Out and about in October

It’s an odd thing: when I bought my 1915 Sunbeam (see here and here) I’d have thought I might spend the summer on it – yet here we are in Autumn and my rides have been few and far between. Of course, things have happened, but still…

So this morning, having slept in and missed my usual start to the day, I decided to make another change – instead of going for a walk (a regime I have been following faithfully of late) I would take that much-delayed cycle outing. It was Autumn weather as fine as you could wish for, the Michaelmas daisies in bloom


and the low sun sidelighting trees and houses and casting long shadows on the road

Does a sunbeam have a shadow? This one does:



I had opted for a familiar route, a clockwise circular round the outskirts of Perth, but I varied the start a little, swooping down to join the path round Craigie Hill a little further on than is my wont – forgetting that where there is swooping down, there is often a need for climbing up; so I was reminded of that often-overlooked advantage of the bicycle, that you can always get off and walk if you have to:


Probably the most pleasing thing about an Autumn run is the angle of the light and the effects it creates, especially combined with the changing colours of the trees


Though sometimes black-and-white evokes the light conditions better – a curious phenomenon:


I am becoming practised at using the phone-camera while under way, though I should perhaps look at some sort of handlebar mounting: there is a tension created between the desire to record the moment and the pleasure of cycling on.


this path is already well-documented [here] and although much of it is fine well-metalled cyclepath of a good width, I rather like those parts that remind you how minimal a cycle path can be –


Where the track broadened again (but with a pleasing central strip of grass) I came on a fine sight up ahead, a bar of sunlight lying across the path like fiery gold – sadly, the phone does not do it justice:


After running much of the way by leafy paths hemmed in by trees, the route turns Northward, opening a pleasing vista of the distant hills:

IMG00695-20141008-1039 IMG00691-20141008-1037

and the low-angled sun strikes pleasingly on the gold-leaf adornments of the Sunbeam:

IMG00693-20141008-1037 IMG00696-20141008-1039_2_2

The path from here runs down an escarpment by way of a narrow lane much overhung by trees:


till it opens out and you are confronted by a splendid glowing beech-tree:


After crossing the Crieff Road, the downward trend continues, till the welcome landmark of the clocktower heaves into view:


What seems an unpromising cul-de-sac actually leads to a narrow path that takes you almost at once onto the banks of the Almond, where if you are lucky, you might continually glimpse a great Grey Heron as you ride along, and if you are unlucky, never quite manage to capture it on camera:


The path along the Almond makes such pleasant cycling that I am always loth to stop; so after diving under three bridges – the disused railway one that carries the cycle path North to Luncarty, then the one that carries the A9 North to Inverness, then the active railway line that carries the main line to the North, you come at last to the confluence of the Almond and the Tay, and see that the anglers are both out and in, some on the bank, some in the water, while on the far bank a little grey Fergie tractor sends up a plume of smoke:


(rendered here in the style of Constable)
While on the water the fish make rings, rising to the flies

A pause by a signpost marks the start of the next leg


which takes us along the brilliant green of the North Inch


In the direction of the Fair City, with the spires pointing heavenwards (the right hand one is St John’s Kirk; the old name for Perth is St John’s Toun, which is preserved in its football team, St Johnstone – they won the Scottish Cup this year)


A swift passage along Tay St, past the old and new bridges and the railway bridge, and round by the old waterworks that is now the Fergusson Gallery, takes us to the South Inch, and the final leg of our journey, where on the pond we pass the swans and their cygnets sailing line ahead like battleships:


and so home, exhilarated.

Buying the Sunbeam, 2 : The Auction

I have an anxiety about auctions which probably originates in the comics of my youth: it was a staple of The Dandy and The Beano that some character attending an auction as a mere spectator would – through the application of itching or sneezing powder, perhaps, or simply by waving to attract someone’s attention – make gestures that the auctioneer would mistake for bids, and so end up buying something at great cost that he did not want or could not afford.

There is less likelihood of that happening when you are bidding live online, though I was careful always to keep my cursor well away from the screen button that said ‘bid now’. As a matter of fact I was more worried about being interrupted at the crucial moment, either by a connection failure (given the well-known malice of inanimate objects) or a visitation of furniture-removal men.

The latter was no random fear: we had arranged that a project in town should come to collect an unwanted sofa and table, and of course the day of the auction turned out to be the only practicable date, so I was at pains to emphasise that they must call in the morning (the auction started at 11, and the first lot I was interested in was no 299); but as the morning wore on, they failed to appear.

