HOW OLD IS MY BICYCLE?
‘How old is my bicycle?’ is a question I get asked a lot, nearly as much as: ‘I have a bicycle that looks like one of yours; if I send you pictures please can you identify it for me?’
The answer, in short, is that I do not have time to tell you either. I’m not being callous about this. With an estimated 15,000 bicycle manufacturers, the odds are stacked against me recognizing yours; in any case, I do not claim to be an expert, just an assiduous recorder of information. To sift through information to try and find similar pictures to your unidentified bicycle would take me months, and I’m already doing similar research on my own bikes. Not only do I have a full-time job (I run my own business restoring and selling vintage vehicles) and am a hands-on parent of a young child, but I spend a minimum 30 hours every week building, updating and maintaining these free websites to help you do your own research. My hobby usually takes a backseat. Insomnia is my saving grace, otherwise there would be no time for any of this.
My purpose for creating these databases is simple. In the ‘old days’ (a time which seems to have ended in the past twenty five years or so), a youngster became an apprentice in a chosen field and learned its history from the older employees. Thus, for example, an apprentice mechanic was handed down an invaluable unwritten guide to repairing vehicles that could not be learned at college nor from books, because, as well as specific information about various models, it helped a youngster understand the way they were designed and built.
Similarly, to learn about vintage bicycles, we ask questions of our elders in the hobby. The key point here is that the elders who were around while our favourite vintage machines were still on the road are no longer with us, the last of them having passed on in the past thirty years or so. Now we must depend on those who gleaned that first-hand knowledge from them; these chaps were the ‘youngsters’ then, but now they’re getting older themselves, most in their seventies and eighties. They don’t usually use computers, so much of their knowledge is stored in their heads. By the time we learn from them, it’s second-generation information. My contemporaries and I are in a younger age group – forties to sixties – and we’re busy learning and recording what we can before it’s lost forever. We study 100-year-old magazines to see when certain new innovations were first reviewed (it helps us date bicycles with similar features), read correspondence of the time to try to understand contemporary views and opinions, research old catalogues, meet fellow enthusiasts, help each other with restorations, ride our old bikes as much as possible, and work with our elders to pick up tips and wisdom.
If you can help in any way by contributing to this research, please get in touch. My email is embedded in the picture below.
By recording and sharing this knowledge while it’s still as fresh as possible, our fabulous vintage hobbies will continue for centuries to come.
TO FIND OUT HOW OLD YOUR BIKE IS – JOIN THE VETERAN CYCLE CLUB!
Although we are in the so-called ‘Information Age’ and the internet provides a surplus of it – some of it accurate, much of it misleading – there is nowhere near enough information on vintage bicycles. This surprises many people. Sometimes, folks with no experience of the vintage hobby who may have recently unearthed an old bicycle contact me and demand that I immediately tell them what it is, how old it is and what it’s worth. I try to explain as politely as possible that such a service does not exist, and they are often abusive as a result. Usually they want me to identify it so they can sell it on ebay. Luckily, I remembered an old Sufi saying, ‘Only explain things to people in a language they understand.’ So now I answer that such a service, which will obviously increase the value of their unidentified machine, will cost them £50 + VAT. It’s still not a service I actually offer – but at least they are less abusive.
The question remains: ‘How old is my bicycle?’ Also, ‘I have a bicycle that looks like one of yours; if I send you pictures please can you identify it for me?’
The answer is simple. The Veteran Cycle Club (V-CC) has a system of ‘marque enthusiasts’ – volunteers who compile what information they can about particular manufacturers. By joining the V-CC you can access whatever information is available. If that doesn’t help, if it is interesting enough, you might be able to send pictures of it to the the V-CC magazine, or take it to vintage shows and ask exhibitors, or keep an eye on ebay to see if something similar ever comes up. Identifying an unknown bicycle is hard work. You may be lucky, but more than likely it will remain a mystery.
As I have stated before, the V-CC archives and Ray Miller’s Encyclopaedia are invaluable resources: these ongoing projects are becoming the world’s primary source of information on vintage bicycles. The V-CC’s system of marque specialists is unrivalled throughout the world. I recommend every vintage bicycle enthusiast to join the V-CC to access these (and many other) excellent facilities.
