Saturday, April 3, 2010

Favorite Things: 1950s "Commuter" Bicycles

Express (German)

When European bicycle manufacturers began to rebound from World War II in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they faced competition not only from still-robust British and American bicycle industries, but also a huge global turn away from the transportation bicycle and towards automobility. For about a decade, they tried to compete with both threats by producing high-quality "commuter" bicycles that would appeal to people who couldn't afford to buy and maintain a car, but wanted a reliable, technologically advanced, and even luxurious vehicle.

While American manufacturers were pumping out balloon tire cruisers (shudder) and Raleigh was busy buying up all the other British firms*, comparatively small European manufacturers were actually advancing the field and they were extremely prescient of what folks a half-century later would want in a good commuter/utility bike.

Another Express (branded "Alvia")

The vehicles they produced are absolute inspirations for the utility cyclist: integrated racks, drum brakes, internal gearing, chain guards or full chain cases, fenders, integrated lighting systems, steel frames, aluminum alloy components to reduce weight, and an aesthetic that emphasizes equally style, comfort, and utility. They even pioneered a "hybrid" of sorts, with flatter, straighter bars and a more forward riding position than typical city bikes of the time.  They are sexy bikes.

Cosmos (Swiss) from vintage bikes/Flickr

Doniselli (Italian) from vintage bikes/Flickr

See The Island of Misfit Bicycles (image below from there) for some vintage bicycle lighting fetishism and some pretty cool examples of this kind of design (esp. around May/June 2009).

Helyett (France)

*This is not to say that Raleigh and their competitor/subsidiary brands did not also make excellent quality commuter/utility bikes. And for that matter, that American brands didn't also try their hand at similar designs, but I just really like the particular aesthetics and intelligence of the European builds.