When I begin work on a new bike one of the first things I do is investigate the bike itself. I’m interested in the history of the maker. With a little research I can often tease out details from a variety of sources and compile them together to create a meaningful biography. Sometimes information is easily had and other times I have to get creative with the search for enlightenment. Serial numbers, for instance, would seem to have a great deal more meaning than they often do. To take just one example, a Rosetta Stone for Peugeot serial numbers before the 1980’s has yet to be uncovered; there are some who believe their serial numbers are purely random in nature! (I believe there was some sort of system involved, but whether or not one can interpret models or dates or anything else from those digits has yet to be determined.)
The thing is, serial numbers and other such minutiae don’t seem to have occupied the minds of many bicycle builders. I sort of understand that thinking. Bike companies came and went, merged, got purchased, and dissolved. Who on earth would maintain a library of details, especially in those pre-internet days? As individuals close to operations passed away, so too did their personal recollections. Day-to-day operational records were kept at the time to maintain orders and sales, perhaps archived for a while in decidedly non-archival boxes and file drawers – but no one ever imagined that these purely functional transportation devices would turn into collectable objects d’art. Who would have ever imagined that sales brochures, catalogs, build sheets, and other ephemera would have any historical importance? I’m sure the furthest thing from their minds was that anyone would ever be interested in tracking down the history or lineage. I just imagine their incredulity at such an idea: It’s a bicycle, for Pete’s sake!
I’m always amused when television shows make research look so simple. Great detectives type something into Google – let’s say it’s the name of a bike company – and immediately get a list of everything there is to know about it. They generally project this information up onto a large screen so that everyone on the team can see the incredibly detailed history, complete with photographs of the founders and biographical details of everyone involved in the fabrication. But of course, television and real life tend to deviate pretty dramatically and when I begin to research a bike there is seldom a single source of information. In fact, because the internet is so democratic, information must almost always be first viewed as somewhat suspect. Unlike books and journals of the past where details were generally meticulously (if not always accurately) researched, any well meaning person can publish memories, opinions, and hogwash, and represent it all as “pure fact.” Such has been the case with my ongoing research into the builder of the Freschi, for instance, and I still haven’t been able to reasonably make any sort of conclusions, relying as I have upon anecdotal and often erroneously repeated story.
So now I begin to examine a British roadster built by Elswick and the foundation of my understanding began with a misunderstanding. I believed that Elswick, as such, had not survived the second World War, and that the company was acquired to become Elswick-Hopper sometime in the late forties. A friend and fellow enthusiast also believed this story. I have, however, begun to reach different conclusions. One source that I came across indicated that the motorized branch of Elswick (they produced both motorized and pedal-powered two-wheelers) was not profitable enough to continue. The decision was made to focus entirely on bicycles, and perhaps this event helped to precipitate my own imprecise understanding.
I began my journey through Elswick history with the facts as I know them. First, the frame has a serial number located near the top of the seat tube, on the drive side. The number, 38519, has a capital letter “G” engraved above it. I have located a chart purporting to identify Elswick bicycle manufacture by year and if it is accurate, the “G” indicates a build year of 1925 or 1949. I am fairly confident that it is not a 1925 model, so I have a general starting point of 1949.
The rear wheel has a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub and mounted to the bars is a Sturmey-Archer three/four speed trigger shifter, model GC2, patent number 498820. The hub can be conclusively dated to 1948 and the GC2 trigger shifter was introduced in 1948-49. Presuming that these are original items, they support a 1949 date for the bike.
The end of the forties and the start of the fifties are a sort of transitional period for Elswick Cycles, Ltd, and as it turns out this is a fortuitous date that helps to inform my research. On Wednesday, July 16, 1952, trademark registration was filed for The Elswick Cycles Limited Barton on Humber Fortiter, Defendit Triumphans . This appellation, which appears on my head badge, was first used September 6, 1928, and first used commercially March 20, 1946.Bartun-upon-Humber was, and is, a small township in north Lincolnshire, pleasantly situated in the late thirties amidst a quiet qgricultural countryside in which time must have seemed to be standing still. Within the town itself flourished one of the largest cycle manufacturing concerns in Britain – Mssrs. Elswick-Hopper, or as these two well known names were at the time still preserved as separate entities: F. Hopper and Co., Ltd., and Elswick Cycles, Ltd.
Very briefly, the history of Elswick and Elswick-Hopper begins in 1880, when Fred Hopper hung out a shingle. In 1896, Hopper sold out to an investment company, A.B.C. Cycle Fittings Company, Ltd. and set up a new factory called Hull and Barton Cycle Manufacturing Company the following year. In 1898, Hopper and his partners purchased back the original business and in 1910 purchased the patents, trademarks and goodwill of the bankrupt Elswick Cycle Company of Newcastle. Much as Chevrolet did with their GMC product line, Hopper planned to market two separate brands of Hopper and Elswick. Fred Hopper Jr. took over as managing director in 1925 when his father passed away and the firm struggled through the thirties. In 1958, new management took control and brought in an Italian design company to develop new models. For much of this time, the firm built most of their own components, but by the 60’s these items were being brought in from overseas for assembly at Barton. The 70’s brought Coventry Eagle, eventually changing their name to Falcon. Along with the change came a move from Barton to a modern facility in Brigg. The London Gazette filed a short paragraph announcing the dissolution of the company on 8 September 1999, but all production had long since ceased by this point.
Next: More about Elswick and I begin the restoration