Coventry Bicycles

1927 Three Spires Advert

1927 Coventry Bicycles advertisement, courtesy of Grace's Guide

The origins of Coventry Bicycles Limited are somewhat obscure. A 1912 directory of Warwickshire lists a Coventry Bicycle [sic] Company in Conduit Yard, Fleet Street. However the company Coventry Bicycles appears to have been established in Gosford Street in 1918 when two gentlemen named Barbury and Downes were appointed managers by Siegfried Bettmann of Triumph! Both men were former employees of Hobart, Bird & Company Limited, a manufacturer of bicycles and, later, motorcycles, that moved to Coventry from Wolverhampton in the late 1890s. By the mid-1920s Barbury and Downes were producing a motorcycle named the Coventry B[arbury] & D[ownes] from new premises in Wellington Street: and in 1927 the company was advertising its Three Spires brand of bicycle from the same address.

Osborne Road 1907

Photograph of Osborne Road in 1907, courtesy of David Fry

In about 1928 the company moved again, this time to a small industrial estate in Osborne Road in the Earlsdon district of the city. The estate was first developed in around 1902 when the Rex Motor Manufacturing Company Limited and the Acme Motor Company Limited both established factories there. A 1907 photograph of Osborne Road shows the Rex Factory in the middle distance on the left.

In 1922 Rex and Acme had merged to form the Rex-Acme Motor Manufacturing Company. The merger must have created a vacancy on the estate because it is believed a satellite of the Standard Motor Company then moved in and remained there until the arrival of Coventry Bicycles in 1928. Given that Siegfried Bettmann had bought a significant shareholding in the Standard Motor Company in 1912 and was on its board, it seems likely that he played a role in the transfer of Coventry Bicycles to the Osborne Road site.

By the early 1930s Coventry Bicycles was making an impressive range of machines in its Osborne Road factory. It was producing not only its core, Three Spires models, but also a number of less expensive EUREKA models. The latter were clearly aimed at a more price conscious segment of the bicycle market.

1930 and 1931 wholesale price list

Coventry Bicycles 1930-1931 agents wholesale price list

Following the purchase by Coventry Bicycles of the Triumph bicycle division in 1936, an acquisition in which Siegfried Bettmann also played a role, the company created a subsidiary company named TriVelox Gears Limited to produce the TriVelox gear. It was not long before a sequence of advertisements for the gear began to appear in the cycling press. Simultaneously the parent company promoted the gear through its advertising of the Three Spires range of bicycles.

1936 Trivelox from Cycling Magazine

1936 advertisement for the TriVelox gear, courtesy of Grace's Guide

(Despite having only one arm, Walter Greaves did set a new world record of more than 45,000 miles: the current record is more than 75,000!)

1936 advert for Three Spires with TriVelox from Grace's Guide

1936 advertisement for the Three Spires bicycle, courtesy of Grace's Guide

In 1938 Coventry Bicycles vacated its Osborne Road premises and concentrated all production of its products and brands in the old Triumph factory in Priory Street [1]. In about the same year TriVelox Gears Limited published a very impressive catalogue from the Priory Street address which ran to more than 30 pages. As well as the classic in-line derailleur, promoted in the catalogue as the A model, the catalogue illustrated the newer B and C models. Both the B and C models were off-line or moving chain derailleurs. The B model anticipated the free hubs of modern, moving chain derailleurs in that the free-wheel was built into the hub. The C model, on the other hand, had a classic free-wheel 'block' of sprockets that could be screwed on to the existing rear wheel hub of a customer's bicycle. (The full catalogue can be viewed here.)

Model B Gear

Model B TriVelox gear

Model B Gear continued

Model B TriVelox gear continued

Model C Gear

Model C TriVelox gear

March 1940 notice in the London Gazette

March 1940 notice in the London Gazette

Despite these additions to its product line, a notice in the London Gazette in March 1940 showed that TriVelox Gears Limited was in serious financial difficulties. It is possible that production of the gear may have continued at the Priory Street factory, but worse was to come. Later in the year the factory was virtually destroyed by German bombs and this cataclysmic event brought to an end the manufacture of the TriVelox gear in Coventry.

William Hill, the inventor of the in-line TriVelox gear, spoke in 1984 to his nephew Melvyn Hirst about the bombing of the Priory Street factory. Bill had moved in the early 1930s from Tanfield Garage in Keighley to Coventry, to work first for Triumph and then for Coventry Bicycles, much to the annoyance of his former employer, Alec Shuttleworth. Bill also spoke about the role of Siegfried Bettmann in the manufacture of the TriVelox gear and the changes brought about when the Triumph bicycle business was sold to Coventry Bicycles. (Listen to a recording of their conversation here.)

