A regular item in RIDE is the popular ‘Retro Review‘. Since 2004, this has featured in every issue and it relates to a bike, its owner and the stories that come from it. Initially it started as a way to relay the history of frame builders and component makers but it has morphed into an opportunity to tell the tale of the time surrounding the featured bike. Warren Meade is the original author of the Retro Review series and he is responsible for the bulk of these features over the years. He now also writes a column in RIDE called ‘Flashback’, which looks at the evolution of cycling for a particular year.
Here is the Retro Review from RIDE #38 (published September 2007)…
Retro Review (RIDE #38, published September 2007)
– By Warren Meade
Massey Harris isn’t widely regarded as a legendary brand from the past. But 109 years ago the bike used by Tom Finnigan in the year he won the Austral Wheelrace was first-class. This is a dream machine that has impeccable mechanical credentials and aesthetics to match.
Already established as a farm machinery manufacturer, Massey Harris started producing bikes as the first worldwide bicycle boom gathered momentum in the 1890s. The bikes were made totally in-house in its factory in Toronto, Canada. This is very different to many modern manufacturers, most of whom source components from other makers and merely assemble them at their factories. As it was made entirely under the one roof, a Massey Harris bike was an innovative, high quality device and represented good value for money. Production started in 1896 and before long they were being exported, particularly to other British Commonwealth countries.
Australia was one of the biggest export markets for the Canadian company that had already established a healthy network of farm machinery dealers here. The bikes were available to country customers through their machinery outlets, while the capital cities of each state had specialist Massey Harris bicycle sales outlets.
There was a range of models available, including Ladies, Roadster and Racing versions. The Roadsters were available with 28 x 1 3/8” or 28 x 1 3⁄4” tyre sizes, the larger size being akin to our modern mountain bike tyre width, although the outside diameter was the same as our modern 700c based ‘29er’, as promoted on Gary Fisher mountain bikes. I have a Ladies Massey Harris in my collection with the larger tyre option and the range of tyres made for modern 29ers will fit straight onto these old rims from the 1890s. (Note to Gary Fisher: the 29er is not a new concept!)
The wider 28 x 1 3⁄4” size was popular in Australia before World War I, as most of the roads were unsealed and ranged in quality from only fair down to non-existent. Sand, clay and mud was the order of the day in many districts.
In 1898 a young blacksmith turned bike mechanic by the name of Tom Finnigan won his way through the heats and semi finals of the rich Austral Wheelrace. In those days the Austral was run at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on a grass track around the edge of the oval. Finnigan was a professional racing cyclist which essentially meant that he was allowed to race for prize money, rather than that he made a living from racing. At the time he was working for Massey Harris as a mechanic so naturally he was riding one of their machines.
In the final, Finnigan started from a handicap mark of 220 yards and won, narrowly beating a group of backmarkers.
Our feature bike is similar to what Finnigan rode, with the narrow bars and a soon-to-be-superseded style of stem that had no forward extension. The tyres may seem unreasonably robust for track racing but, considering the quality of the grass surface after the many heats and other events on the Austral program, they were probably the best choice.
Tom Finnigan was awarded 240 gold sovereigns for his win, a small fortune at the time. He started at long odds with the bookmakers and is rumoured to have benefitted significantly from a betting coup. The popularity of track racing in the 1890s can only be imagined today.
The status of the Austral was similar to the Melbourne Cup in horse racing or the AFL Grand Final today, and the MCG was filled to capacity with a 20,000 strong crowd. The Austral Wheelrace was front page news, and the winner would be a household name for years to come. The size of the purse, if managed well, was sufficient to set the winner up for life.
Finnigan was a bike enthusiast and a very competent metal tradesman. Bolstered financially by his Austral winnings, he established a bike shop on Glenferrie Road, Malvern, an inner suburb of Melbourne. He came up with the brand name ‘Malvern Star’ for his bikes and adopted the six-sided star as his emblem. I have often wondered how far the business would have progressed if he had called his bikes simply ‘Finnigan’.
The business was successful on a local level and in 1920 it was purchased as a going concern by the energetic Bruce Small. Small thought big and eventually expanded the small one-shop business into a public company, with branches and agents in virtually every town in Australia. In an interesting twist of fate, Malvern Star and Massey Harris are perhaps the only two bicycle brands to have achieved this in Australia: Massey in the 1890s and Malvern Star from the 1930s to 1950s.
In September 1899, as the bicycle boom levelled out, the five largest Canadian manufacturers rationalised their operations and merged to form the Canada Cycle and Motor Company. Two of the big brands included in this merger were Massey Harris and Red Bird, both were highly regarded in Australia.
The bike featured has ‘Massey Harris, Toronto, Canada’ inscribed on the brass head badge, indicating that it was produced before the merger in 1899. Bikes made after then had a similar ribbon type badge but were engraved with the words ‘Canada Cycle and Motor Co Ltd, Toronto’.
