The Old Ones Are The Good Ones, Tim Dawson (2010)

Original article, first published in

Riding around Edinburgh on his 1910 Raleigh, design historian Nicholas Oddy, takes pleasure from not standing out from the crowd. “People see that it is an oldish bike – but beyond that they take no notice. It is the only century-old vehicle on which you can take to the streets without looking too unusual”.

Not only that, he contends, but a bicycle of this vintage actually provides a superior ride than nearly anything that has been produced since – he regularly undertakes leisurely day rides of up to 100 miles to prove his point.

“Edwardian roadsters were manufactured for discerning middle-class buyers for whom they were the only viable form of transport. They were intended for comfortable, unhurried transport, rather than a sweaty dash”.

Once moneyed buyers turned to the private car, says Oddy, who lectures on design at Glasgow School of Art, the quality of bicycles manufactured by the big companies plummeted. “Regular bikes of the 1950s were significantly heavier and worse built than their counterparts of half a century earlier – that is why serious British cyclists of that time turned away from the big manufacturers in place of niche lightweight builders, who generally served small, local markets.”

If you want a rideable bike of that vintage yourself, he advises looking for a brand such as Sunbeam. They produced great quality bikes in large numbers, so decent, pre World War One examples can be found for a few hundred pounds – either in local auction house, or with specialists such as Bonhams (who Oddy advises as a valuation consultant) or Transport Collector Auctions.

“Values start to rise with smaller volume manufacturers such as Lea-Francis, good examples of whose bicycles might sell for £1,000 plus”. As ever among items that are collectible, there are sometimes paradoxical forces that affect value. Edwardian women’s bikes are generally worth a good deal less than men’s variants – because men’s bikes were more likely to be ridden into the ground, or to have fallen prey to tinkering and adaptation.

Women’s versions of unusually framed bicycles from a decade earlier, however, are highly prized, because so few were made. So, for example, an original Dursley Pedersen, even in tatty condition will sell for at least £1,000, a women’s version might go for as much as £3,000.

Valuing even older bikes is also not as straightforward as you might imagine.

Really early Penny Farthings were very heavily made and now seem uncomfortable to ride and might now fetch around £1,000. By the mid-1880s, big wheeled bicycles had reached their apotheosis, with hollow tubing, lightly-built wheels and ball bearings. A decent model from this period, such as a Rudge, in ride-able condition, will often go for more than double the price of rarer, earlier machines.

The earlier velocipedes, of which a great many were manufactured from the late 1860s until the early 1870s are actually worth rather less – they look more ‘antique’, but are difficult to look after and not much fun to ride.

Examples of the earliest recognisable bicycles, Draisines, however, for which there was a brief craze around 1819 could go for anything from £5,000 to £30,000 – so long as the owner could prove provenance. Few were made, and you needed an aristocrat’s wealth to buy one, so don’t expect to find one at the back of grandad’s coal shed.

There isn’t a standard work for valuing bicycles, unfortunately, but membership of the Veteran-Cycle Club does provide access to a wealth of useful information, he suggests.

If you are looking for a punt on a bicycle that might be a snip today and worth a mint tomorrow, Oddy offers the following counsel.

“The best way to buy any potential collectors’ item for investment is to get it cheap. The market for classic lightweights (handmade British bikes from the 1930s to the 1970s) is already quite strong, so I would avoid that, unless you can buy below established retail price, which requires good knowledge. There will always be a market for bikes that are as they would have been in the showroom and anything iconic, or with an interesting history will be worth more. Machines to look at are those that currently seem to have a low following but once enjoyed a high profile, first-generation mountain bikes, for example. I suspect that you might yet find very tidy 1982 Gary Fisher bikes at the back of garages.”

For Oddy, though it will always be the classic roadster that gets his blood pumping fastest – he does have around 50 in a number of lock up garages near his flat. “They are an absolute delight to ride with their 28 inch wheels, high bottom brackets and high gears. You have to be adapt at pedalling slowly, but you can ride them all day in perfect comfort.”

TD July 2010

Picture: Oddy and his Raleigh, courtesy of Mark Stevens

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