Retro Review: a classic touring bike from 1950
These days there’s all manner of names applied to riding for the joy of it. But it’s far from a new concept. In the 1950s, it was ‘touring’ – a genre that is coming back into vogue. We take a look at a classic bike built for that purpose in 1950.
Note: this feature was first published in #RIDE65 (September 2014).
Classic Representation of a generation
– By Warren Meade
With internal gears, mudguards, lights and generators, a pump, a bell, and bottles on the handlebars, this bike was made for riding. Many long, comfortable miles were covered by the brand with a horse’s name…
Every now and then a bike comes to light that is so amazing in its originality that you would swear it had been built only yesterday, or at least lovingly repainted and detailed by a restoration expert. Our featured ‘Carbine’ is one such bike.
With just a quick wipe over and some air blown into its tyres, it is hard to believe that we are looking at a bike from 1950, still with all its original parts in full working order.
The name holds a special place in Australian sporting folklore. Carbine was a famous racehorse, his many wins including the Sydney Cup in 1889 and 1890, and the Melbourne Cup in 1890. For the next 40 years, until Phar Lap came to prominence from 1929 to 1932, Carbine was widely held to be our greatest ever horse, and some experts hold that he still is.
After the stallion was retired from racing, he was put out to stud, and he was even more successful in this line of work. Incredibly, his bloodlines run through more than half the Melbourne Cup winners from 1914 to 1978, including Phar Lap himself.
A horse, of course… the head badge (above) pays tribute to the namesake, Carbine: a true champion of the times.
This story is about a bike not horses, but the magnitude of the Carbine name in the minds of the Australian public in the first 40 years of the 20th century cannot be imagined today.
It was little wonder that several bicycle manufacturers borrowed the name for the branding of their product, as the very word ‘Carbine’ represented the attributes of speed, endurance, strength and reliability.
Stephens and Sons, of Bourke St Melbourne, were advertising their Carbine as the ‘Best bicycle in Australia’ in 1896. Another, ‘Carbine Cycle and Motor Company’, registered at Elizabeth St Melbourne, were in business, “four doors up from the GPO”, in 1916.
Sydney had their own Carbines, and NSW is where the brand really took hold. TW Henderson, located at 40 Park Street, Sydney – a block from Town Hall – was a prominent bicycle maker, established in the mid-1890s.
Henderson promoted an annual bike race for novices, offering a Carbine as first prize. This was a major sporting event in Sydney before WWI, and attracted record entries, as well as lots of publicity for the brand. His bikes were also ridden to victory in hundreds of events, including the Goulburn to Sydney and the Austral Wheelrace in Melbourne.
An exposed gear cable reduced friction and made the assembly lighter, and the pulley was able to rotate with the cable, reducing friction even further. This is the only time I have seen the threaded boss for the pulley brazed to the frame, (on an Australian-made bike) one of the many small but important details that make this bike so unique.
A snippet from a newspaper at the time, The Newsletter, alludes to TW Henderson’s standing in the bike world in 1905. “Bicycle Notes (Saturday, 30 September 1905): The Dunlop Tyre Co. spent over £150 on the Goulburn to Sydney road race. Mark Robinson’s win makes the 587th win that has gone to the credit of Henderson’s Carbine bikes.”
It’s little wonder a young man in the country addressed his letter, “Mr. Henderson, Bikologist, Park St, Sydney.”
Henderson has a good yarn about the bicycle boom of some years ago.
He was woken at his home in Burwood at dead of night. Peeping out cautiously, he saw a well-dressed man, who said, “Please, Mr. Henderson, I have been to Bennett and he has 185 orders he can’t fill; I have been to Phizackerley and he can only put me down as number 165 for when he does get a consignment. Hearing that you have 25 bikes on the way out…” Then Henderson stopped him.
“Sorry, old man; I’ve got 300 orders for those 25 bikes; good night.” And Mr Henderson, kicking himself, went back to bed, and surely dreamt of what might have been had he anticipated the boom.
Sturmey Archer supplied its alloy shell racing hubs with a quick-release toggle chain, which could be disconnected from the cable without unscrewing the adjusting barrel. This was essential for racing or serious touring. The little aftermarket ‘stop’ in the dropout is a nice touch.
About the apparent need for big gears. A certain union road rider asked Henderson to give him a 96-inch gear, and insisted on having nothing less.
When Henderson supplied the bike, the rider mounted it in great glee, and although he had a fall in the race he won rather easily.
Triumphant, he came back to Henderson and announced: “There you are, I knew what I could do with a 96.”
“So did I,” answered Henderson, “and if you count it you will find it is only 80.”
Successful NSW rider Fred Walcott, along with a partner, purchased the Carbine business from Henderson in 1923, and maintained its prominence amongst NSW bicycle brands, trading as Walcott and Evans (40 Park Street, Sydney). They moved the shop to Wentworth Street in 1925, when Park Street was widened.
This bike is equipped with Techalimet oilers in the bottom bracket, head tube, and front hub. These required a special oiler device, which looks like a small grease gun. The cotter pins and cranks are unscarred by large hammers, suggesting the mechanic had a cotter pin press to insert and remove the cranks when necessary.
By 1925, Bruce Small, of Malvern Star in Melbourne, was also marketing a bicycle branded ‘Carbine’. There appears to be no connection whatsoever between the Melbourne and Sydney firms, apart from the fact that they were both trading on the name of the legendary racehorse.