That was at the back of my mind: the forefront had plenty to occupy it. Another anxiety I have about auctions is getting carried away in the moment, so I was determined to fix my limits. Having decided my target lots – these three Sunbeams, lot 299, advertised as a 1913 Golden 2-speed, though its frame number suggested 1914 0r 15:

Screenshot 2014-05-02 22.40.01

lot 326, a bona fide 1911 or 12 Golden with the Newill 3-speed hub

Screenshot 2014-05-02 22.41.30


finally lot 454, an early 2 speed, perhaps as old as 1905:


Screenshot 2014-05-02 22.47.38

I calculated the actual value of a scale of bids at £50 intervals and wrote them on a sheet of paper. This was important because in addition to the buyer’s premium – 17.5% – there was a further premium of 2% for online bidding then VAT (20%) on top of that – so a hammer price of, say, £500 would be considerably more in total. (Being prone to fantasy, I still entertained the hope that I might be the sole Sunbeam enthusiast and find myself in the position of bidding for all three lots at knockdown prices, so I needed to be clear about what I had to spend).

I discovered that Brightwell’s allow you to set an alarm for any lots you are interested in, which was handy for me with my first lot of interest being so far in to the sale and the appearance of furniture removal men still impending; just to be clear how it worked, I set it for an early lot and was rewarded by the sonorous clanging of a bell some three lots before the one marked was due, along with a warning on the screen.

I also made a note of how long it took for the first hundred lots to go in, just to give a rough idea of when mine might come up. When the auction starts, you get a live sound feed from the auction room accompanied by a picture of the lot on offer. A button on the screen advises you that you can bid and you are also warned that there may be a slight delay on sound; there are various visual signals, such as ‘fair warning – lot about to sell’ before the hammer actually comes down.

Never having bid online before, I was glad of the opportunity to study what went on for a good time before I became involved, though beyond a certain point you just want your lot to come round; but at the same time I was willing the tardy furniture men to appear before they were a nuisance.

It is a well-observed fact that printers will serve you faithfully till you actually need them to print out something important and urgent, at which point they will seize the opportunity to misbehave in an unimaginable range of ways, from running out of ink, chewing up paper, to breaking down altogether. The same suspicion attaches to any audio-visual equipment and indeed to computers generally – they are fine till you actually have to rely on them.

So it was with considerable chagrin but no actual surprise (more a feeling of grim predictability) that I realised – somewhere about lot 250 – that I was no longer hearing anything down the line from Leominster.

My computer is upstairs in my attic aerie with the router in the hall below; I had toyed with the notion of wiring directly, but the only line I had available would have meant moving the computer downstairs, where it would have impeded the late coming of the furniture men (is it only writers who are plagued by plot complications of this sort?) – so on the grounds that wireless failures seemed to occur mainly in the evenings, I took the risk of leaving things as they were.

And now – !

In the initial bout of cursing I failed to notice that it was only the sound I had lost; I could still see the bidding progressing on screen. While I was working out the implications of this, the sound came back, and it was evident that there had simply been a hand-over from one auctioneer to another with some disruption as the new man was wired for sound. All was well.

In the days of my childhood, when computers occupied whole floors of buildings and the notion of online shopping was unimaginable, we had catalogues. Mostly they were concerned with clothes or household articles but there was always a section on toys that I used to pore over; and then there were more specialised ones, such as those my brothers had for Hornby train sets, and one I particularly remember for ‘Frog’ diecast models (which we rather despised, for some reason (or none, perhaps), preferring Dinky and Corgi).

This had a model of an ERF lorry (A KV, I discover:

Screenshot 2014-06-06 10.37.43)

which was, I recall, a distinctive shade of pale green. I was enamoured of that lorry, or more precisely, of its picture: I would gaze fondly at it, with yearning I can still recall, though the object of it has become blurred in my memory; it was a species of ownership, I suppose, yet one that served to remind me that I did not actually possess the object. I worshipped it from afar, in my imagination, unbeknownst, much like the mediaeval knights who practised Courtly Love.

I mention that because it seems to me there is a direct line from the emotions induced by the picture of that toy truck half a century ago and the strong feelings arising from the pictures of these Sunbeams in the Brightwell’s catalogue: this falling in love with distant objects is a capacity (or infirmity) I have never lost.

