Monday, September 14, 2015

Bicycles, Quadricycles the Early Men of the Motor City

I grew up in Michigan and was thoroughly immersed in the automotive industry and its history. Not cycling; that came later. The hallowed ground of Speedway, IN, - the brickyard, the Indy 500 – was a few hours’ drive to the south. Any history that really mattered was housed a few hours’ drive to the east in Dearborn, MI – The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. I knew that both AC Spark Plug (aka ACDelco, a division of General Motors) and Champion Spark Plug were started by Albert Champion. I knew that from the four founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Fisher, Wheeler, Allison and Newby), that Fisher started Fisher Body and Allison started Allison Transmission (also both divisions of General Motors) and made helicopter engines. I knew that Barney Oldfield drove Henry Ford’s No. 999 and basically helped Henry start his Ford Motor Company. I knew that Louis Chevrolet was Swiss – not French, the Dodge Brothers worked for Ransom E. Olds (your father’s Oldsmobile) and Ford, and that the Duryea brothers built cars before any of them – but they weren’t from Detroit (the Motor City), so you’ve probably never heard of those two. Yes, I knew a bit of history.

So let me tell you “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say.

Albert Champion

Born near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1878, Champion was actually a bicycle courier as a kid and became a professional cyclist at 18 years old – specializing in track racing (velodromes) and motopacing (speed records while drafting). He was only 5’7”, which was ideal for paced racing behind tandems, triplets, and ultimately motorcycles. Parisian journalist Victor Breyer nicknamed him “petit prodige” (little marvel). He was a very successful cyclist in those types of events but had never raced in the types of road races we commonly see today like the Tour de France. Paris–Roubaix is a famous one-day road race that is even older, having started in 1896. Called “the Hell of the North”, Paris–Roubaix is known for its cobblestone sectors, and is very hard on cyclists. In 1899, trying to expand its popularity, the organizers allowed motorcycles for pacing (barely faster than bicycles in those days). Thus many track specialists entered the race; what advantage they may have had from experience in paced races, they lost in inexperience on the cobbles and other bad road surfaces. Champion, now 21, was an outsider but the others chased when he broke away soon after the start. Only one competitor could come close to catching him, getting to within a minute at half distance. Champion slowed through hunger near the end, riding the worst of the cobbles at walking speed, but at the velodrome in Roubaix he still had a lead of 23 minutes. Champion finished in 8:22:53, the champion of Paris–Roubaix.

His win came as a surprise to many and increased his popularity. Champion went to America after his win to profit from track racing contracts. Around then, Champion had opened a factory to make spark plugs. After retiring from cycling, he went on to pursue his interests in automobile racing and in business. "He had contracted the car virus", said the historian Pascal Sergent.

Carl Fisher

I knew of Carl Fisher from a famous photo of the four founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway along with Henry Ford. Until the mid 1980s, most GM cars had “Body by Fisher” on the door sill – that’s also Carl Fisher. I didn’t know that Carl Fisher was crazy, though. Well, maybe not crazy, but a highly energetic huckster like P. T. Barnum. Fisher became wealthy as a result of his partnership with James Allison in the Prest-o-lite company, making headlights for early automobiles. Fisher creatively promoted a plan for a highway spanning the country from New York City to California. He estimated the highway would cost $10 million to build and sought pledges from the automobile executives and – except for the notoriously cheap Henry Ford – managed to get the project funded. This became the Lincoln Highway with Fisher as vice president.

As the Lincoln Highway progressed, Fisher had an idea for a winter get-away for his automotive buddies. He started a massive project improving a jungle of swampland in Florida that came to be known as Miami Beach. Amazing. And how would Midwesterners get there? Fisher, the “father of the Lincoln Highway,” used his promotional talents to create another highway: the Dixie Highway. Quite impressive: Prest-o-lite, Fisher Body, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway and Miami Beach. And, of course, you know what else? He was a cyclist!

