Vintage Mopeds and Scooters: the Precursor to e-bikes?

1962 VeloSolex moped

A lot of DNA is shared among vintage bicycles, motorcycles, scooters and mopeds.  Pneumatic tires, Bowden cables, chain drive, frame and fork geometry, as well as components including stems, seatposts, handlebars, grips and brake levers were utilized in common across these vintage machines.

I had an early introduction to scooters when my parents trucked home a Honda CT 90 to our rural farm back in the late ’60’s.  Once the little motorbike was off the flatbed, I was stricken with intrigue.  My parents made the mistake of “allowing” me to ride this little machine on the rural roads around our hay farm in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon.  At age 12, I propped my 9 year old sister on the back, and proceeded to ride far afield of my parent’s requirements, even crashing the bike into a ditch in a particularly unpleasant and embarrassing experience.  But most of the time, my spirits soared whenever I threw a leg over.  Even though I had my internal hub 3 speed bike to explore logging roads and irrigation canals, this gas powered machine allowed me to venture much further beyond the limitations of my little kid muscles and my clunky 3 speed Sears-Puch diamond-framed bicycle.

1897 Millet motorized bicycle

Motor-assist bicycles were first introduced over 120 years ago, back in the late 1890’s.  By this time in history bicycles were widely accepted and utilized for transportation, leisure and sport, but with the advent of the internal combustion engine (first developed in 1794) inventors made headway with adapting an engine to a bicycle frame. The above pictured bike utilized an air-cooled radial 5 cylinder engine incorporated into the rear wheel.  The rear fender doubled as the fuel tank.  It used a twist grip throttle, and could be started with pedals, much like modern mopeds.  The bike reached a maximum speed of 21 mph at 180 rpms.  The pedals served not only to start the bike up, but to provide for an alternative option should the engine fail.

Another fascinating approach to power assist on a bicycle was developed by Wall Auto-Wheel. First patented in 1908, this device could be added to any bicycle.  The 118 cc air-cooled single cylinder engine was mounted in a sub-frame which attached to the bicycle at three points.  There was a lever control at the handlebars which operated the throttle.  The whole unit was “lightweight” at 45 lbs.

1947 Whizzer Luxembourg

In the U.S, Los Angeles based Breen-Taylor Engineering developed the Whizzer bicycle engine in 1939.  This was a motor kit which could be added to any bicycle.  As you can see from the above photo, this was no small feat, and required many modifications and enhancements to allow this 150cc engine to perform with relative safety.  Whizzers were often added to the very robust American steel frames offered by Schwinn and others during this era.

After WW2, many different kinds of motor-assist bicycles entered the marketplace.  One of the most common was the “moped” which used pedals to start the bike and assist it on steep inclines when the engine was stressed.  While VeloSolex dominated the market in Europe, many other manufacturers stepped in to provide competition, such as this VAP model depicted above.

The above photo depicts Motobecane’s offerings from 1962.  French bicycle builders embraced the idea of motor-assist and many manufacturers offered mopeds and motor-assist bicycles.

Wall Auto Wheel added to a BSA bicycle. Photo courtesy of http://www.oldbike.eu

But are these historic innovations really comparable to today’s e-bikes?  In some ways they are:  they attempted to take existing bicycle engineering to add motor-assist to the bike, thus extending the bike’s range and reducing fatigue for the cyclist.  Not all vintage motor assist bicycles incorporated the concept of rider pedal assist.  And, as is obvious now, gas powered engines, especially 2 strokes engines, are not environmentally friendly.  Are e-bikes environmentally friendly?  That’s an issue worth exploring, given that the batteries needed to power these bikes require harvesting materials that may have a negative effect on the planet.  That may be outweighed by a cyclist leaving their car at home and commuting on their e-bike.  And, the health benefits of riding an e-bike have been documented in numerous studies.  The behavior of e-bike cyclists was a concern for me initially, but I have noticed that here in Pdx, e-bike riders behave no differently than the rest of us, for the most part.  So, I say, if it has two wheels, get on it and ride!

Library of Congress Historical Cycling Photos

Julia Obear, 1922 bicycle messenger

The U.S. Library of Congress is a treasure trove of historical data.  Much of the information stored there (which is technically part of the deep web) is copyrighted.  But, periodically the Library releases images and other information that is “Free to Use and Reuse”.  Recently the Library added a small batch of cycling images to this category.  Some of these free images pose questions.  In the above photo, Ms.Obear, a cycling messenger for the National Women’s Party, is astride a traditional diamond-framed bike, with wide drop bars, large wheels, and no apparent rim brakes.

In the above photo you can see that this cyclist is riding a fixed gear machine, sans any rim brakes on the front or the rear.  There is twine run between the two ends of the handlebar (why?) and this cyclist is wearing some stylish cycling couture, with comfortable low heeled shoes.  The large chainring and small cog at the rear wheel makes it seem that this bicycle was set up for training.  One must remember that in these early days of cycling, huge gears were more the norm, and cyclists would typically dismount to ascend steep hills.  Were these cyclists stronger than their modern day counterparts?