And now – the clock told me – I was within some ten minutes or so (and still no removal men!) of bidding to possess one  – what would that be like? (I never did own the ERF).

I am not one of those who go in for ‘visualisation’, by which I mean imagining the positive outcome to whatever it is you wish to succeed in (such as kicking a conversion in rugby, say). My superstition takes the opposite form: any attempt to imagine successful possession beforehand smacks of hubris and counting chickens; better to affect a conviction that the hoped-for outcome will never come to pass, that such things happen to others but not to you, so that by an outward show of humble undeserving, you might win Fortune’s favour.

(Interesting snippet: it was Dante Alighieri who first installed Fortune as Earth’s presiding spirit)

So instead of telling myself ‘in ten minutes, this will be yours!’ I contented myself with ‘in ten minutes, it will all be over’ (much as one might on a visit to the dentist). The warning bell sounded, though I had no need of it; three lots slipped past and all at once it was the moment.

What you forget, of course, is that there are other online bidders who may be bidding at exactly the same time as you, so the process of bidding has a desperate quality, as you click repeatedly on the button and yet it does not respond; then you are suddenly rewarded by the statement ‘you are winning this item’ only for it to vanish again as quickly when you are outbid. I was within a bid of my limit (and pondering whether I could extend it) when my rival dropped out, leaving me in possession. After a brief frenzy of bidding lasting under a minute, I had my prize.

So, after several weeks’ pondering the possibility, accompanied by many yearning contemplations of the catalogue pictures, I now had what I wanted – how did that feel?

To report honestly, there was no elation: I found myself completely unmoved – perhaps I did not quite believe it; I kept going to another section of the web-page, marked ‘purchases’, where I was reassured that I had indeed secured  ‘lot 299, A 1913 All-Black Golden Sunbeam Gentlemans Bicycle, the celluloid handles with twist ends to reveal tyre repair kit, no.129403’.

Well, I thought, that’s that, then – it was a sensation of quiet satisfaction more than anything.

Though curiously anti-climactic, it was not unlike how reaching the summit of a mountain must be: you’ve achieved your aim, but to savour it properly, you still have to get back down; in my case, my success had committed me to an epic journey south the next day (a 720 mile round trip) to fetch my spoils.

I had already arranged with my brother that I would be at his house in Motherwell for 6 next morning, which entailed leaving Perth before 5. I was conscious of reserving my joy for the moment when I had the Sunbeam home on my own street.

Meantime, there was the rest of the auction to see out: having achieved my No1 target at near my limit, I did not entertain much hope that I could afford anything else, but I might as well look…

As an online bidder, you cannot see your rivals, nor they you, but you can guess at them. After emerging victorious by the skin of my teeth in the contest for lot 299, I reasoned that there must be someone much like me, even to the extent of his (or her) funds; and had I missed out on 299, my next target would be 326, the 1911 or 12 Sunbeam 3-speed, though I would be conscious that a greater prize was still to come, in the form of 454, the early two-speed. With my war-chest still intact, I would have entertained the possibility that with a fair wind I might even net both…

That was not really an option that was open to me, but I did not want to drop out entirely. A large part of what had persuaded me to join the auction in the first place was the thought that I did not want to find myself looking up the results later and thinking ‘O, I could have bought it at that price!’ If it went beyond what I could afford, well and good; but who knows? perhaps my rival’s sole target had been lot 299, which, having failed to win, he or she had now retired, sorrowful but with funds intact.

I did bid on 326, but my heart was not in it: I did not want it badly enough in itself, and I would rather keep alive the slender hope that 454 might somehow be within reach. So 326 went for £260 on the hammer, a real bargain for a Newill 3 speed from 1911 or 12. I wondered if the buyer had been my rival for 299, and whether (had it been me) I would have found the bargain price an adequate consolation for missing out on 299; part of the consolation would certainly have been that I remained well-placed to bid on 454.

In the event, 454 went for £500, the lower end of its predicted price range, and again, in my view, quite a bargain. So had my rival, having missed out on the major prize, succeeded in securing the two next-best for a similar expenditure? I rather hoped it might be so. Had it been me, would I have considered myself adequately compensated, or even perhaps more fortunate, to have secured two interesting bicycles for the cost of one? Who knows: auctions give rise to such imponderable might-have beens.