Fisher quit school when he was 12. By 17, he and his two brothers opened a bicycle shop in Indianapolis where they repaired flat tires for just 25 cents. Fisher managed to be in the right place at the right time as the bicycle craze swept the country. He would ride in the Indianapolis Zig-Zag Cycling Club’s rides to distant cities. Joining Fisher on those rides were James Allison and Arthur Newby, future founders along with Frank Wheeler of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Local journalist and poet William Herschel of the Indianapolis News noted that Fisher was nicknamed “Crip” (short for cripple) by his bicycling buddies “because he frequently, in bursts of speed, took a spill and ended with many bruises and cuts.” Although handicapped by poor eyesight, Fisher managed to compete in bicycle races, battling with the likes of champion racer Barney Oldfield. Fisher convinced George Erland, a leading Ohio bicycle manufacturer, to supply him with $50,000 worth of merchandise on credit. Ever the huckster and short on cash, Fisher performed stunts to promote his store. Wearing a padded suit, he rode a bicycle across a tightrope stretched over Washington Street; he built and rode a 20-foot-high bicycle; and he released a thousand toy balloons, 100 of which contained tickets for a free bicycle. His wife said that he “owned the finest bicycle shop in all of Indiana” at the age of 19. By the turn of the century, he became enamored with the newly invented automobile. Fisher told Oldfield, “I don’t see why the automobile can’t be made to do everything the bicycle has done.”

Albert Newby

You already know that one of Fisher’s partners in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was Albert Newby. I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Zig Zag Cycling Club of Indianapolis was co-founded by Newby. He was ahead of the game in cycling. Newby was working as head bookkeeper at Nordyke and Marmon in Indianapolis (later the Marmon Motor Company and, yes, the makers of the “Marmon Wasp” which was driven to victory in the first Indianapolis 500 by Ray Harroun) when he decided to turn his love of cycling into a business.
Together with Glenn G. Howe and Edward C. Fletcher, they formed the Indianapolis Chain & Stamping Co. which manufactured Diamond bicycle chains. At this time, all the bike chains were being made in Europe, but Newby’s chains quickly gained over 60% of the American bicycle chain market. By the way, Orville and Wilbur Wright were Diamond chain distributors when they were bicycle mechanics in Dayton. The first airplane used a Diamond chain.

Newby wasn’t the huckster that Carl Fisher was, but he convinced the League of American Wheelmen to hold their National Meet to Indianapolis – comparable to the NCAA Final Four or the Super Bowl today. What he needed, of course, was a track! To that end, he built the Newby Oval in 1898 — one of the fastest bicycle tracks in the country at a cost of $23,000. The track had electric lighting and seats enough for 20,000 spectators. It was a quarter-mile white-pine board velodrome (four laps to the mile, in the lingo of the day). The track lured some of the best racers in the country like "Plugger Bill” Martin, Tom Cooper and a 15-year-old named Marshall "Major" Taylor. Have you heard of him?

One source credits Newby with creating the hugely popular six-day bicycle races that still boggle my mind. But according to Peter Nye, the six-day races were not Newby’s idea. Perhaps he brought them to Indianapolis, though. In America, it was with the Madison Square Garden six-day races that created the boom. And it was Tom Eck who promoted the first Garden Six, in 1891. But Newby did eventually become president of the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis – not Detroit – so I’ve never heard of it.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford needs no introduction, but he was not the first to make a car and cruise the streets of Detroit. Just as thousands still cruise Woodward Avenue to this day, at just after 11pm on March 6th, 1896 the very first automobile rumbled past crowds of onlookers. This car was driven by its builder, 28-year-old mechanical engineer Charles Brady King. He was followed by a tall, slim man on a bicycle: Henry Ford. Three months after riding behind King, Ford went for a cruise in his first automobile. Ford’s Quadricycle featured many bicycle parts: a tubular steel chassis, 28-inch bicycle wheels and pneumatic tires. There is so much written about Ford after this point, some quite troubling, but little about his love of bicycles.

Ford sold his car to his friend Charles G. Annesley for $200. (Trivia: Annesley sold the Quadricycle to A. W. Hall, a bicycle shop owner.) Annesley, like Ford, was a cyclist. Ford worked for Thomas Edison’s company as a mechanic; he was neither a bicycle mechanic nor a racer but he always rode bicycles. Ford rode to work at one of Detroit’s Edison electric plants on his bicycle. Ford also cycled to work when he was developing the Model N, precursor to the Model T of 1908. He may be known now as the father of the US auto industry but he was careful with his money and knew that his trusty bicycle could get through Detroit quicker than the town’s trams. Throughout his life, Ford remained a cyclist. Time Magazine, in August 1940, reported that on his birthday, the 77-year-old automotive billionaire “took a ride …on the light (12-lb.) English bicycle on which he likes to take a three-mile spin every evening after supper."

