Cykelhistoriska Föreningen - Artiklar


Swedish bicycle history


The first bicycles in Sweden
The Swedes have always been interested in innovations from the outside world, although they have not always adopted these, but instead gone their own way. Thus far, the oldest description of a bicycle found in Swedish media dates from 1818 and 1819 and describes a so called running machine (draisine or hobbyhorse). In Stockholm Technical Museum you will find what is probably Sweden's oldest steerable running machine, which was made either in Lilla Mellösa, Södermanland, Sweden or in Berlin. However, the running machine was unfit for the Swedish roads which were considered horrible even a hundred years later. Consequently, the running machine pretty soon fell into oblivion.

The next description of a bicycle in Swedish media is from 1869 where the latest fashion from Paris, velocipede, is described. Several manufacturers began their own production the same year, including J.W. Östberg who had a production line of about 150 units of which the first ones were introduced to paying audiences in Stockholm. Later that same year Sweden's first "velocipede school" gave classes in Stockholm. Just as the running machine before it, the velocipede was out of fashion after no more than a couple of years. Britain, being one of the leading manufacturers in the world, was thereafter to supply what few velocipedes and, later, penny farthings that were in demand.

The first factory made bicycle models
In the year 1884 an important thing happens in Sweden when factory owner Per From begins dabbling in penny farthing production. Some twenty bicycles were made the first year and they quickly became popular. The five or six already existing in Stockholm were all of foreign origins. Per From, who kept up with his time, turned primarily to Britain for inspiration and manufactured a safety velocipede in 1887, which was premiered in Stockholm already in March that same year. Per From's significance to the development and spreading of cycling has rightfully dubbed him Father of the Swedish Bicycle Industry.

In 1886 a famous jockey named Anton Wiklund began selling well-known British bicycles to his friends; Coventry Machinist's, Hillmans, Humbers and Singers among others. The repair business generated by these bikes gave birth to Sweden's second bicycle factory, whose production began in 1889. Expansion of the production line became necessary and was effected in 1891 when Anton Wiklunds Velocipedfabriks Aktiebolag (Anton Wiklund's Velocipede Factory Limited) was formed. The company was to symbolise high quality and stability for years to come.

The golden decade of the bicycle
Although Sweden had few racecourses for bikes and the open roads were in a miserable state, the open road race Mälaren Rundt (around lake Mälaren) with its start and finish in Stockholm was a success already from the beginning in 1892. Open road races in particular drew great audiences and gave the bicycle a boost. Most bikes during the 1890s were imported and bicycles from Britain and, later, the U.S. became models for the dawning Swedish bicycle industry.

To ordinary cyclists, the police, horse carriages and pedestrians were a constant problem, especially the police, whose judgement of the speed was a nuisance and the penalties were harsh. The generally vague law stated that the bicycle should be conveyed at low speed so that a fully grown man with a swift walk would be able to keep pace with the velocipede. Moreover, the cyclist was not to disturb the horses, but to dismount if a horse showed signs of agitation. Cyclists were perceived as the cause of so many problems that license plates were required in a large part of the country from 1894 and onwards.

The British dominance was quickly broken by the increasing import of bicycles from America, which were being introduced by the mid 1890s. Around 1895 began the definite breakthrough of the bicycle in Sweden, giving rise to our own bicycle industry, and a great number of factories were to begin their small-scale production in the following years. In these factories, brand names that were to last for a long time were born, such as Hermes, Fram, Husqvarna, Rex and Vega.

The retailers that were selling imported bicycles were also increasing in number, the most successful brands being the originally American bikes Crescent and Rambler. The retailer which was later to be associated with Örnen also has its origins in this period. The increasing bike import from Germany never really got a hold of the Swedish market, but nevertheless was at its greatest during the years around 1900.

Dark times
Around the year 1900 the market became saturated and the charm of novelty had gone away, which led to a greater number of bankruptcies and a switch in production lines across the world, including Sweden. Many a manufacturer abandoned the bicycle in favour of other mechanical products. The bicycle, which had previously been a pastime for the few, became more and more available to ordinary people. However, it would take another decade before the price had dropped to the working man's level.

Once again, a sports event rekindled the public's fading interest in cycling. Track races were on the decline, but the open road race Mälaren Rundt, which had not been held since 1893, was revived in 1901. There was a slow and steady progress again, but very little happened before the year 1910 when both Rambler and Crescent began being manufactured in Sweden. Moreover, bicycle production began in Varberg by the company which later was to become Sweden's biggest bike manufacturer and whose product is known today under the name of Monark.

