1915 Swift ‘Imperial’ Military Roadster

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1898 Swift


This model has found immense favour with members of the Police, Military, and Municipal Services throughout the United Kingdom, as well as with riders averaging 15 stone in weight, to whom a specially constructed cycle is necessary. All vital parts are specially strengthened to withstand any extra strain to which they may be subjected.

– 1912 Swift Cycle Co catalogue

The Swift Cycle Co, like other top British cycle manufacturers, built models that could be used by the military before the outbreak of war in 1914. Swift featured an ‘R.I.C Model’ with double top tube and ‘special gauge tubing’ in their 1912 catalogue, below.

swift 1912 military


1915 Swift Imperial Gents

1915 Swift Imperial Gents Roadster

with Military Fittings

Three-Speed Sturmey-Archer ‘Model FX’ Gears

24″ Frame

28″ Wheels

Frame No 606005

(Now sold)


With a shortage of cars and motorcycles caused by the outbreak of war in 1914, the bicycle became a very important form of personal transportation for everyone in Britain. The government was not prepared for war: there was a shortage of everything, even weapons and uniforms. Men who enlisted in the new Cycle Corps used their own machines or purchased a new bicycle from a manufacturer.

In due course, as casualties mounted, the government provided extra incentives to try and get more men to enlist, including a military bicycle. But for the first year of the war, a machine such as this Swift would have been a typical example of a civilian roadster owned by a member of a volunteer cyclist battalion, with military fittings added before setting off for war. Common accessories included a front carrier rack and rifle clips, although neither was essential: his kitbag would fit neatly onto the rear carrier and his cape could be mounted over the front handlebars with leather straps, as seen here.

Here you can see pictures of the bicycle with basic military fittings, and also before it was ‘called into service’.

It is one of the bicycles featured in the new book ‘Bad Teeth No Bar: the History of Military Bicycles in the Great War’ (extracts below)





1915 Swift Imperial Gents



After enlistment, cyclist volunteers would be sent to a training centre…




1915 Swift Imperial Gents







1915 Swift Imperial Gents

The Coventry Sewing Machine Co. was set up in King Street, Cheylesmore, Coventry, by James Starley and Josiah Turner to import and market sewing machines from America. Later they manufactured their own sewing machines and changed the name to The Coventry Machinists Co. In 1869 they started to manufacture velocipedes, bicycles, tricycles and quadricycles and became the second largest cycle maker in Great Britain under the name of the Swift Cycle Co. They produced a vast range of these machines, one model being named the “Swift” and another the “Club” as many cycle clubs were being set up at that time.

In 1898 they produced their first motor cycle and a motor tricycle. The first prototype car was made in 1900 which went into production in1901. It had a tubular chassis, a single cylinder de Dion engine and a two-speed back axle. The Swift Motor Co. was formed in 1902 and produced one, two, three and four-cylinder cars, first using proprietary engines up to about 1907 and then those designed by their Works Engineer, William Radford, which were made in their own factory. During the early 1900′s Swift entered their cars in reliability trials and won many gold medals. Up to 1915 several models were produced each year.

During the First World War the factory produced munitions, Renault and Hispano-Suiza aircraft engines, military bicycles and other war equipment. In 1919 the Company joined the ill-fated Harper-Bean organisation and changed its name to Swift of Coventry Ltd. Production was then concentrated on the four-cylinder 10hp and 12hp models which were renowned for their reliability. Although Swifts had their faithful followers, by the late 1920′s their hand-built cars could not compete with the mass-production methods of Morris, Austin, and Ford, whose similar cars sold for only half the price of Swifts. In spite of producing a cheaper 8hp model, the Cadet, with a Coventry Climax engine and a centre-change three-speed gear box in late 1930, this was insufficient to save the Company and the factory closed its doors for the last time in April 1931.