Barney Oldfield

Henry Ford built cars for the masses, but before that he also built a few race cars. One of the more brutally powerful cars was the famous Number 999, named after a record setting New York Central train. Purportedly, the engine had cylinders the size of gun power kegs and developed close to 100 horsepower – about eight times that of a conventional car. “The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man!” Ford once said. Ford had driven his 999 for himself in a race or two, but soon decided that he felt safer just making the cars. The racing scared the life out of Ford who compared it to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He declined to pilot it in the Manufacturers Challenge Cup. He needed someone else with sheer grit and daring to drive his car and 24 year old Barney Oldfield was the man for the job. After seeing the 999 for the first time, Oldfield told Ford, "But I've never driven a car." Inexperienced as he was, Oldfield is rumored to have learned the controls of the car the morning of his first race, and by the end of the day he had defeated what was thought to be the world's fastest car, the Winton bullet. This launched both of their careers.

Soon Barney Oldfield was a household name and was racing cars all over the country, setting speed records left and right. Oldfield was the first ever to drive around a mile track in less than a minute (1903). This was four years after “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy accomplished the same speed on a bicycle – drafting behind a locomotive on a specially boarded section of railway – by the way. But I digress; let’s get back to Barney.

His early life was very hard. He quit school at 12 and began work as a water boy on a construction crew, and moonlighted as a bellhop. He was fascinated with speed and taken up by the bicycle craze. The lightweight bicycles used by racers were still too expensive for him. However, he soon discovered that a tenant of the Monticello Hotel had a lightweight bicycle, and stored it in the hotel basement. Each night, Oldfield "borrowed" it from its unsuspecting owner, and sped through the dark streets of Toledo. According to William Nolan in the Toledo Blade, Oldfield told his parents, "Someday I'll own the fastest cycle in the whole wide world. People will come from a thousand miles away just to watch me ride it!" At age 16, in 1894, he entered his first bicycle race and won; his prize was a $25 diamond ring, which he pawned to finance his next race. Soon, the Dauntless bicycle factory asked him to ride for them in the Ohio state championship. Although Oldfield came in second in the race, he secured a job and was soon being paid handsomely by the Stearns bicycle factory in Syracuse, New York to race on its amateur team. When he won his next race, he sold his gold medal back to the promoter for cash. Oldfield was a large, strong professional bicycle racer. After an unsuccessful venture in coal mining in Colorado, he resumed his bicycle racing career in Salt Lake City, UT. He became associated with fellow racer Tom Cooper who was Henry Ford’s partner in the Number 999 (and had also declined to drive it!). So Tom suggested to Henry that Barney could drive it. And now you know the rest of that story, too.

Louis Chevrolet

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Do you remember that song? How about the red, white and blue USA-1 license plates that symbolized Chevy in the 1970s (before the gas crisis)? Chevrolet epitomized America, sounded French but was the name of a Swiss car guy. I assume you are way ahead of me and expect to hear about his love of bicycles. How smart you are!

As you do when you are Swiss, Louis' father Joseph worked in the watch industry, but Louis learned to repair and later race bicycles. He would eventually build and sell his own bicycle called the Frontenac. Louis not only raced, but he won numerous races on Darracq bicycles. He was a husky teenager and became a champion bicycle racer after he tailored bicycle gear ratios to take advantage of his strength. At some point he was given a job at the Mors and Darracq Company. Darracq built the well known Gladiator bicycles, however Louis was intoxicated by the Darracq internal combustion engine. This diversion would end his cycling career, prompt him to move to Montreal and ultimately Detroit. Bye, bye miss American pie.

Horace and John Dodge

Thanks to the recent Dodge television commercials, you probably think you know the Dodge brothers.