Most riders at the start of the 20th century used a stem with little or no forward extension and bar widths between a ridiculously narrow 34cm and an almost normal 38cm. Typically, when a rider was sprinting ‘in the seat’, in order to apply maximum power he bent his elbows out dramatically sideways, as his bars were directly below his shoulders. This meant there was virtually no variation in hand position either, as they usually dropped away from the stem at an angle that made the tops of the bars impractical to hang onto.
This position, with the grips directly below the shoulders, was thought to be the strongest possible, allowing maximum leverage on the pedals. It was derived from the set-up used on the recently superseded Penny Farthing bicycle of the 1880s. It has to be remembered that many of the riders and most of the coaches and handlers had cut their teeth on Penny Farthings, and old habits die hard.
It caused quite a stir when Major Taylor first appeared at the track for his training sessions with the adjustable extension and square topped bars (see below). There was a choice of several hand positions on the bars and when he accelerated to racing speed he adopted the flat back, horizontal forearms and elbows in the style we are familiar with today. His knees powered up and down just inside his elbows, and his hands were pushed up into the bends of the bars.
Many pictures were published of ‘The Major’ in this position. These were no doubt used for reference by other cyclists as news of his success spread. He was one of the first black American sportsmen to make serious money in sport. Faced with racial prejudice throughout his career, he outclassed his opponents in sprint races in the States and Europe and during two seasons of racing on Australian tracks.
It is no surprise then that for the following 40 years, most racing bikes and some upmarket roadsters sold in Australia adopted the adjustable stem. Any design with an adjustable reach arrangement was called a ‘Major Taylor’ stem. The actual product that Taylor used and many of his contemporaries adopted had a round section, but some time around 1910 stems with a diamond section appeared. This shape created a much more secure connection for the bar clip, and the original round type fell from favour.
Very few of the early round style Major Taylor stems have survived. Quite a few diamond shaped ones have but are still very eagerly sought by collectors and usually described as ‘Major Taylor Diamond Stems’. The irony is that the Major himself never actually used a diamond stem.
As the first decade of the 20th Century passed, the mass produced bikes from America, Canada and England gradually fell from favour. Local bike shops and medium sized manufacturers started to take over the market with their own products, produced mostly from components imported from England.
Lug sets, frame tubing, parts and accessories were sourced from overseas and assembled here in Australia and, in general, these local bikes were of a very high quality. When the market penetration of the locally built product reached a certain critical mass, British Standard parts became the easiest to get, even in remote areas, and the imported bikes with their unique parts became increasingly difficult to service and repair.
In the 1920s English wholesalers’ catalogues listed a conversion unit for adapting the unique Massey Harris bottom bracket shell to accept the standard English bottom bracket cups, axle and cotter pin cranks. I have a 1905 Massey Harris Roadster – with rear suspension! – that was ridden every day until the 1960s. The only major repair required is the fitting of one of these conversion kits when the original cranks and bearings eventually wear out.
The Massey Harris cranks were unique, with the right and left arms screwing into a barrel housed in a bottom bracket shell. This junction of the bike closely resembles the same part of steel frames made today but it had several special amendments. The barrel acted as the axle, and was first fitted into two adjustable bearing races in the frame, then it was prevented from rotating by a pin inserted through a hole in the bottom bracket shell.
The left crank had a left-hand thread, and the right crank a right-hand thread. As you wind the cranks into the barrel they move closer and closer together, and eventually the tapered ends mate together. While the pin is in place, the harder you pedal forwards on the cranks, the more firmly they lock together. Once the pin is removed, the cranks can’t come loose. To remove the cranks, you simply insert the pin and pedal in a backwards arc, and the cranks come undone.
It’s not quite the Campagnolo Ultra Torque technology that was released last year, but ingenious nonetheless.
Our feature bike was found in an antique shop in Yackandandah in Victoria in 1997. The dealer had purchased it at a farm clearing sale; complete except for the bars. Its history is unknown, but the frame has never been rusty and it remains very structurally sound. I have rebuilt the mechanicals and re-spoked the wheels, so it can be ridden seriously.
With the original narrow bars it feels very unusual to ride, at least to someone used to a modern bike with a stretched-out position and 44cm wide bars. However, after a short period to acclimatise, you start to get used to the ‘closed’ position.
Riding out of the seat is another matter though; the laid back head angle combined with the lack of any sort of clearance for your knees does not make for spirited out of the saddle efforts! Do you think you’d stand any sort of a chance if you opted to race a track handicap with a couple of years’ worth of wages on the line in front of 20,000 people on this bike? Only if the rest of the field was on exactly the same thing.
– Warren Meade
*Warren Meade is the owner of BicyclePassion – a shop in Lakes Entrance, Victoria. He is an avid collector of vintage and classic racing bikes and equipment.
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