For my own part, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had planned a campaign and seen it through to a successful conclusion: I had done what I set out to do. I had myself a pre-1918 Golden Sunbeam.

All I had to do now was go and fetch it.

(But what of the furniture removal men? they came, but not inconveniently; all-in-all, a successful day).

The Great Sausage Mystery – or why Sunbeam abandoned the Newill Hub

You find answers in the oddest places*; sometimes  to questions you hadn’t thought to ask till you came across them. I have already written about my adventures dismantling the William Newill-designed Sunbeam 3 speed hub;  a recent article by Robert Cordon Champ, the Sunbeam registrar at the V-CC and the author of Sunbeam Bicycles & Motorcycles, raises the question of when the Newill hub was discontinued.  In researching that, I came across what may be the answer to a more interesting question – why was it discontinued?

There never was a Sunbeam Cycle Company – Sunbeam cycles were made by John Marston Ltd, set up in 1895 and headquartered at Sunbeamland in Paul St, Wolverhampton; their components such as pedals and gears were made by Villiers, the company set up in 1898 under John’s son Charles in near by Upper Villiers Street. John Marston’s foreman, later to become his business partner, was William Newill.

Newill’s name, along with John Marston Ltd and James Morgan (the cycle works under-manager) appears on the 1905 patent for a three-speed epicyclic gear. In view of what follows, it is noteworthy that the primary application (and the first illustration) shows the patent as a bottom-bracket gear; its application to the ‘driving-wheel hub’ is only mentioned in passing. Sunbeam already had a two-speed bottom-bracket gear, introduced in 1903; it continued in production till 1932. However, no three-speed version of the Sunbeam bottom-bracket was ever made – the only such articles on record are one by the Allen Company, mentioned as being ‘in the experimental stage’ in 1907, and another offered by the James Cycle Co in 1909 (by which time the Allen had disappeared) – and it is not certain if that was ever marketed.

Hub gears, on the other hand, were in abundance: the first decade of the twentieth century was their Golden Age, and the year 1909 its zenith. The Sturmey-Archer 3 speed (really William Reilly’s design, as Tony Hadland has shown) was introduced in 1902; by 1907 you could choose from nine two-speed hubs and seven three-speeds; in 1909 there were eight two-speeds and no fewer than fourteen three-speeds, although four of these were Sturmey-Archer designs.

Sunbeam’s own design ‘was introduced to the Cycling World in 1906’ as the catalogue rather grandly puts it, adding that ‘It has given complete satisfaction’. One contemporary authority, FT Bidlake, described it as ‘a beautifully made article – more expensively produced than most Gears’. Yet by 1913 it had disappeared, replaced by a version of the BSA 3 speed, which was in turn a modified form of the Sturmey-Archer X-type.

Mind you, most of the other makes of hub had disappeared by that time too: Sturmey-Archer dominated the market, with BSA (producing a Sturmey-Archer design) their only serious rival, a situation that was confirmed by 1918 after the interruption of the war. Competition may improve the breed, but only temporarily; an untrammeled market will eventually tend towards a monopoly, or domination by a few large players. So was the Newill three-speed simply a victim of market forces? It seems unlikely.

Sunbeams were aimed unequivocally at the high end of the market. They were very costly and took pride in being distinctive: the bicycles bristled with patents, from the design of the brakes (at least two patents) the ‘little oilbath’ gear-case (at least three in addition to Carter’s original patent) the aluminium pedals and the patent anti-theft headlock; in addition, Sunbeams were innovative in using alloy rims (made from Romanium, a patent aluminium compound) and their consistent championing of the bottom-bracket gear. In 1908 they asserted (using a slogan long associated with Rover) that ‘The Sunbeam Bicycle has now for many years set the fashion to the Cycle World’. A firm so dedicated to going its own way would scarcely abandon their patent three-speed gear (which had many novel features, including the eminently sensible one of reverting to direct drive if the wire failed) purely from commercial considerations.

