WORDS OF WISDOM
PREBENDARY WEBB-PEPLOE …of St Paul’s Cathedral, who was champion gymnast at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1856, is a famous preacher and author. He is unable to bear testimony as to the value of cycling, not having learned to ride, but writes:
“I have very frequently heard it said by those who do cycle, that it tends in every way as a preservation or development of good health.”
– 1905 HARRIS CYCLE CO catalogue, page 24
History tends to follow the characters that made a name for themselves, invariably consigning the rest to obscurity. So we tend to remember the cycle companies that either sold a lot of bicycles, made top quality machines, or went on to make other products with which we are more familiar, such as motorcycles or automobiles.
The Harris is an interesting historic bicycle because, though a small company, the owners developed an interesting strategy, taking on the market leaders at their own game. The 1905 range of Harris bicycles was very similar in styling and components to those made by one of the leading manufacturers, the Triumph Cycle Co. They even gave some of their machines model names identical to Triumph bicycles – Imperial, Royal and Special. If it wasn’t for the distinctive ‘H’ chainwheel, the example featured here could easily be mistaken at first sight for a Triumph. But the killer stroke by the Harris Cycle Co was that their bicycles were top quality machines sold for half the price of a Triumph Imperial or Royal.
It is interesting that, in 1905, Triumph themselves introduced a cheaper model, the Standard, first announced in a supplement to the 1906 Triumph catalogue. Triumph claimed they brought out the Standard (priced at £6 14/- 9d, half the price of their Royal) in response to ‘…so-called cheap cycles, which are dear at any price, and built for effect and cheapness, without any consideration as to quality or durability, and offered by firms of no reputation.’ However, it has to be said that their strongest competition was more likely from Harris which was as cheap as the Triumph Standard and more than its equal in quality.
1906 HARRIS ‘Master-piece’ Roadster
Bowden Cable Rear & Front Rim Brake
There are few surviving Harris roadsters; I’ve heard of only one other. This ‘Master-piece’ is in excellent all-round condition and rides superbly. The rear Bowden brake, with exposed return springs, is particularly attractive; seat stays on bicycles varied considerably, so Bowden had to supply different brake callipers for each manufacturer.
The only job I would do to improve the Harris would be to fit cable ties for the rear Bowden cable. The handlebar grips are damaged where a new cable has been fitted (though not easily seen), and the right brake lever is missing its outer (cosmetic) cover, which does not affect its operation. The hubs are attractive, and match the Harris catalogue illustrations. The machine is in original cosmetically unrestored condition, with the frame retaining much of its box lining. The original transfer (decal) has long since faded into oblivion, but the previous owner had a new head transfer made, and two are supplied with the Harris.
I’m very grateful to the Veteran Cycle Club for providing a copy of the 1905 catalogue (available as a pdf) …because it is one of the most interesting cycle catalogues of its time, with a tour of the Harris factory and plenty of testimonies and pictures to amuse the reader. I have no doubt that the quality of the catalogue – as well as the quality of the bicycles – contributed to the company’s success.
The company advertises an interchangeability of parts – customers may return components and request replacement – and also advises a choice of handlebars (though, to contradict this, they also, later on in the catalogue, advise customers to stick with the parts on offer with each model). So I’m not sure if it is the Master-piece (6 guineas) or the Special (8 guineas). As you can see from my illustration above comparing the 1905 Special with the 1908 Master-piece, it could be either.
Although most of the other components appear to the the same, the 1905 catalogue does not show the H chainwheel fitted to this Harris. I found a 1908 Harris advert with this H chainwheel (above). So I assume this example to be later than 1905. It retains the earlier inverted levers and does not have a mudguard forward extension (i.e. the front mudguard ends at the fork), so I’ve assumed its age to be 1906.
1905 HARRIS CATALOGUE
HARRIS CYCLE CO
Hill Cross Works, Coventry
The beginnings of the company were with a previous concern, the ‘Model Cycle Co’ which was started by Walter Tatlow at Earl St, Coventry, in 1897. William Henry Harris was an old friend of Tatlow, both coming from a watch-making background and both living in Norfolk St from the late 1870s. In 1899, Harris and Tatlow started a new cycle business as the ‘Harris Cycle Co.’
They were very savvy in public relations, opening their factory to public inspection, and offerering guarantees for all machines sold. Tatlow resigned from active duties in 1910, though he still drew £2000 from the business. They brought out the ‘Coventry’ 3.5hp belt-drive motorcycle in 1910. The company managed to survive the war years. The Coventry Evening Telegraph reports that the company appealed to the Coventry Military Tribunal in January 1917 for the release from military service of W.M Payne, age 41, because there were only three men of military age left in their factory. They also appear to have weathered the 1920s, another difficult time for small cycle manufacturers, as they did not cease trading until 1940 after their factory was destroyed in the Blitz.
WORDS OF WISDOM
BOWDEN CABLE REAR BRAKE
1905 HARRIS CATALOGUE
Harris Cycle Co info with thanks to –
The book ‘Coventry’s Bicycle Heritage’ by Damien Kimberley and