In the 1929 Malvern Star catalogue, their ‘economy’ roadster is branded ‘Carbine Utility Roadster’, with large ‘CARBINE’ branding on the down tube, and no sign of ‘Malvern Star’ anywhere in the artwork.
But back to our feature bike… This particular machine is a deviation from our traditional Retro Reviews, but it is a classic example of what would be one of the best ‘touring’ bikes produced in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s.
If a bicycle connoisseur put pen to paper and planned the most attractive, most expensive, perfectly balanced machine he could possibly imagine, he would have come up with this masterpiece. In England, it would have been considered the zenith of what could be achieved with the components available in 1950, while here in Australia, it would have been thought a magnificent oddity, at a time when this kind of money would more usually have been spent on a true racing bike, not a touring bike.
It is the internal hub gears that make it unusual for an Australian bike at a time when derailleurs had all but won the battle for supremacy for upmarket bikes in every country in the world, except maybe England.
Hub gears, known generically as ‘Sturmey Archers’, were derided by serious cyclists as being unsuitable for racing, and called by some misguided critics ‘friction boxes’. This name was not deserved, but it stuck.
Three-speed trigger… (pun intended). The ‘Flick’ control shifter, with the ‘visual gear indicator’, was introduced by Sturmey Archer in 1948. This version could be used with three or four-speed hubs.
Most experienced bike mechanics would concede that 90 percent of recreational riders would be better off with hub gears, with derailleurs being reserved for racing. But marketing, based on racing results, led to the public believing, from the 1930s onwards, that derailleurs were ‘better’ than hub gears. We will leave the discussion of the relative merits of each system for a future lengthy article.
The first dozen or so ‘century rides’ I undertook as a teenager were all completed on a ‘semi-racer’ equipped with a Sturmey Archer AW three-speed hub.
Most of these rides were in very hilly country, and I thought the gears were just fine – certainly better than no gears at all. Many ‘semi-racers’ were sold with the good old three-speed hub as standard equipment here in Australia, complete with 27” steel rims, a cheap leather saddle, and downturned handlebars.
When I graduated to a bike with 10-speed derailleurs, I went faster, due to the lighter rims and tyres, not because of the gears.
A lot of my riding was done off-road on gravel or dirt, and the hub gears certainly required less maintenance than the ‘chain’ gears, as they were known then.
There is a long list of bikes in the ‘Retro Review’ series, many of which have been written by Warren Meade.
One of my riding mates cobbled together a bike using the best of both worlds. He adapted a three-speed cluster to his three-speed hub, bolted three old steel chainwheels side by side to his cotter pin crank, and had himself a bike with 27 gears.
This was a home-made forerunner to the modern mountain bike in 1972!
I will build a replica one day, and feature it on these pages. With all its ratios, it should have been a magnificent climbing machine, but it weighed about 15kg, so it was much better at descending than climbing.
My mate was no lightweight either. This combination of bike and rider was impossible to beat downhill, but could be passed by a small child on a tricycle going up the other side.
The Carbine has a rare version of the Sturmey Archer three-speed hub. It is date-stamped the sixth month 1950, at which time there were many models available, including some designed especially for racing.
Our version is the AM, with the special aluminium alloy shell. These lightweight shells were produced to allay the criticism that an internal gear hub was much heavier than a derailleur system (which it wasn’t), the A in the model code designating three speeds, the M designating ‘medium’-ratio. The most common hub in the range was the AW, wide-ratio three-speed, with steel shell. This is the hub that many of us grew up with. There was also the AC, close-ratio three-speed, for time trialling.
Hydration was important in 1950 and the drink bottle arrangement is stunning!
The medium-ratio three-speed hub on this bike, used with a 46-tooth chainring and 20-tooth rear cog, gives three ratios of 53, 62 and 71 inches. The more usual AW hub would have given 46, 62 and 82 inches.
By 1950 when this bike was assembled, Sturmey Archer had introduced their four-speed racing hubs, with alloy shells. It is a wonder that one of these hubs was not fitted to our bike, as everything else was specified top-of-the-line. Maybe it was a weight thing, as the four-speed is slightly heavier.
I have a BSA ‘team’ bike in my collection, supplied in 1953 with three separate rear wheels, with each of close, medium and wide-ratio four-speed racing hubs, and a box of special ‘quick change’ rear sprockets to suit all of the wheels, giving an amazing matrix of available ratios. The trouble is, you had to have a crystal ball and a fair bit of time before each event to select the correct combination.
Bring on the 10-speed derailleur. Sturmey Archer stopped production of the racing hubs in 1963, a good few years after they had sold any in significant numbers.
The front hub (above) is a VEW Continental, made in Sydney by Velox Engineering Works. Apart from the tyres and tubes, this is the only part of the bike made in Australia. The cyclometer probably shows the bike’s total mileage, 5,459.4 — it’s ride data but there is no upload option for Strava…
This may be one of the last Fred Walcott-built Carbines. By 1953, he was advertising as an agent for Healing bicycles, while also producing a small number of his own hand-built frames.
By 1956 he had closed the business, his stock being purchased by another legend, Jack Walsh, who had started his apprenticeship with Walcott at the age of 14, in 1934. Jack had opened his own shop after the war in 1946, and closed in 2008. So the Sydney version of Carbine Cycles lived on, at least in spirit, for about 115 years.
This Carbine is an amazing bike that holds pride of place in my showroom, representing a high point in hand-built bicycle production in Australia, signifying the peak of technology just before the rot set in for hub gears, and demonstrating how well a bike can last if it is maintained mechanically and stored properly.
– By Warren Meade