FRAME NUMBER DATING
Bicycles that can be dated with 100% accuracy are the exception. Marque enthusiasts use records of shop ledgers that recorded dates sold and frame numbers, and then calculate the ages of other bicycles by comparing them with known frame numbers. Sometimes the date sold does not reflect when a bicycle was actually manufactured (for example, Dursley Pedersens were very expensive, badly marketed and often took a long time to sell). Only certain manufacturers’ frame number sequencing is known. Many did not use chronoligical sequences.
Many manufacturers used ‘bought-in’ bikes at different times, ie made by a different company. This happened in particular in the 1890s when frame styles changed every few years. Frames made by top companies with the old designs were sold off through the trade, so smaller companies then sold bicycles using the old frames with different parts years after!
The records of the majority of the smaller companies no longer exist: you’d be surprised how fast the entire history of a company disappears once the factory closes. There were also a lot of ‘dodgy practices’ within the bicycle trade, with companies regularly liquidating and starting up again and spurious production claims often made for advertising purposes and to inflate a company’s worth. Few published their true production figures. It’s a nightmare trying to make sense of it a hundred years later.
A catalogue description is a good guide, though we rarely have a manufacturer’s catalogue for every year, so may not know for how many years a model was current. Also, though we now consider a catalogue description to be an accurate guide to a bicycle’s specification, despite the catalogue options listed a customer could choose any option whatsoever, even components sold by a competing company.
It’s possible to date Sturmey-Archer hubs, so if the rear hub is original to the bike that often helps.
Bear in mind that owners often updated their bicycles over the years; though we might like our bike to match its catalogue description, updated parts are also a valid part of its history and provenance.
Details of the following manufacturers have been published, so I hope this page can provide an easy reference point. I’ll add to it as I find more.
RALEIGH FRAME NUMBER DATING
1.The Raleigh Heron Head transfer was introduced in 1908. In the same year, mudguards received a forward extension.
2. Raleigh’s ‘R’ lamp bracket was superseded in September 1927 by the heron lamp bracket (see below). The company had been taking steps to make it harder for makers of cheap bicycles to copy Raleigh parts. The ‘R’ bracket was easy to copy, so they introduced this more complex lamp bracket instead.
Consult the list below to help remember when these companies were still ‘original’ before being taken over by Raleigh:
Three Spires 1954
BSA , New Hudson, Sunbeam 1957
RUDGE-WHITWORTH FRAME NUMBER DATING
Production has been attributed as follows, with frame numbers as at 31 July each year:
SUNBEAM FRAME NUMBER DATING
1909 = 96,739 (declared)
1910 = 101,700 (calculated)
1911 = 106,700 (calculated)
1912 = 111,642 (declared)
PREMIER FRAME NUMBER DATING
BEESTON HUMBER FRAME NUMBER DATING
ELSWICK HOPPER FRAME NUMBER DATING
The following dated bicycle frame numbers from the Singer Car Club (not guaranteed):
1903 – 142069
1903 – 172676
1905 – 184483
1908 – 225451
1909 – 232178
I started to collate frame numbers from 1890s-1920 Triumph bicycles, and will update it as I go along. You can see it at the new Triumph Bicycle Museum
GERMAN NSU BICYCLES
(translated from German)
There’s no definite official information about part numbers and corresponding registration years. This data is approximate. With an accuracy of + / – one years, but they are assumed to be relatively safe.
1900 ~ 7000
1910 ~ 18,000
1925 ~ 550,000
1929 ~ 675,000
1930 ~ 685,000
1931 ~ 692,000
1932 ~ 700,000
1933 ~ 720,000
1934 ~ 770,000
1935 ~ 920,000
1936 ~ 1,000,000
1937 ~ 1.200.000
1938 ~ 1,300,000
1939 ~ 1,450,000
1940 ~ 1,550,000
1941 ~ 1,650,000
1942 ~ 1,700,000
1943 ~ 1,750,000
1944 ~ 1,800,000
1945 ~ 1,806,000
1946 Renumbered: Prewar numbers re-used. For example, 800,000 might be 1935 or 1956.
1947 ~ 55,000
1948 ~ 100,000
1949 ~ 175,000
1950 ~ 320,000
1951 ~ 420,000
1952 ~ 570,000
1953 ~ 650,000
1954 ~ 700,000
1955 ~ 750,000
1956 ~ 800,000
1957 ~ 900.000 to about 990.000
From 1957 / 990,000 Onwards: NSU used the same numbers as prewar again, so it’s confusing.
