The worldwide accessibility and popularity of bicycling is due, in no small part, to John Kemp Starley. The promotions for his Rover Safety bicycle of the mid-1880s led to revolutions in transport and social mores. The billions of bicycles made since then can trace much of their ancestry back to a version of his ground-breaking machines, tested on a flat stretch of London Road on the outskirts of Coventry.
J. K. Starley developed his Safety bicycle—it was safer than than the high-wheel bicycles that preceded it—while he was living in a nondescript mid-terrace house on Gloucester Street, close to Coventry city center.
According to The Cyclist, a contemporary magazine, the Rover Safety bicycle “set the fashion to the world,” leading to a global boom in bicycle ownership and use. Commenting in 1931, bicycle collector H. W. Bartleet wrote: “J.K. Starley lived to see his Rover bicycle copied by the whole cycle trade, and a great industry was thus created.”
As Starley’s fortunes improved he was able to move to a much grander home, since demolished, but his house on Gloucester Street still stands. However, it is not marked with a blue plaque, those permanent signs installed on buildings in the U.K. where a historically famous person once lived.
Adam Tranter, the “bicycle mayor” of Coventry, is leading a campaign to get the house recognized by the city.
He has written to Coventry City Council for its “support in arranging for a blue plaque to be placed at the house that John Kemp Starley lived in when he invented the Safety bicycle.”
In the letter Tranter stressed: “Many residents, potentially even those living on the street, will not be aware of the historical significance of the property and its former resident.”
On August 11, Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) announced plans for a “500-mile cycling vision” with active travel routes across the West Midlands Combined Authority to be named the Starley Network. More than £260 million will be spent on the vision over the coming years, TfWM said.
The West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, said at the network’s launch he was “delighted” to unveil plans for the Starley Network “and what better place to do so than in Coventry, the home of the Starley family and the modern-day bicycle,” he added.
Bicycle advocate Tranter is also campaigning for a statue to be raised to Starley in the city center. This would be the second statue to a Starley family member. John Kemp Starley’s uncle James Starley has had a statue in the city since 1884.
Known as the “father of the British cycle industry,” James Starley created the first British high wheeler bicycles in the sewing machine factory he had founded in Coventry with S.C. Salisbury, his American partner. In 1868, this company—known as Coventry Machinists—had won an order from France to make 500 velocipedes, the newly developed machines with almost equally sized wheels and pedals which propelled the front wheel.
Starley improved on the design of these “bone shakers,” and following innovations in France he increased the size of the propelling wheel, introducing, in 1871, the Ariel, named for the “tricksy spirit” in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Ariel’s large wheel made the bicycle go faster for each pedal stroke (bicycles did not yet have chain-driven gears).
These high-wheelers were the red Ferraris of the day: expensive, fast and owned by leisured, athletic young men out to impress.
“James was the clever one of the two,” says Mike Burrows, author of Bicycle Design and designer of the carbon-fiber Lotus 108 time trial bicycle manufactured by Lotus cars for Chris Boardman who won the gold medal for the 4000 meter track pursuit at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“James was the engineer; John Kemp was the marketing genius who took a bunch of existing technologies and, with his MK3 machine, popularized the bicycle as we know it.”
In 1877, James Starley created chain-driven differential gearing for four-wheeled cycles, an innovation that, like many cycling technologies, would later transfer to motor cars.
J. K. Starley was born in Walthamstow, London, moving to Coventry to lodge with his uncle and family at Upper Well Street, Coventry. Originally, J. K. Starley worked for his uncle’s business—Starley & Hillman—but later set up his own cycle company.
Many contemporary manufacturers worked on creating a so-called Safety bicycle. Starley’s first design for a “Safety” was introduced in 1884, while his company—Starley and Sutton Co. of Meteor Works, Coventry—was still making tricycles.
The high wheelers of the day—later called ordinaries to distinguish them from Safeties, and later disparagingly known as Penny Farthings—were not just dangerous, they were suitable mainly for tall, athletic men.