Another possibility is that, for all the praise lavished on it, the Newill hub had some flaw that became evident with use, so that after a few years, it was quietly withdrawn. There are a couple of things that point in that direction, though neither is conclusive. The first is that the original design was altered between 1908 and 09: where the patent shows an axle with three splines engaging in a clutch housing with three slots, the later hub (of which mine is an example) has a four-spline axle and a four-slot clutch housing. The proportions of the clutch housing also look different – the later one seems shorter – and that is reflected in a change in outward appearance: the hub casing in the original has four diameters, starting with the widest at the r.h. or sprocket side and reducing to the next by a sharply defined step; then comes the flange for the spokes, with the third and and fourth diameters projecting beyond the flange on the l.h. side. The later hub actually has five diameters, with a more rounded ‘bottle-shouldered’ step between each; the first three lie between the flanges, while the two smallest project beyond the flange on the l.h. side, but not so far as in the original. This new shape first appears in the 1909 catalogue, although as can be seen by comparing the catalogue picture with the photograph, the depiction is slightly fanciful, more sharp-edged than reality:

late model Newill hub

catalogue depiction of modified Newill hub

Sunbeam Newill Hub (late)

my own late-model Newill hub

Sunbeam Newill Hub (early)

the original Newill hub

The second suggestion that all might not have been well with the Newill hub is that Sunbeam filed a patent for an entirely new design of hub gear in 1907, in the name of the Villiers Company. Charles Marston and James Morgan are named as applicants, but not William Newill. This patent centres on ‘a simple method of effecting the direct drive in such change speed gears’ and employs a  form of clutch different from that used in the Newill design. (It is interesting to note that my own hub has a problem with the direct drive, but on the other hand it is over a hundred years old, has seen some wear and tear and been stripped down and reassembled by an amateur – me.) It is hard to think that Sunbeams would have gone to the trouble of fillng another patent unless they thought it an improvement on the original. However, this hub – which to my eye closely resembles the contemporary Seabrook hub – seems not to have been manufactured.

1909 Seabrook 3 speed hub

1909 Seabrook 3 speed hub

1907 Sunbeam-Villiers 3 speed

1907 Sunbeam-Villiers 3 speed

This perturbation around the year 1908 might explain another oddity related to the Newill hub – In later years, Marston’s seems to have forgotten how long they manufactured it for: Robert Cordon Champ’s article mentioned above was prompted by a note in a Marston’s leaflet of 1933 suggesting that the Sunbeam three-speed hub ‘was not fitted after 1909’. Yet it features in the 1910 catalogue and there are several bicycles in existence, some from as late as 1912, which are fitted with it. But (if we go by the catalogues) it is true to say that the original Newill hub, with the three-spline axle and the sharp-stepped casing, was not fitted after 1909, the year the modified version first appears in the catalogue.

It was in searching for the latest mention of the Newill hub in Sunbeam literature that I came across another possible explanation of why it might have been dropped, one that I find persuasive. The admirable National Cycle Collection website has a fine on-line library which is free to V-CC members. As well as catalogues for 1906-1910, all of which feature the Sunbeam 3-speed, there is a curious booklet entitled ‘The Revolution in Cycle Finish’ which the NCC dates to 1912. This includes not only an illustration of the late-model Newill three-speed but plainly states that it is available as an option on the ‘All-Black Sunbeam’ for which there is an advert at the end of the booklet – so if the NCC’s date is correct, this is clear evidence that Sunbeam’s own hub was still offered as late as 1912. But the manner in which this information is presented is curious, to say the least.

There is nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes remarked, and the idea of dressing up advertising material as ‘independent’ health advice – so common now on the sidebar of social media websites – was around a century ago (and well before that, I am sure). The catchily-titled booklet ‘THE REVOLUTION IN CYCLE FINISH – and how it will aid one to keep well in Winter – BY A HEALTH EXPERT’ (price threepence, supplied with the compliments of the Sunbeam Cycle Depots 157 &158 Sloane St. ) has as its frontispiece a sequence of three pictures. The first shows a nattily-dressed gent in bowler hat, overcoat, trousers, socks and shoes – the absence of cycle-clips is evident – riding (with a somewhat dispirited stoop, it must be said) a bicycle which just happens to be a Sunbeam, alongside the caption ‘How influenza is avoided.’ Below that is the picture of a tram, captioned ‘where influenza is caught’ while the third picture shows railway carriages wreathed in steam with the invitation to ‘see page 9 ’ (where we find a cartoon of a man in a top hat sandwiched between two people on a bus, one of whom is clearly unwell; alongside, we are told that ‘Cold winds and damp assist in the general lowering of health, and renders one susceptible to disease; but it is our modern public Conveyances, our ‘Buses, Tramcars and Trains, which form the breeding-grounds for the spread of Infection.’ [the author has a penchant for capitalising any word he thinks important]

