Category Archives: Bicycles

The Fix Is In: Napoleon Mens Bicycle by The Jenkins Cycle Co., ca. 1895


There is something to be said for tracing a design’s lineage. Modern utilitarian objects are expected to be refined and improvements made as they become more common and as technology warrants. We’re sometimes astonished when the primitive is, in fact, as refined — if not more refined — than the modern version.

Take, for example, this Napoleon bicycle, manufactured by the Jenkins Cycle Co. of Chicago (1895–1898). This lightweight, fixed-gear bike feels so light in the hand, one could mistake the carefully engineered steel frame for carbon fiber or aluminum. The black structure retains most of its finish along with what appears to be faded gold detail. The wood rims have survived without the hindrance of cracks or splits, giving them the potential to once again carry tires, while the head badge, showing some wear, sits proudly in place.

Though primarily a commuter bike, this model encapsulates the notion of quality craftsmanship with the simplicity of pared-back, functional design.

Sink or Schwinn: Steel Parts Cabinet, ca. 1940s

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Iconic Americana brands share a number of similar characteristics: innovation, good design, value and quality. Aside from these factors, truly enduring brands become synonymous with the items they sell. Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Chevrolet, Harley-Davidson and Mobil Oil are easily identifiable, partly due to the narrative that comes rolled into the fabric of each brand; Levi’s represents comfortable work wear, Coke is a joyful experience, and Harley-Davidson equals freedom.

In 1895 the Schwinn Bicycle Company opened its doors in Chicago, a city quickly becoming the hub of cycling production in the U.S. Its founders were German-American immigrants Ignaz Schwinn, an engineer who had built bicycles in Europe, and Adolph Arnold, a meat-packer who bankrolled the business’s start. Though a bicycle boom was underway, the following years presented challenges such as the rise of the automobile in the early 1900s, the Depression of the late 1920s and the growing influx of lighter-weight British-made bicycles in the 1940s.

Nevertheless, Schwinn remained competitive, striking a balance between innovative design and low-cost production. In 1934 it released the AeroCycle, which soon became known as the Paperboy or Cruiser. It featured wide balloon tires, a push-button bell and an imitation gas tank. Competitors quickly followed suit and rushed similar models to market. Before long, this design became the standard of bicycle styling.

Marketing and merchandising were also key to the company’s success. In the 1950s, in particular, Schwinn began scaling back its agreements with department stores that were re-branding its bikes to sell in-house; instead, it encouraged bike shops to stock Schwinn products exclusively. Such retail partners also carried a selection of genuine Schwinn-made parts and accessories to complement and ensure the long life of the bicycles.

Extra-large parts cabinets like the one pictured were uncommon and generally found in larger, flagship-level stores. This item would have sat pride-of-place on a bike shop’s counter as a utilitarian piece housing various Schwinn parts according to their serial numbers. The door can be raised to allow access to the inner, flat work surface, and the divided drawers below are easy to reach. Free of dents, this chest boasts its original handles and clear, sharp graphics on both the outside and inside.

Pedal to the Mettle: WWII B.S.A. Airborne Paratroopers Bicycle, ca. 1940s

Friends and associates alike have often heard Dorset Finds prattle on about the WWII-era BSA Paratrooper bike, a rare and somewhat mythical piece of militaria that folded, attached to a parachute-equipped commando and jettisoned from carrier planes over occupied European territory. The search for a clean, original example over the past few years has met with several dead ends, but finally, it’s proven fruitful.

Possessing equal parts design ingenuity,  a great story (a lost tale of badass-ery to rival any since) and machismo — servicemen used parabikes to chariot their female acquaintances du jour — this collectible is worthy of significant praise.

B.S.A. (Birmingham Small Arms and Metal Co.) was founded in 1861 as a munitions manufacturer and supplier. Most of the company’s revenue was derived from government contracts, for supplying rifles throughout the Boer War, WWI and WWII. Though orders from the governments of Turkey, Russia, the Netherlands and Portugal followed, B.S.A. diversified into bicycles in 188o — and later, motorcycles — in order to remain competitive.

British and Allied forces adopted the Airborne Paratrooper bike during WWII. Photographic evidence demonstrates their use in large-scale landings, including the D-Day invasion at Normandy in 1944 and the Battle of Arnhem later that year. It was highly advantageous for soldiers to land already carrying their transportation, as they conserved energy by not having to walk the great distances from town to town. Rifles could be stored in the bike frame, with the rider’s supplies stowed on his back. Each bike was fitted with a tool bag and tire pump for repairs on the go.

This example features its original B.S.A. leather saddle, unrestored military green paint, pedal bars, lamp bracket, grips and “war grade” Michelin tires. The frame hinges at two points in the middle where the bike can be collapsed. Large wing nuts make for easy locking and unlocking of the frame. Original decals, including the B.S.A. logo of three crossed rifles, are clear and sharp.

Special thanks to The B.S.A. & Military Bicycle Museum and the Old Bike blog.

Fast Times: Rollfast Bicycle By Harris, ca. 1930s

De Lancey Harris founded the D.P. Harris Hardware & Manufacturing Co. in 1895, later entrusting his son, George D. Harris — and subsequently, grandsons Del and Tom Harris — to manage the family business. Rollfast was but one of the bicycle brands Harris owned, but it garnered the most renown. They teamed up with the H.P. Snyder Manufacturing Company in the early 1900s, with Snyder taking on the responsibility of manufacturing, while Harris provided some of the parts and marketed their lines of bicycles. In the 1930s, Snyder began fabricating bicycles for other retailers, such as Montgomery Ward, which sold them under the Hawthorne name.