Writing in 1921, industrial journalist W. F. Grew said: “However enthusiastic one may have been about the ordinary—and I was an enthusiastic ride of it once—there is no denying that it was only possible for comparatively young and athletic men, and if it had remained the only bicycle obtainable, the pastime and the utility of cycling would never have reached its present state of popularity.”
Created by Starley and his friend William Sutton, the first Rover Safety was an indirect steering, rear wheel drive, chain driven bicycle, unlike the direct drive high-wheeler.
The first Rover Safety—with a 36-inch front wheel and bridle rods not a raked front fork—was far from perfect, and Starley, with the help of Sutton, modified the design, creating the second Rover in 1885, a bicycle with nearly equal sized wheels and, critically, direct steer forks.
It was introduced at the Stanley Cycle Show, Britain’s main annual bicycle exhibition, held in a marquee on the Thames Embankment next to Blackfriars Bridge in London between January 28 to February 3, 1885.
This bicycle has most of the classic hallmarks of a modern machine. J.K. Starley later said he had wanted to “place the rider at the proper distance from the ground…to place the seat in the right position in relation to the pedals…to place the handles in such a position in relation to the seat that the rider could exert the greatest force upon the pedals with the least amount of fatigue.”
High-wheeler riders looked down on these newfangled Safeties—literally and figuratively. They called them “dwarf machines”, “beetles” and “crawlers.” However, the 1885 Rover—with solid tyres still—was shown anything but a crawler when a number of them beat the time record in a 100 mile promotional race on the macadamised Great North Road between Norman Cross, near Peterborough, to one mile beyond Twyford, in Berkshire.
This race was staged, by Starley and Sutton, on September 25, 1885 and helped convince people that the Safety was fast, the critical sales factor of the day.
By 1888, the design-registered Rover had evolved to the extent it was clearly recognizable as a modern machine: it had two equally sized wheels (26-inches, the same as a modern mountain bike) and, via a borrowing from a competitor machine, a triangular, diamond-shaped frame.
When later shod with John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tires—created in 1887, race proven in 1889 and commercially available in 1890—the Rover Safety proved itself to be the perfect bicycle and, in essence, the main features on Starley’s 1888 machine are still used on the majority of bicycles sold and ridden today.
It’s important to stress that J.K. Starley did not invent the Safety bicycle, nor did he name the category nor did he come up with the name Rover (that was his employee George Franks, a retired diamond merchant).
Serial entrepreneur Harry Lawson (he was later convicted for fraud) created his Bicyclette Safety bicycle in 1879 and this is arguably the world’s first Safety bicycle. However, it did not have sloping forks, or equal sized wheels, did not sell in great numbers and was a design cul-de-sac.
J.K. Starley adapted a number of existing technologies and, with his third version of the Rover Safety bicycle, created a machine that captured the popular imagination. By deftly marketing this bicycle as a speed machine—and paying for a great many advertisements in the specialist press of the time—he secured his place in history.
A lecture J.K. Starley gave to the Society of Arts in London in 1898 shows that he believed he invented the Safety bicycle: “I felt the time had arrived for solving the problem of the cycle,” he remarked, loftily.
“My aim was not only to make a safety bicycle,” he continued, “but to produce a machine which should be the true Evolution of the Cycle, and the fact that so little change has been made in the essential positions, which were established by me in 1885, prove that I was not wrong in the cardinal points to be embodied to this end.”
Bicycles begat cars
In 1888, J.K. Starley built Britain’s first electric car, which was one of his firm’s tricycles with an added motor and battery.
After his early death at the age of just 46, Starley’s company started to manufacture and sell Rover cars, one of the many bicycle companies in the U.K. and the U.S. to use the knowhow, capital, labor and technologies from bicycling to create automobiles.
The Rover Cycle Company started manufacturing Rover cars in Coventry in 1904, three years after J. K. Starley’s death.
“When when the car became king, the city forgot the cyclist,” pointed out London correspondent Stephen Castle in the New York Times
Tranter is aiming to change that and he believes recognizing the former home of J.K. Starley could help promoting cycling in general.
“A dedicated acknowledgment to John Kemp Starley’s huge contribution to the city, and indeed the world, would be great for the profile of Coventry and for the profile of cycling locally,” he said.