For some eleven pages, the ‘Health Expert’ unfolds an ingenious argument in favour of cycling throughout the year: it makes the most of the weather; it has numerous health benefits, mental as well as physical; it is better for us than motoring; it helps with other hobbies; it is by turns a sport, a means of locomotion, a way of avoiding distasteful idleness and has the virtues of convenience and independence – all of which leads him to the overwhelming question,

why in the name of health, pleasure and economy should we not

To which, it appears, there is but one major obstacle – it is not the man who is unequal to the task, but his machine. In a section entitled ‘THE BUTTERFLY BICYCLE’ our health expert avers that

‘In most cases, I suppose, the answer to my question would be, “That’s all very well. I’m not made of sugar, and I can stand cold and damp weather as well as most people. But what about the Cycle?”

Here, I think, we reach the crux of the whole matter — What about the cycle?

The bicycle, with the old style of finish, is a butterfly machine. In fine weather, if clean and polished, it is a Joy to look at. In wet, it is — not.’

It turns out that our ‘health expert’ has more than one string to his bow – he knows a thing or two about bicycles as well. Even the best of plated work, he tells us, will not stand up to the ravages of the weather, and this is particularly true of the plated rim; but far and away the most vulnerable aspect of the average bicycle is its driving mechanism, with its exposed cog-wheels and naked chain, which one can only hope to preserve by the impractical course of removing it, soaking it lengthily in paraffin then boiling it in tallow at least once a week – a practice helpfully illustrated by a drawing of a disgruntled-looking fellow seated beside a stove on which a pan is belching clouds of noxious-looking smoke.

Must we then forgo as unattainable the numerous benefits of year-round cycling which our health expert has so tantalisingly held out to us? Not a bit of it! For there is one bicycle, it seems, that has none of these defects – with its fully-enclosed oilbath chaincase, black enamel finish instead of plated parts, rustless aluminium rims and pedals, the new All-Black Sunbeam is truly ‘the “never mind the weather” cycle’.

So, after some fifteen pages – rather more than a third of the way into the text – the writer has finally revealed his true colours as a Sunbeam propagandist. If we now turn to the back, we find a fine illustration of the All-Black Golden Sunbeam (but not in fact this one – see footnote)
All-Black 1
together with a detailed specification, which includes

‘GEARS – This model is supplied with either single, two-speed, or three speed – whichever may be preferred – ratios as required. For winter riding it is important to have correct ratios. See page 20 of this booklet.’

Page 20 is the start of a section headed ‘THE VARIABLE GEARS’
which opens with this bold assertion:

Two gears are needed for all-the-year-round riding – a gear for hard work and a gear for easy work.’

Hard work’ the writer explains, is ‘not merely … Hills, but what is far more important, … head Winds, and … heavy, sticky Roads’.

It is noted in passing that the ‘gear for easy work’ (i.e. the higher gear) ‘is useful in dry weather for riding on the level or even uphill ’ [my emphasis] and we are told that ‘between 62 and 66 will be found best for the hard work, and for the higher ratio something between 82 and 88’  [these of course are not ratios at all, but ‘gear inches’ – and it is no surprise to find that the recommended range is precisely that offered by the Sunbeam bottom-bracket two-speed gear]

The chief point of interest comes in the next paragraph:

Some riders prefer three gears, but the value of the three-speed is not so great in practice as one would suppose it would be in theory. Thus there is also always the danger of having three gears, two of which are unsuited to winter use. For example, a three-speed rider usually has a middle gear of about 72, and a low gear of 54.’ (these are precisely the gears recommended in earlier Sunbeam catalogues (from 1907 on) ‘as being most likely to suit the average rider’)

The writer continues, ‘Now, neither of these gears is good in a head wind, because the middle gear is rather too high, and the low gear is rather too low.

Those riders who favour the idea of three gears will find that the best combination is to have the middle gear about 65, with a low gear of 48 and a high gear at 86. It is true that the low gear of 48 will only be required on very exceptional occasions, but it is better to have a middle or direct driving gear that is correct, than to sacrifice the efficiency of this gear for the sake of a low ratio, which. though a little higher, is not high enough for continuous riding.

In other words, for all the use this lower gear is, you might as well make do with just the 65” direct drive and 86” high gear which the Sunbeam bottom-bracket gear supplies – so it is no surprise to have the writer conclude this section much as he began:

For myself, however, I prefer two gears to three – the two-speed is so much simpler and freer from complications; and complications undoubtedly do produce more Friction.