While rough, this un-badged Rollfast example embodies the design style of the period: wooden and steel rims, correct neck and skip-tooth sprocket. The frame has been repainted black, and the Goodyear tires are, well, tired. Nevertheless, this bicycle is a survivor and worthy of either restoration or just resting in a quiet corner to be admired.

*A special shout out to Billy at Red Lantern Bicycles for his help in identifying this item!

Crank it: Phillips Excelsis Mens Bicycle, ca. 1940s

If living in New York presented no restrictions when it came to space and if money were no object, I’d collect classic cars. I’d spend my days driving them, cleaning them and perhaps even thinning out the stable in order to make room for another mid-year Corvette. The fact is there are space restrictions and you can pretty much surmise the rest.

Until this little issue is rectified, classic bikes are an appealing option. They’re great transportation and their design and fabrication really speak to a specific time that’s long gone.

Phillips Cycles originated in Smethwick, England in the early 20th Century and was absorbed by Raleigh, its long-time competitor, in the 1980s.

This 1940s Excelsis model is breathtaking in no small part because of the almost flawless paint which remains bright and sharp. There are several original decals located all over this bike and every component, from the pedals, to the crank, to the leather sprung saddle is original and branded with the Phillips name. With a new saddle, this fine British bulldog of a bicycle would be ready to tear up the bitumen once again.

The Sum of All Parts: New Departure Tool Box, ca. 1940s

A place for everything and everything in its place. Isn’t that the instruction Moms collectively passed down to their youngins?

New Departure Manufacturing Company started business in 1888 as a maker of doorbells before shifting gears (yes, a lame pun) and moving into automobile, motorcycle and bicycle parts. More specifically, coaster brakes, wheel hubs and precision ball bearings. (Incidentally, brothers Albert and Edward Rockwell also formed the Yellow Taxicab Company in 1909 but that’s a story for another post).

Toward the end of the First World War, the company was acquired by General Motors who accurately surmised the value of their bearing components.

This rather large tool kit (25″ x 12″) managed to weather many bike shop-related storms over the years and surprisingly still possesses clear graphics and only mild pitting of the steel. Under the hinged top is a storage section for larger tools and parts while below, two ample drawers reside, each with divided sections for smaller components.

The Full Monty: Hawthorne Deluxe Mens Bicycle, ca. 1940s

No sah, this is no fixie. Stripped back components and notions of weight restriction for ease in slinging your bike over your shoulder and bounding up to your 4th floor walk-up don’t get a look in at Dorset Finds HQ. Don’t get me wrong, a friendly nod of respect to all the fixies on the road is due, but this right here is cooler even in a stationary position before flicking up the kick-stand (which er, weighs more than most single-speed bikes out there).

Hawthorne bikes were sold in Montgomery Ward stores starting in the 1930s and were early adopters of the balloon tire. This line emerged at a time when many U.S. bicycle companies were also in the business of manufacturing motorcycles and the similarities in design are clear.

This model boasts a sprung saddle, front shock absorber and a battery-powered head lamp with glass lens.

When I first spotted this piece at the Brimfield Antique Show, it was being wheeled down the road having just been purchased. It stayed on my mind and the following day I spotted it again, this time being sold by another dealer who’d just acquired it that morning. After a quick negotiation, the Hawthorne, along with a beautiful 1940s Philips bicycle – which will be blogged about soon along with some other related finds – were mine.

Rust is my friend but this one was a challenge. Every inch of this cruiser had been attacked, from the crank to the frame to the chrome head lamp and handle bars. After some arduous rust removal and cleaning, the paint color of the bike started to come through. Now I’m pleased to say this little gem is war weary but fully intact and ready to ride.

Heavy Pedal: Columbia/ Pope Bicycle, ca. 1940s

Given the rise of cycling as an environmentally friendly mode of transport in major cities, it’s fascinating to look back at a time when cycling was perceived to be limited to those under the legal driving age and those seeking some carefree recreational fun.

The quality of American-built bicycles is something I’ve really begun to appreciate. Not only were they built to last, but as an investment they’re generally undervalued.

The Pope Manufacturing Company was started in 1877 and produced, among other things, motorcycles and automobiles. It later became the Columbia Mfg. Co. but at one time Pope was the foremost manufacturer of bikes in the U.S.

This women’s model dates to the late 1940s and has been very well preserved. Not only is there no rust on the frame, this bike still has many of its original components. The chain guard, leather sprung seat and even the battery-operated head lamp are intact and functioning. Better still, when this bicycle was acquired, it came with a photo (dated 1952) of the bike with its original owner.

Commander in Chief: Tricycle, ca. 1940s

Running away could not be sweeter. Go clean your own room Ma...

Arguably, a child’s first taste of freedom is dealt with the arrival of their tricycle. No longer are they dependent on a parent for propulsion and they can dictate their own journey, even if it’s only within the limits of the driveway or playground.

The “Commander” was a deluxe model of tricycle manufactured in the 1940s by The Garton Toy Company of Sheboygan, WI. It’s a larger than average tricycle measuring 45″ long and unlike most three-wheelers which are powered via pedals extending from the front wheel, this model has a crank and chain. Remarkably, this example still has the rubber foot pads at the rear cross bar, used by an additional rider, plus original grips, wrap-around handlebars, sprung saddle and chain guard.