– The Swift Club – http://www.theswiftclub.co.uk/

Swift Cycle Co adverts often proclaimed: PIONEERS OF THE BRITISH CYCLE INDUSTRY. With such a distinguished place in cycling history, the Swift Cycle Co produced distinctive bicycles. The more expensive models sported duplex forks, generally considered the ‘preserve’ of top manufacturers such as Humber, Centaur and Ariel. After WW1, the company changed their name to Swift of Coventry and their bicycles featured a chainwheel spelling out the name ‘SWIFT’ as well as a unique ‘S’ lamp bracket. But, as you can see here, the chainwheel on earlier Swift machines was in the shape of a pentagram. By the time this machine was produced, the company was focusing mainly on its motorised departments.

In 1914 Swift, like other cycle manufacturers, turned its factory over to war work and scaled down its cycle production, except for machines supplied to the Government for military use. It’s likely that this 1915 Swift Imperial Roadster was used either in the field or as a mount for an officer at home.

1915 Swift Imperial Gents



1915 Swift Imperial Gents



132-134 Long Acre, Covent garden, London

Swift Cycleslongacre

Although Swift Cycle Co adverts claim its formation, as the Coventry Machinists Co in 1859, written history of james Starley shows the date as 1861:

May 14th, 1861, Starley left Newton, Wilson & Co and, with Josiah Turner and Silas Covell Salisbury, an American, went to Coventry to embark in the sewing machine trade. Salisbury and Starley patented a sewing machine. They rented part of the premises of a Mr. John Newark, on the site later occupied by the Swift works but the business did not prosper.

Local interest in finding work for under-employed watchmakers and those from the ribbon trade led to the formation of the European Sewing machine Co to make sewing machines, which retained the services of Messrs. Turner and Starley. The works were initially in Little Park Street, later in King Street. Soon a larger factory was needed where the ‘European’, ‘Godiva,’ ‘Express’ and ‘Swiftsure’ sewing machines were made. The company became the Coventry Sewing Machine Co, then the Coventry Machinists Co and later Swift Cycle Co.

Like many cycle manufacturers based in the Midlands, Swift Cycle Co Ltd had a showroom in London. Theirs was in Long Acre, Covent Garden, a centre for businesses connected with the cycle industry and motor trade.

swift cycles 1915

Long Acre’s most famous cycle manufacturer is Denis Johnson, who had a workshop at 69-75, Acre House. His Hobby Horse – he called it a pedestrian curricle – was an improved version of the German Draisene, invented by Karl Drais. This forerunner of the bicycle was also known as a Swift Walker. He made at least 320 machines in early 1819 and, in May of that year, introduced a dropped-frame version for ladies to accommodate their long skirts. He also opened riding schools in the Strand and Soho.

For about six months the machine had a high profile in London and elsewhere, its principal riders being the Regency dandies. About eighty prints were produced in London, depicting the ‘hobby-horse’ and its users, not always in a flattering light. Johnson’s son undertook a tour of England in the spring of 1819 to exhibit and publicise the item. Nevertheless, by the summer of the same year the craze was dying out, and a health warning against the continued use of the velocipede was issued by the London Surgeons.

In Johnson’s machine, like that of von Drais, propulsion was simply by ‘swift walking’, with the rider striking his (or her) feet on the ground alternately. However, it led directly (albeit after a long delay) to the invention of the bicycle in the 1860s, when rotary cranks and pedals were attached to the front-wheel hub of a machine based on Johnson’s.

denis johnson long acre hobby horse

The coachbuilding trade dominated Long Acre in the nineteenth century – in 1906 41 buildings in the street were occupied by firms associated with transport, a mixture of traditional coachbuilders and those connected with the motor trade. By 1916 the transition to motor cars and related trades was almost complete. The Mercedes showroom was at number 127 to 130, close to Daimler and Fiat. At number 132 in 1929, John Logie Baird made the first British television broadcast.

swift cycle co long acre

1915 Swift Imperial Gents