Now, considered in itself, this is an extraordinary thing – here we have a Sunbeam propagandist – albeit one masquerading as some sort of medical man – briefing against one of their own products; indeed, the text above is divided in the booklet by this picture of a dismantled Sunbeam three-speed 3 speed 2 1

the very article whose worth the writer is calling into question.

It is evident that the three-speed has fallen out of favour at Sunbeamland, though the case made against it is more than a little specious and is really a disguised justification of the two-speed bracket gear. What is going on?

The answer can be found, I would suggest, in the next section, which deals not with gears but ‘THE MANAGEMENT OF TYRES’

Still pursuing the theme of year-round riding, it begins with the questionable assertion that

‘Punctures are less frequent on damp roads than on dry ones’ [so how come so many of my wheel-changing memories are associated with downpours?] ‘But if you have tyre troubles the designers of the All-Black Sunbeam have provided for them.’

What follows is an exposition of Sharp’s patent dividing axle, which is illustrated, as always in Sunbeam catalogues, with the freewheel fully exposed – in other words, the celebrated ‘Little Oil Bath’ is omitted.
Sharp's axle_2 This is slightly odd, since the only real advantage that Archibald Sharp’s ingenious invention offers (and the reason why it was ‘purchased for the exclusive use of Sunbeam riders’) is in conjunction with a fixed gear case – which, as Sunbeam owners know only too well, puts removing the rear wheel on a par with Holy Matrimony: ‘not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly’.

But of course, as the writer adds almost gleefully, ‘This invention [Sharp’s axle] cannot be utilised on a three-speed cycle, owing to the intricate internal mechanism of the Hub; this is perhaps another argument in favour of the simpler two-speed.

For there is no doubt that this “divided hub axle,” as it is called, effectually removes the only real objection to the Gear-Case. Formerly, to remove a tyre, a Rider had to open his Gear-Case. Now, the Gear-Case is undisturbed.’

It is curious that Sharp’s axle is presented here as if it were a new solution, whereas it was purchased by Sunbeam in 1905 – the same year that their own three-speed was patented.

But it is the final paragraph of this section that really takes the biscuit, offering the single most bizarre piece of advice I have ever come across in all my reading about bicycles:

Riders who will have Three-Speed Sunbeams’ [and note how the insertion of ‘will’ makes that sound an act of headstrong folly] are advised to have Air Tubes shaped like a sausage instead of in one continuous circle. These are not quite as satisfactory as the standard type, but they can be renewed without the assistance of the invention illustrated opposite [i.e. Sharp’s axle] because they are not in a continuous circle.

(I have to say that on reading this I was immediately reminded of the eccentric savant de Selby from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, the only novel in which the romantic lead is played by a bicycle. De Selby, it will be recalled, had a theory that the world was ‘sausage shaped’ . Might that be a clue to the true identity of Sunbeam’s ‘health expert’?)

But seriously – sausage-shaped inner tubes? Who ever heard of such a thing? Was such a thing ever manufactured? Who would even dream of such a thing — ?

Aye, there’s the rub – the only person who could possibly conceive a practical use for a sausage-shaped inner tube is one desperate to find the solution to a very peculiar and specific problem, namely how to overcome the inherent difficulty of fixing a puncture on the rear wheel of a bicycle with a fixed gear-case. The sausage-shaped inner tube – like Sharp’s divided axle – is an invention with a very restricted application; but unlike Sharp’s axle, it is hard to see that it would actually work.

And there, I think, you have the ultimate reason why Sunbeam did not persevere with their own three-speed hub – it exposed the Achilles’ heel of their trade-mark ‘little oil-bath’ gear-case, namely that it makes the common occurrence of fixing a puncture in the back tyre a tedious, protracted and complicated chore. Hence, I would suggest, their initial impulse to consider Newill’s patent as a bottom-bracket gear – with the gears in the front, the problem at the back is solved by Sharp’s axle, which was patented in 1900 and bought by Sunbeam in 1905, the year the Newill patent was registered.

