The history of cycling includes many innovations that failed to achieve popular or commercial success. The reasons for failure are many and various. But sometimes, even the wackiest-looking designs incorporated interesting ideas. Here’s a selection of those concepts — most of which have at least one redeeming feature.
This excerpt was adapted by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing, the authors of Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History, now available from The MIT Press.
A folding small-wheeler for the military (1909)
The Dutch manufacturer Fongers supplied bikes to the Netherlands’ army and proudly featured soldiers on its adverts and posters. Its prototype for a military small-wheeled folder was more compact than its rivals, but the wheels were too small for rough terrain. However, for city use, small wheels work well — and this was an early precursor of the small-wheeled folders such as Dahon and Brompton that are commonplace today.
Aerodynamic racing machine (1913)
Called the Vélo Torpille (Torpedo Bike), this Zeppelin-like aerodynamic fairing was designed by engineer Étienne Bunau-Varilla. In 1913, it enabled French racer Marcel Berthet to set a new world record by completing 5 kilometers on Paris’s Vel’ d’Hiv track in 5 minutes and 39.3 seconds, an average speed of about 33 miles per hour. The race-governing body immediately banned the design for giving an “unfair advantage.”
Lever-drive recumbent bicycle (1923)
Recombinant bicycles eventually caught hold, but not before some odd designs were trotted out. In 1923, Austrian-born Zeppelin engineer Paul Jaray rethought the bicycle for less air resistance and easier pedaling. His “J-wheel” had a recumbent riding position for reduced air drag. It also featured swinging pedal levers with three pairs of footrests for varying the leverage, acting like a gearbox without cogs. Two thousand machines were sold before a lethal accident stopped sales.
Bicycle with weather protection (1959)
Introduced at a time when Brits were deserting their bikes for the comfort of the car, the Elswick-Hopper Scoo-ped was inspired by 1950s Italian motor scooters. Designer Maurice Moss pitched the machine at people who didn’t normally ride bikes for fear of getting their clothes wet and dirty. The glass reinforced polyester cladding was fitted to a conventional steel frame and incorporated scooter-like leg guards. But the public wasn’t convinced — and only three-dozen Scoo-peds were made.
Bicycle-scooter hybrid for the urbanite (1978)
Cycling city dwellers don’t necessarily want to race around dressed like spandex warriors when they’re just going shopping. This prototype for the Fahrroller, patented by German Georg Ruffer, permits you to scoot where cycling is forbidden — like the sidewalk — while also wearing fashionable threads. As an added bonus, the platform can carry a crate of beer or a buddy. While cargo bikes for city chores are popular, Ruffer’s bike-scooter hybrid design never got past the planning stages. But it didn’t die altogether, either: French designer Philippe Starck adopted a similar approach for Bordeaux’s new public bike rental scheme.
The lightweight plastic bicycle (1982)
The Itera was designed at considerable expense by a team at Volvo. Intended as a low-maintenance machine for commuters, the plastic bike had a unisex frame made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, with wheels moulded from glass-filled polyamide. That’s an impressive use of materials, but it turns out that floppy plastic isn’t the best for bike design: The Itera frame’s lack of rigidity sapped rider energy and the handlebars tended to snap. After launching to a huge publicity push, 30,000 of the doomed cycles were sold before Volvo ditched the design. It hasn’t stopped others from dreaming of a bike made of space age plastics.
A front-cranked shapeshifter (1984)
Australian company Acrow built a hundred prototypes of this commuter-friendly semi-recumbent design patented by Paul Cockburn. The transmission (comprising two-speed gear, cranks and pedals) was built into the front wheel. This allowed the rear part to be easily swapped for a shopping basket on two wheels, creating a capacious shopping trike. The long sloping seat did away with the need for adjusting the saddle height — the rider just sat nearer or further from the pedals, to suit leg length.
Adapted from Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History. Tony Hadland is the author of Raleigh: Past and Presence of an Iconic Bicycle Brand and other books. Hans-Erhard Lessing is a former professor of physics at the University of Ulm and past curator at the Technoseum Mannheim and ZKM Karlsruhe.
Pictures: 1. Collection of RHC Groninger Archieven) 2. Arnfried Schmitz 3. Graziella Pellicci 4. Nigel Land 5. Wolfgang Siol 5.Lars Samelsson 6. Jeremy Garnet. All courtesy of The MIT Press