DATING FROM TORPEDO REAR HUBS
The best bet on post-1957 machines is to check the Torpedo rear wheel hubs. Since around 1920 they used a production stamp, with which they can be dated:
“36”, therefore stands for example for the production date in 1936; later, there were also some 1-digit numbers:
“5” or “55”, built in 1955
“6” or “56”, Built in 1956
“7”, built 1957
In 1958 there were also letters:
“A”, built in 1958
“B”, built in 1959
“C”, built in 1960
“D”, built in 1961
“E”, built in 1962
(Front hubs do not have date indicators)
COLUMBIA (USA) SERIAL NUMBERS 1936 – 1972
STURMEY ARCHER DATING GUIDE
If you want further details of Sturmey Archer hubs, buy the superb book The Sturmey Archer Story by Tony Hadland, available through the V-CC.
THE INTRODUCTION OF CHROME: 1930
The cycle industry was an early adopter of the new chrome process, and chrome was first used on bicycles in 1928.
Maurice Selbach is believed to have been the first British manufacturer to have used it in 1928 (see extract from his 1929 catalogue, below)
Shelby was one of the first US manufacturers to use chrome; their 1928 ‘Lindy’ model had a mixture of chrome and nickel.
It was offered as an option in 1930 by various British manufacturers (see extract from 1930 Raleigh catalogue, below) and by BSA in 1931 (I don’t have a copy of the BSA 1930 catalogue to check). Catalogues were generally printed the year before the season indicated in a catalogue. By 1933 it had become widely used.
If you want to date a vintage bicycle and it has chrome parts, it is generally accepted that it would have been made from 1930 onwards, or updated if made earlier.
WHEEL RIM DIMENSIONS
Here’s a handy 1911 reference guide for the rim dimensions on 26″ and 28″ wheels, both wired-edge and beaded-edge.
I’ve also reproduced the following wheel and tyre guides on the tyre page, but it may be useful to have all this reference stuff on one page.
MODERN TYRE SIZES
Bicycle tyre sizes are so confusing! Vintage motorcycle tyres are logical, those for cycles are not. Here’s a chart to help…
Some time ago, I asked John and Sue Middleton why they sold their wonderful bicycle museum in Camelford, Cornwall. They explained they’d always been upset that they received little support from fellow enthusiasts or vintage cycle clubs. But the turning point was apparently an incident when a visitor parked his car right in front of the entrance, and a big argument ensued when John tried to get him to move it. The driver insisted he had the right to park wherever he liked. I suppose ‘the great British public’ is an animal best avoided if you don’t have a thick skin, because statistically you’re eventually going to meet every sort of person in such circumstances.
I belong to many vintage clubs, but I refuse to have anything to do with their politics. Hobbyists, by definition, are eccentric (myself included): put more than one in a room together and the outcome is unpredictable. I support clubs because they help our hobby. I have wonderful friends within the hobby. I keep the two separate. I actually do spend an inordinate amount of time answering emails and phonecalls regarding obscure anomalies of our cycling and motorcycle history (I’m also a Veteran Motorcycle Club marque specialist). The questions I respond to are generally tricky ones that can’t be easily answered by the V-CC, those from fellow enthusiasts who have a similar machine to one of my own, and folks who need help with stuff left to them from enthusiast dads who have passed away. But, like other volunteers, there’s only so much time in the day to dedicate to our hobbies, and as much as I love vintage vehicles, I also have a fabulous life outside the hobby that takes priority. Good luck researching your bicycle …and I hope you continue to enjoy these websites 🙂
NSU DATING thanks to – http://www.fahrrad.nsu24.de