter, and methods of joining the tubes – the ‘lugs’ – were being constantly improved too. 1895 saw a massive leap forward in cycle evolution, with lightweight diamond frames introduced for the 1896 season. The ‘upsloper’ style of the early 1891-1895 was instantly obsolete.
In England, upsloper bicycles were immediately shipped off to the colonies and rural agents to be sold at a discount. Because of the change of style, it would have been impossible for Hendee to compete with other American manufacturers with this old style of machine beyond 1896. So he started a new business, with added capital from Edward A. Nelson, and known as the Hendee & Nelson Mfg Co. They took on two floors of Stacy’s Building, comprising 10,000 sq ft, assembling Centaur bicycles that had the latest diamond frame construction. Their bicycle was still known as the Silver King, but there was now an added line of women’s bicycles called the Silver Queen.
This new diamond frame style would have been a state-of-the-art design for 1896, so Hendee was able to charge a high price for it – $75 – until American makers caught up.
Thirty men have been given employment and as soon as the machinery is in place this number will increase to at least fifty. Next week the firm will commence turning out twenty-five wheels per day. Between 4000 and 5000 wheels will be built by the firm during the winter and of this number 1500 have already been contracted for, with orders coming in daily. The 1896 wheel will be in many respects superior to the ’95. The tubing used is larger than that formerly used, but the proportion of the different parts is so nicely adjusted that the wheel has a much handsomer appearance than with small tubing. (‘The Bearings’ magazine, December, 1895)
Centaur were among the world’s most innovative makers, so were no doubt developing new styles of frames before they were launched at the end of 1895. It’s likely that Hendee was therefore able to buy his initial batch of Centaur King of Scorchers bicycles cheaply during his visit to England in 1894 because of the impending changes of cycle design.
In the early years of the American cycle industry, many English bicycles were imported to the USA. But, by 1895, American companies were well-established, and did not need imports. Import tariffs were subsequently increased to make imported bikes too expensive to sell competitively in the USA. However, if George Hendee had only retailed American bicycles on an agency basis for U.S manufacturers, his products would only have been viable in local markets, and he would have had to compete on price. Starting manufacture of a completely new line of bicycles required massive investment. So reselling top machines from abroad was an ideal solution.
I assume that Hendee used the Centaurs to launch his business because they were ready for sale with minimal attention, and were different from American competitors’ lines. Bear in mind that all Centaurs are very well-made lightweight machines. Centaur was one of England’s top quality manufacturers from its inception in 1876 until its demise in 1909. The famous Centaur Featherweight Cross Frame was developed from the King of Scorchers. And its display at the 1896 National Show was considered the best of all manufacturers that year. The new (diamond) style frames made their debut to much acclaim. The Cyclist magazine declared: ‘The nineteen Centaur cycles which are shown are amongst the finest specimens of cycle construction in the building, and embody an entirely new construction of frame’ and Cycle & Motor World called the Centaur ‘one of the most theoretically perfect bicycles now built.’
It would obviously have made sense for Hendee to import these state-of-the-art new Centaurs to resell as the Silver King. Whereas his first imported Centaurs were complete machines, this time he appears to have brought in the frames without wheels, handlebars or seat posts. I’m not sure if this was to circumvent import tariffs, but it would have made his purchase from Centaur cheaper, as he could easily take on agencies with American wheel and component suppliers to complete the bikes ready for sale. In fact, when Hendee & Nelson went bust in 1897, he owed Centaur $21,985.12, and U.S component suppliers even more.
Look, below, at the K.O.S. Road Racer illustrated in the 1897 Centaur catalogue; now compare it to Steve McQueen’s 1897 Hendee Silver King.
(Presumed) 1894 Centaur ‘King of Scorchers’
…rebadged in America as the Hendee ‘Silver King Safety’
Front Wheel 30″
Rear Wheel 28″
Is this or is this not an example of the model in question? With minimal information available 120 years later, bicycle historians have great difficulty authenticating unidentified bicycles. We tend to err on the side of caution and, unless there is definite proof, consider claims of identity with suspicion. To be totally clear about this, I’ve described this as a ‘Presumed’ Centaur.
Comparing an actual machine with a drawn illustration is not a precise science, but comparing the side profile of this machine with the Centaur ‘King of Scorchers’ illustration above and below, it appears to match in all key features. Centaur made a variety of models (nineteen were displayed at the 1896 Show). Catalogues tended to illustrate the latest versions for greater publicity effect, as others were invariably cheaper models using previous year’s (heavier) frames and/or components.
This bicycle has (the remains of) a lamp bracket and also a fixed fitting to take a front plunger brake. So it’s not the stripped down racer shown in the 1894 Centaur catalogue (below). The bridge on the rear stay is broken, but shows that a mudguard was originally fitted. If it was from 1894 it might be the roadster version, the ‘B.S Diamond.’ Or the original owner could have asked for these optional items to be fitted on purchase.
It could be the previous year’s model. No catalogue illustration has been found yet for 1893, but the above advert from ‘The Wheel’ magazine appears to be from that time, and the (removable) lamp bracket and (fixed) front brake fittings illustrated there match the bicycle. However, the pronounced upward slope of the top tube is more similar to the illustration below.
The 1894 catalogue shows a claimed weight of 20lb or 25lb for the racer versions. This weighs more (though is still lightweight), but it’s hard to compare the weight accurately as the racers have pneumatic tyres and therefore lighter wheels, while this has heavier wheels with solid tyres. I estimate that if it had pneumatics it would weigh around 30lbs. The above advert states that weight. (To weigh a bike, stand on scales without and then with the bike). Pneumatic tyres were shown fitted to the machines illustrated in catalogues at this time, but cheaper solid tyre options were also available.
The removable seat post is an 1895 style rather than the 1894 curved type. The handlebar stem was lowered for the racer, and the Hendee Silver King used that profile for their publicity pictures.
The machine itself has a rusty frame, and no frame number can be found (though there are no records for Centaurs of this period, only later). No other Centaur of this era is known to exist, for comparison, so it can not be definitely proven that this is a Centaur (or is not). No rebadged Hendee Silver King of this age is known to exist in America either.
The front forks have been welded up, so it must be ridden very carefully.
Whether or not it is indeed this very important and rare model, and despite its poor condition, it’s a beautiful lightweight machine that would have been state-of-the-art personal transportation in its day.
1894 CENTAUR CATALOGUE
GEORGE M HENDEE WITH c1897 SILVER KING
1909 STANLEY SHOW: HENDEE MFG CO BRITISH DEBUT
Info on ‘The Silver King’ stage play from the book – Church & Stage in Victorian England, by Richard Foulkes
Thanks to Carlton ‘Fordsnake’ Taylor (of Fairfax, CA, USA) for his excellent research on George M Hendee and Indian’s early years.
Also to Gary MC for starting the history thread, and to Scott McCaskey for permission to reproduce page and pics.
UPDATE: June, 2019 – Steve McQueen’s Silver King sold at auction for $20,000