“How a Bicycle is Made”

Via sportsman extraordinaire Dan from Madison, this fascinating video shows the operations of a British bicycle factory in 1945. If the factory shown is not a composite it may be the Raleigh works in Nottingham. (The video shows Rudge branded bike frames being made. Wikipedia says that the electronics — now music — company EMI bought the Rudge name and produced bikes from 1935 until 1943 when they sold the brand to Raleigh.)

The video was a promotional effort on behalf of British industry. In hindsight it shows British industry on the cusp of postwar decline. But that’s hindsight. The bicycles shown are pre-war designs, variations of which are still used in much of the world. (Many of the bikes shown in the video would have been exported, perhaps mainly to what are now the Commonwealth countries.) Updated versions of these bikes were popular in the USA until the 1970s when they began to be superseded by more modern designs. Since then the Raleigh brand has passed through multiple acquisitions, and Raleigh bicycles are no longer made in Britain (I have no idea when the Rudge brand was last used).

Increased wealth and the automobile eventually killed off most demand for bicycles as routine transportation in developed countries. The video shows crowds of English people in business dress, including at least one woman in heels, cycling about. Nowadays most of them would drive or take buses or trains (even if, as I suspect is the case in the video, they work for a bicycle manufacturer). But in the hard times of 1945 the bicycle would have been the best short-distance travel option for many Britons and Europeans. And in Britain’s post-war socialist austerity the bicycle industry, like every other British industry, needed all the help it could get.

The US National Association of Manufacturers once posted a similar video on its blog, showing operation of the Columbia bicycle factory around 1950. I can’t find the original video but this YouTube seems to contain much if not all of it:


18 thoughts on ““How a Bicycle is Made””

  1. It’s interesting to read in Neville Shute’s biography about his frustrations with the Socialists that led to his decision to emigrate to Australia in 1950. One of his novels, “The Far Country,” goes into considerable detail about the post war period. His description is very harsh although, at the time, Australia was pretty much a Socialist state. I remember my cousin’s experiences when he moved there in 1957 when he worked for Sears. They had bought a chain of Australian department stores and he went there to integrate them with Sears and Kenmore brands. At that period in Australia there were farmers being prosecuted by the “Egg Board” for violating rationing rules. I can’t think it was that much better than England although it was far more prosperous in spite of everything. The Socialists seem to have wrecked the British economy and prevented recovery even though the country had been badly damaged by the war. We are going through something similar now, I believe.

  2. I toured Australia for 6 weeks in the mid 80s – and an Australian told me that much of their problems stem from the most rabid of union organizers emigrating from England post war – there was a time when they’d strike at the drop of a pin

    Will have to watch the video tonight (at 17 minutes) but to me it is sad growing up in the 50s remembering how much British industry was evident here – Raleigh bicycles, MGs, Jags, even Hillman cars having a big presence over here.

    And who can forget the motorcycles – the Triumph Bonneville – still a classic – leaking engine and all….

  3. I like the factory conditions. Exposed belts, the frames dipped in enamel with bare hands, lack of safety glasses, and other things like that that would be verboten in any manufacturing facility today, except perhaps in the third world.

  4. And who can forget the motorcycles – the Triumph Bonneville – still a classic – leaking engine and all…

    But that’s the thing. British post-war vehicles were ubiquitous in the USA but I think it was for want of anything better. The vehicles were often poorly made or of obsolete design or both, particularly after the late ’60s. Consumers chose better-made Japanese motorcycles and eventually cars, and modern European and Japanese bicycles, as soon as these were available. (US car makers, of course, had their own quality-control issues.)

  5. Jonathan – I think that is part of the reason. But Americans had plenty of cars to chose from here post war – it was returning GIs bringing things like the MG-TD – really an antique even then – that got America hooked on sports cars.

    Look at the Mazda Miata – the original one – I think it was designed by the son of GM’s legendary Harley Earl – and look at a 1964 Lotus Elan.

    The Lotus was a spectacular car to handle – but reliable?

    There is a reason there is a plethora of Lucas jokes (The prince of Darkness, why do the British drink Warm Beer, etc )

    The original Miata is an Elan that is reliable.

    The British had the innovation, which the Japanese copied, and the Japanese added reliability through better production methods and quality control. Of course then the Japanese were ridiculed for simply copying other’s (the engine from the Datsun 240Z is basically a carburated version of the Mercedes-Benz M130 for example); I could go on –

    Now the Japanese are the innovative ones.

    Just being old designs isn’t what killed the British car industry – it was poor quality control. They are still making the Morgan sports car the way they did in the 1930s – and updated drive trains. The Austin Healey 3000 – very desired today – is, I believe, based on an old Austin engine.

