The Rover Safety Bicycle 1887 – Starley and Sutton, Coventry


Finally my Rover is finished! Certainly one of the most significant bicycles in history, The Rover Safety Bicycle designed by John Kemp Starley ‘set the fashion to the world’ in 1885, being the first practical rear drive safety bicycle. This example, frame number 1370, is from 1887. It is a very imposing machine with a 36 inch front wheel/30 inch rear, and 27 inch handlebars!

It spent the past 50 years or so in a museum in Ireland in a sadly neglected state. Whilst I did much of the work to the machine, I was unable to tackle some of the engineering challenges to get it back on the road, so it went to acknowledged Rover expert Tony Huntington. He made a number of missing parts to exactly the original pattern, including front brake assembly, spokes (butted to the rear wheel), lamp bracket, front mudguard and chainguard. Tony has a wealth of knowledge about early Rover’s and records every one he works on, both photographically and with superb detailed dimensioned drawings. By remarkable luck he had another machine in the workshop a few frame numbers away from this one, and was able to copy the complete brake mechanism from it. I cannot speak too highly of the quality of Tony’s work. He is a superb engineer of a type now sadly rare.

This bicycle was, we think, originally supplied to Ireland because the catalogue of the period states that heavy duty 1″ tyring, as on this one, is fitted to machines for the Irish and American markets, presumably because of the poor state of the roads! Standard of construction is excellent. Most of the parts, including nuts and bolts, are stamped with the frame number, or drivetrain number of 634. One nice feature is the serrated washers for the rear wheel nuts which engage with the serrations on the dropouts to prevent the wheel moving.

My approach to the work on this bicycle was influenced by the fact that it had no vestiges of original enamel or nickel. The badly applied brush painted finish was removed from all parts and the frame painted in acrylic paint. No attempt was made to reproduce the original enamel and lining since the metal was pitted. Likewise, the parts originally nickeled were lightly polished and protected from further corrosion. The new parts made by Tony are easily visible, so as to give an honest picture of what is new and what is old.

The Rover, despite its considerable weight (contributed to significantly by the heavy duty tyres) rides beautifully. It is geared to 54 inches which is a fine compromise gear. When I raced it at Herne Hill a while ago I found that it absolutely flew, the flywheel effect of the wheels meaning that pedalling was fairly effortless once it got going. Tony’s careful polishing of all bearing surfaces mean that it must ride much like it did in 1887, and one can understand why the fashion was set for the Safety Bicycle and why the days of the Ordinary were consequently numbered.

Click on images for large scale, and again for even more detail!

The Rover as purchased

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