February 1947 voluntary liquidation notice in the London Gazette

February 1947 voluntary liquidation notice in the London Gazette

At some point between 1936 and 1940 - conflicting dates are given in secondary sources - Coventry Bicycles, with its Three Spires and Triumph brands, had changed its name to Associated Cycle Manufacturers of Coventry: this was probably an umbrella name for the two parts of the business [2]. Then, in 1947, two seemingly contradictory events were reported in the press. The first was an announcement in a February issue of the London Gazette that Coventry Bicycles Limited was going into voluntary liquidation.

1949 ACM advert

1949 advertisement for Associated Cycle Manufacturers, courtesy of IceniCAM

The second, five months later in July 1947, was a report in the Western Morning News that a new factory was being built for Associated Cycle Manufacturers of Coventry. This factory was built in Torrington Avenue, Coventry, and that is the address given in some, but not all, of the late-1940s advertisements for the company. In the example shown here, from 1949, the Torrington Avenue address is not given.

It may be relevant to the contradiction noted above that all Three Spires cycles are advertised as reserved for export, '[with] not a single machine . . . reaching the home market.' The Three Spires bicycle shown in the advertisement is a very basic one with only a single gear. Hence it is possible that Associated Cycle Manufacturers decided to liquidate most, if not all, of the manufacturing assets of Coventry Bicycles and target the mass, overseas market with just one, very simple-to-manufacture, Three Spires model. Only Triumph bicycles were being sold into the home market.

At the end of the Second World War Associated Cycle Manufacturers of Coventry was one of only two makers of bicycles remaining in the city. Eventually the company was taken over by Raleigh Industries in 1954 and production of its bicycles moved to Nottingham. The other company that remained after the war, the Coventry-Eagle Cycle and Motor Company Limited, moved to Smethwick in 1959, and this brought to an end the manufacture of bicycles in Coventry. How times had changed. In 1897, for example, there were seventy five companies in the city manufacturing complete bicycles [3].

1940 Purchase

Report of the 1940 purchase of TriVelox Gears Limited, courtesy of IceniCAM

In the meantime the TriVelox gear had arisen from the ashes! An item in The Bicycle in August 1940 reported that TriVelox Gears Limited had a new owner. This was just five months after the financial difficulties reported in the London Gazette in March.

1940 Agreement

1940 agreement signed by Alec Shuttleworth and William Hill, courtesy of Tim Clapham

The new owner was, of course, Alec Shuttleworth, formerly of Tanfield Garage, now of Tanfield Buildings in Keighley, one of the two original patentees of the gear along with William Hill. Both Shuttleworth and Hill had signed an agreement with the liquidator of TriVelox Gears Limited, dated 22 July 1940, which enabled the sale to proceed.

Alec Shuttleworth was intending to form a new company named the TriVelox Gear Company. He may have arranged for production to continue at Priory Street in Coventry until a new manufacturing facility was established in the North. But what he could not have known at the time was that the Priory Street factory would be in ruins by the end of the year.

Precisely what happened next, and when, is not entirely clear. But shortly after the end of the war the TriVelox gear was being manufactured in Spennymoor, County Durham, by a company named the TriVelox Gear Company (the name chosen by Alec Shuttleworth), a subsidiary of Smart & Brown (Engineers) Limited.

Notes

1. A 1939 catalogue for Triumph bicycles, which can be viewed in full on the Veteran-Cycle Club Library website by entering 'Triumph', without the quotes, into the search box, reveals that the word 'Cycle' had been re-introduced into the bicycle company name following the break-up of the parent Triumph Company in 1936. Selected pages from the catalogue can be viewed here, courtesy of the Veteran-Cycle Club.

2. A 1950 directory of Coventry manufacturers gives 1939 as the year of the change in name. The products manufactured by the company are given in the directory as "Triumph" pedal cycles, and the trade marks as "Triumph", "Three Spires", and "Gloria". The Gloria brand was employed by Triumph in its early days for a cheaper line of bicycles: rather like Coventry Bicycles with its lower-priced Eureka range.

3. See: Anthony Edward Harrison. 'The Competitiveness of the British Cycle Industry, 1890-1914'. Economic History Review, 1969, page 302.

Content researched and written by Melvyn Hirst

Web site created by Mark Hirst. Page updated: 01 August 2014