I suspect that by 1912 Sunbeam had had enough of customer complaints that made a weakness of what they advertised as their main strength – in the words of the ‘health expert’ himself, ‘while many cycle-makers have listed a gear-case as an Accessory, one has made it an indispensable part of the machine – I refer to John Marston Limited, the makers of the Sunbeam. They have maintained the necessity of the gear-case since safety cycles first ran’ – and if the ‘little oil-bath’ was an indispensable necessity, then there was not much point in continuing the costly manufacture of a component that only served to expose its one serious weakness – the Newill hub had to go. Henceforward, the ideal Sunbeam would be the All-Black with two-speed bottom bracket gear and Sharp’s dividing axle – a form in which it continued to be offered for the next two decades.

*indeed you do: it was only in reviewing this article once I had published it that I looked closely at the illustration of the All-Black Sunbeam above, which is not from ‘The Revolution in Cycling Finish'(which I could not copy) but from the 1913 catalogue – and if you study the options offered below, you see on the left ‘With Three Speed Standard Pattern (see page 14)’ – a guinea extra – this is the BSA hub, itself a version of the Sturmey-Archer X type; but on the right, ‘With Three Speed Hub with Noiseless Independent Free Wheel (see page 15)’ – two guineas extra. Now, the ‘Noiseless Independent Free Wheel’ is a feature of the Newill hub and there is no doubt that this is simply an alternative description of the very same article – so it was still being advertised and (from the page reference) illustrated as late as the 1913 Sunbeam catalogue, the year in which it was superseded by the ‘Standard Pattern’.

In the belly of the beast


This one is for hard-core hub-gear fans – epicyclists? – only. It shows the dismantling of my hundred-year-old Sunbeam ‘Newill’ hub, which I did a few years ago. At the moment, the sequence is on Flickr as a set, and some of the shots are a bit dark, though if you blow them up, you can see most detail you might want. They are also labelled, so if you mouse over them you can identify the various components. I hope it may be of some technical interest to perhaps as many as three or four other people in the world.

As you will see from the captions, this is something of a mystery story: the gear slips in direct drive, which in theory should be impossible. Looking over it again, I find I had forgotten the extent of the work I had done on it, and the degree to which I had advanced my understanding.

Any of you who have ever done it will know that while dismantling and reassembling an epicyclic hub can afford a great deal of satisfaction (as long as you get it to work) doing it repeatedly eventually becomes tedious (there are no fewer than seven separate sets of ball bearings in the Newill hub, most of them tiny, to say nothing of six pawls and the little hair springs that actuate them) especially when you are trying to run down the cause of a fault that only becomes evident when the hub is in operation under load, on the bicycle – in other words, every time you put the wheel in place (no small task in itself, though a great deal easier on a Pedersen than a Sunbeam) your heart is high with hope – this time it will surely work! This, time, surely, you have eliminated the fault!

But no, you haven’t, and it doesn’t, but in the end you leave it in place and put up with it (it is an intermittent fault, after all, and you can get by on low gear and high for most purposes) because you cannot face yet another taking off and stripping down…

But now that the passage of time has deadened the pain, and in any case the Pedersen is hors de combat, awaiting a new saddle, I find that my curiosity is sufficiently piqued to give it another go – after all, for any mechanical mystery there must be an explanation – mustn’t there?

So I hope to repeat the exercise some time soon and photograph it better – watch this space. I shall certainly make use again of the original patent drawings as a guide, which I downloaded from the excellent European Patent Office website and printed off. You can view the patent document with drawings here : GB190515579A. Though it might seem daunting, I found it a great aid to understanding when actually working with the hub.

In the mean time, may I invite you to join me  –


My Bicycles

I am a man of many bicycles: too many, some might say. Here are some:

there’s the c1924 Royal Sunbeam:


On which I once rode from Inverness to Dunkeld in a day, a feat alluded to here (where I see I have dated it 1923), and its younger brother, the 1934 Royal Sunbeam:


and of course that extraordinary machine, The c.1905 Dursley Pedersen (though it, too, has a touch of the Sunbeam about it at the moment, running as it does a 1910 Sunbeam ‘stepped’ 3-speed hub) :


(seen here framed by the old bridge over the Tay).

And just to show that I am not entirely in thrall to the past, there’s the little Dawes Tartan Tourist, currently running a fixed gear, which is certainly post-war:

And just while we’re at it, the Pedersen ran as a fixed gear for a while, and was featured here, in Dennis Bean-Larson’s Fixed Gear Gallery, though it never shows up in searches because the name in the link is mis-spelt (Dursley Pederson).

If you like this kind of thing, there’s lots more on my Flickr page.