1942 Washington DC family out on a ride.

Another interesting photo in the Library of Congress’ free archive is this 1942 photo of a Washington D.C family out on a cycling adventure.  The child is astride a substantial looking kids’ trike, and her parents are riding American cruiser style bikes of this era.  I have to wonder where that little girl is today, and if she is still alive and still riding.

Fast forward to the 1970’s and we have Hertz getting into the biz of bicycle rentals.  A precursor to bike share?  The outermost bike at the lower left of the photo is a Gitane, equipped with centerpull brakes and downtube shifters.

1934 Argentinian tandem cyclists

The above photo depicts a pair of cyclists who started out in Buenos Aires in 1934 on a tandem machine, pictured above, who arrived in the U.S. two years later, alive and well.  The vintage tandem has rim brakes, front and rear, with the captain’s levers installed on the top of the upright bars.  It looks like there are two chain rings up front, but it’s hard to tell if there is a rear derailleur.  Either way, this journey is impressive.

Don’t try this at home!

If you are going to ride down a stairway, maybe first you should try to source a bike with a huge rear wheel.  That is probably what made the above feat possible. There are many other free to share images at the Library of Congress, and not just in the category of cycling.  I hope you have enjoyed these images, and for more, look here.

 

1897 Oregon Bicycle Guide & Map

Visiting my local Powell’s bookstore involves a normally direct route to the back of the store where the cycling section resides among the other sports related tomes.  I am always on the hunt for vintage cycling repair manuals from days of yore.  On this recent jaunt, nothing of interest emerged from the crammed bookshelves.  So, I did a visual 180 to make sure I had left no book unturned, so to speak.  That’s when I spotted this out of place manila envelope which was “sealed” in a clear cellophane package.  I picked it up, turned it over, and saw that the cellophane was closed with a piece of white cloth tape of the kind which can easily be gently unsealed. Temptation number one.  As I gazed upon the lettering on the front of the envelope I handled the envelope to feel the heft of the packet and to surmise what it might contain.  I thought:  is this a hoax?  Could there even be a cycling guide to (my) Oregon, complete with map, which was published back in the late 1890’s?

The manila envelope was clearly not 100 years old, so I was suspicious.  The cloth tape seal proved irresistible, and soon I had the contents in my hands.  I had decided I would buy the merchandise regardless of what I discovered, so undoing the cloth tape and removing the contents was just part of my “due diligence”.

Neither the publisher nor the distributor of this 1976 reprint are in business today.

As it turned out, this was a 1976 reprint of the Road Book of Oregon, first published by the League of American Wheelmen in 1897.  This organization is very old, having been formed in Rhode Island back in 1880. Yes, you read that correctly.  As hard to believe is it may be, this organization which originated from the late 19th century culminated from the need to unite cyclists of this era in the burgeoning cycling movement of the time. This was before the first automobile was invented, and long before paved roads and highways were in place.  This was America, with its huge distances from place to place – a seemingly great obstacle for cyclists of the time to surmount.

Racist membership – “whites only” – a sad and maddening legacy

The organization started as a racist one (which was not officially remedied until 1999), and excluded its membership to whites only.  When I read these words I felt sad, enraged, and a number of emotions that are hard to describe.  The cycling industry has a deep rooted history of sexism and racism, and reading the “membership requirements” made me experience the stupidity and inhumanity of our racist past.  I would be grateful to hear how other readers of this blog respond.

Reprint of 1895 Oregon road map. You can see the precursors to all the major roads and highways of today.

Close up of the Southern Oregon section of the 1895 map. It includes topographical info as well as identifying by name every small town or rural outpost of the time.

In Union Creek, Mr. Woodruff “keeps travelers”.

How to get from Ashland to California over the mountain passes.

The little booklet contains route descriptions for bicycle adventures over the entire state of Oregon, Including charming references to local folks who “take in travelers” when cyclists might arrive at their rural farm unannounced while en route to distant environs.  The road conditions, mileage, and estimated difficulty are included in each route description.  The mysteriously labeled envelope also included a large fold out map of the available roads in Oregon in 1895.  When you consider that wagon trains were headed west on the Oregon trail just 50 years earlier (wherein many white settlers died on the way and wherein many resident Native tribes were displaced or wiped out by diseases or combat) it’s fascinating and sobering to take in the extent of the road development by this time in history in the Pacific Northwest.  The booklet contains 59 routes, covering the entire state of Oregon, as well as passage to the bordering states of Washington, Idaho and California.

At the back of the booklet are advertisements from American bicycle manufacturers of the late 19th century.  There were some companies that I hadn’t tuned into before, such as Wolff-American and Sterling Bicycles.  But, I especially enjoyed looking at the drawing of the Eagle Bicycles “Disk Bearing Hub as seen by the Xrays”.  These are described as self locking hubs, which never need adjustment.  I would surmise that these components are an early example of cartridge bearing hubs, proving once again that many cycling “innovations” have been around for a long, long time.