    I remember even Carrol Shelby admitted that the chassis that he settled on for the Cobra – and old AC chassis, was an old design even in the early 60s. (as an aside he was also thinking of using the Austin Healey 3000 as a chassis)

    Like my 25 year old Toyota mr2 – that has many parts from the Toyota Corolla – take the same parts, shake them and have something fun to drive. Old parts by themselves aren’t necessarily bad – it’s how you use them ;-)

    I think what finally killed the British car industry was integrating them all into British Leyland in the late 60s – with even worse quality.

    Think how they must feel to have their automotive icons, Rolls Royce and Bentley, made by BMW and VW respectively. How each became the maker of that marque is a story in itself but that is for another time….

  6. “The British had the innovation, which the Japanese copied, and the Japanese added reliability through better production methods and quality control. ”

    In Shute’s autobiography, which goes only up to the war, he describes the airship project that Britain conducted in the 1930s when airships were considered the future for long range travel. They had two airships under construction. One, which he worked on and eventually became chief engineer for (the R100), was built by private industry, chiefly deHavilland, the other (R 101) by government workers. The R 101 was poorly designed, overweight and eventually crashed killing a lot of people including the chief engineer for the ship. That crash ended the airship industry. The R100 had already had a successful round trip to Canada but it was scrapped.

    The Akron had a similar effect in the US but we never had a perfect experiment like the British did. Of course, they learned nothing from the experience but it made a conservative of Shute.

  7. The P51 Mustang was the same thing Jonathan – North American Aviation developed it from idea to flying prototype for the British in an amazing 6 months.

    It really wasn’t until the British, being disappointed in its high altitude performance, decided to swap the Allison for a RR Merlin – that it became an icon.

    Both Spitfire and Mustang icons – minimal govt interference….hmmmmm ;-)

  8. “The P51 Mustang was the same thing Jonathan – North American Aviation developed it from idea to flying prototype for the British in an amazing 6 months.”

    How about the DC 2/ DC 3 ? Boeing had the lead in passenger airplanes but the DC 2 revolutionized that world. The DC 3 is a DC 2 with a longer fuselage and better landing gear. In Ernest Gann’s book, “Fate is the Hunter,” he tells the story of his life being saved because he was assigned to fly a DC 2 on a trip that was supposed to be a DC 3 flight. They encountered icing conditions and he wrote that they survived because the DC 2 could carry more ice and still fly. It was an even more forgiving airplane than its successor.

    I have excellent books, both coffee table size, on the P 51 and the DC 3.

  9. There’s a story somewhere from WW2 if a crew having trouble with their C47 – bailing out – and the plane – so inherently stable – landed itself.

    Then, a story that has fascinated me for years – that of Gertrude “Tommie” Tompkins – a WASP who was ferrying a new P51 and most likely crashed in Santa Monica Bay.



    LAX used to be Mines Field – and NAA built P51s there. Most likely millions of passengers have flown over her watery grave over LAX….

    Talk about eye candy – seeing a Mustang at full throttle skimming across the deck

  10. Bob Hope lived at Toluca Lake too, I think. I believe with his shrewd real estate investments, income from show business became a sideline.

    James Garner has an excellent autobiography called The Garner Files , and he devotes a chapter to golf, and his country club. Trying to remember the name, but whatever it was they had nothing against movie stars.

    I think it was Lakeside – is there a famous bridge there?

    On Amelia someone once said that she wasn’t that good a pilot – not so much lack of skills but judgement. The reason she got Fred Noonan was because the better navigators wouldn’t fly with her. Fred had trouble with the bottle.

    A harbinger of things to come I believe when they hit Africa she got into an argument with Noonan over whether to head north up the coast or south.

    She went the opposite way Noonan told her and before turning back almost ran out of fuel.

    Or so these old gray cells remember.

    I think in Miami she threw out the long trailing antenna for better radio reception and (I think) the life raft. Either would have saved their lives , but she wanted to save weight.

    Now they are forever a mystery.

  11. I followed the Amelia Earhart link from that story. A lot of her fame was due to her husband who promoted her shamelessly. Her house is on the fairway of Lakeside Golf Club where Bing Crosby was club champion about that time. It has always been the club for movie stars as they were not welcome at LA Country Club, which owns about a mile of Wilshire Boulevard.

    At one time, there was a proposal to raise the property taxes of LACC, which has a very favorable rate. The club, which had lots of LA big shots as members, responded that, in that case, they would sell off one course that ran long Wilshire Boulevard. It would bring about a $1 billion for the frontage. The city backed down. The only movie star that was ever accepted to LACC was Randolph Scott who offered to have a number of friends sign affidavits that he was not an actor. He was club champion several times in the 1940s and lived on one fairway.

    Lakeside has a tiny lake and Frank Sinatra once lived on that lake. The district is called Toluca Lake and is a very nice area. Amelia’s husband was quite wealthy. The house is along the tenth or eleventh fairway, as I recall.

  12. Bob Hope’s place in Toluca Lake was the size of a small golf course, which it contained. He and Crosby were very successful investors, as was Jimmy Cagney who, in spite of his lefty sympathies, bought a lot of what is now Laguna Beach in the 1940s.

Comments are closed.