Horace Elgin Dodge and John Francis Dodge were young cyclists and in 1897, with Canadian Fred Evans, founded the Evans and Dodge bicycle business. Their bicycles were based on a dirt-resistant ball-bearing assembly the brothers had patented the year before. “Mr. Dodge” was a stoker in a two-mile tandem race on the Detroit banked track in 1897 and the brothers were active members of the Detroit Wheelmen, volunteering to be race judges and timers. (Forgive my name-dropping, but Horace also worked part-time for Henry M. Leland making high-precision parts for the bicycle industry. Leland started the Cadillac Motor Car Company in 1903.) The Dodge brothers dissolved the partnership with Fred Evans in 1900 and used their share of the proceeds to establish their own machine shop in Detroit, making parts for the fledgling automobile industry. Contracts to supply to Ransom Olds, maker of the Oldsmobile, and the Ford Motor Company made the brothers’ firm into one America’s biggest auto-parts suppliers. From 1903 until 1914, the Dodge brothers supplied about 60 percent of the total value of the cars that Ford built. After that, they branched out on their own, becoming the competitive pair portrayed on those television commercials.

Well into the period when they were making fortunes from the automobile business the Dodge brothers were still active in cycling. In 1905, John Dodge ran for a position on the Detroit Wheelmen board and Horace was elected the club’s second vice-president the following year. Ford might have been Detroit’s most famous cyclist but the Dodge brothers were better.

Charles and Frank Duryea

After graduating from high school in 1882, Charles Duryea became a mechanic and entered the flourishing business of bicycle repairs, one of the greatest 'growth sectors' of the 1880s and 1890s. He built a high wheel bicycle in his teens. His brother, Frank Duryea, was several years younger, but did much the same. They moved often and in different directions. Both worked in Washington D.C. in a bicycle shop briefly before splitting up again. At one time Peoria, IL, was one of the largest manufacturing centers for bicycles in the United States. Charles moved to Peoria and started a business with Geo W. Rouse to produce a brand of ladies bicycles called the Sylph. Rouse, Hazard & Co manufactured 7,500 bicycles in 1896. The Peoria Rubber and Manufacturing Company manufactured 10,000 bicycles and 25,000 pairs of bicycle tires annually; they sold out to the American Bicycle Company. The Patee Bicycle Company made over 5,000 bicycles annually. The Ide Mfg. Company made 2,000 bicycles annually as did Luthy & Co. But this isn’t about Peoria; it’s about the Duryea brothers. Later, Charles was contracted to build bicycles for a firm in Rockaway, NJ, along with his brother Frank. Ultimately in 1893, they moved to Springfield, MA, and got distracted by internal combustion engines and started the first automobile company in America. It featured parts from a Columbia tricycle bought from the Pope Manufacturing Company. One of their automobiles was bought by Henry Wells of New York. On May 30th, 1896 Wells drove his Duryea Motor Wagon into New York City to take part in a horseless-carriage race organized by Cosmopolitan magazine. While racing, on public roads, he crashed into Evelyn Thomas, riding a Columbia bicycle on Broadway near West 74th Street. Wells became the first motorist arrested for what would later become known as “dangerous driving". Apparently, they also built the first car to sputter along Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. It was somewhat of a circus freak, literally (and appropriately), leading out a parade by Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in 1896. The car was upstaged by eight baby elephants and a gorilla called Joanna.

Early Sylph bicycle
The Duryea brothers may have been immortalized for their automobile, but Charles remained a cyclist. He was a member of the League of American Wheelmen. He wrote in the club magazine, “From the dawn of history to the present, civilization and roadways have been linked together. Whether landways or waterways, whether traversed by ships or slaves, canal-boats or camels, canoes or cyclers, the progress of any country has been reflected by its system of roads.”

And with that comment, I suggest you read “Roads Were Not Built For Cars” by Carlton Reid.

And Now You Know

The rest of the story doesn’t stop there. The connection between cycling speed freaks and bike mechanics who became pioneers in the automotive industry goes way beyond Detroit. In fact, this whole theme is even stronger in Europe. Cycling carried on in Europe and maintained the people’s interest, unlike America where cycling almost died as cars took over. Cycling became so unimportant that history failed to mention these connections. Today, bicycles and cars seem to be polar opposites; they seem antagonistic toward each other. Yet they are so closely related, different branches of the same tree. Riders on the same road.

“Albert Champion: The little marvel” By Peter Joffre Nye, Published Aug. 15, 2015
“The Hoosier Barnum: Carl G. Fisher”, by IHS staff
The Father of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ( )“When bicycle racing made Indy famous”, by Dawn Mitchell,, 4 July 24, 2015

1 comment:

  1. Great article! Your information about John and Horace Dodge was very accurate, which was wonderful to see