World War I did not affect the general development in Sweden until the very last year of the war when there was a great material shortage. For bicycle manufacturers, the shortage of tyres was so great that tyres and inner tubes were not included in the price of a bike. In the aftermath of the war many bicycle retailers were deeply in debt since prices constantly changed to their disadvantage. Many a retailer disappeared from the market at this time.

Times were once again good around the mid 1920s when the open road race Sexdagars (Six Day Race) became a huge success for the organisers. Sales curves were once again going up until the trouble on the New York stock market began and the subsequent collapse of the Swedish market occurred. The Krüger crash in Sweden had a negative effect on the economy for a couple of years. At the same time, the industry was changing and small-scale production began to disappear.

The renaissance of the bicycle
Crescent was the first brand to disappear when the maker of Hermes, Nymans Verkstäder (Nyman's Workshops), took over manufacturing from Lindblads in 1931, and in 1933 they also took over from Östergötlands Velocipedfabrik (Velocipede Factory of Östergötland), the maker of the bike Vega. It was not until the first few years before World War II that the bicycle industry would be at its strongest. Bicycle tourism became commonplace thanks to Sweden's generous holidays law. It was not until 1936-1938 that the carrier became standard on the big brands, and a couple of years later it was accompanied by a tool cassette on some brands, as opposed to a tool bag made of leather or cardboard. In 1937 came the injunction that the end part of the bike's rear fender must be white for traffic safety reasons. New bikes were being painted and there were white celluloid end parts for sale in order to make those bikes on the road legal. The plain red rear reflector was developed further and received a prism-like inner part which reflected light considerably better. However, life in the bicycle industry was not all skittles and beer as the maker of Nordstjernan, Wiklunds, was swallowed up by Nymans in 1939. The Second World War did not affect Sweden as severely as World War I, but petrol was rationed and bicycle manufacturing was going at an incredible speed until the government decided to ration all raw materials as a precaution. In 1944 people started talking about the "peace quality" that the bicycles were made of.

Many of those Swedish manufacturers which sold German hubs and spare parts in the 1930s were after the war selling the more easily accessible British hub Perry and, above all, Husqvarna's Novo hub. The development towards light bikes where former steel parts were replaced with aluminium ones dominated bicycle advertisement at the time. Mostly, it was only the carrier, the fender and, on some models, the rims which were made of aluminium on the so called lightweight bikes. Gears were also being introduced more and more, however, many cyclists had to do without them since gears were an additional feature. Nymans was manufacturing Torpedo under license from 1946 until the beginning of 1950.

Monark's traffic school for children was initiated as a small-scale one man project in 1950 by the employee Anders Rosengren and, with the help of the company, it quickly spread all over the country. The children were to learn good traffic sense, which became an important feature in the education system during the following fifteen years.

Towards a slow death
In 1952, when the moped (motor + pedal) did not require a driving licence anymore, it also became a threat to the bicycle - and a must for the bicycle retailers to have in store. All the big manufacturers and several small ones were making their own models with imported engines, Germany being the main engine supplier.

Monark's focus on bike races began to pay off after 1950 when the company war against Nymans' Crescent stable was draining the stable owning manufacturers' capital and problems concerning profitability were evident by the end of the 1950s. By this time, the bicycle industry was unstable and the three big manufacturers, Monark, Nymans (Crescent) and Husqvarna, were struggling with profitability. Things were just as bad for the small companies, among which there had been mergers for several years. Now the turn had come to the big giants. Profitability was believed to be found in a merger between Monark and Nymans in 1960. The merged companies which formed this new conglomerate were carrying problems that took longer to solve than expected. When this was almost done in 1965, the name was changed to MCB, Monark-Crescentbolagen (Monark Crescent Companies).

There was one dark cloud on the horizon, however, and it was the new Swedish import laws around 1960, which made it profitable to import from abroad. The bike manufacturer Rex extended their range with British Sunbeam, which were later replaced by Raleigh. The manufacturer Svalan adopted Favorit from Czechoslovakia and their bikes were renamed Svalan after being repainted, but the legend Favorit could be found on many of its parts. In addition to the established bicycle manufacturers, several other small and large companies tried their luck with their own imported low priced models. In ten years imports reached the same level as the domestic production.

Brief success
The dismountable so called mini bikes and car bikes were not altogether new. But when Moulton acheives a breakthrough in 1962 with their bike model in Britain, it creates an upswing and an interest in easy to use bicycles. However, it would still take some time before the news reached Scandinavia. Fram-King Import AB (Fram-King Imports Limited) were allowed to make these Moulton bikes under licence, however, they handed over the production to Norwegian DBS in a joint venture. The small-wheeled Moulton Standard was thereafter introduced onto the market by Fram-King in 1968. Of course, some features were different from those of the original, such as the two-gear rear hub Duomatic, front wheel drum brake, bottom bracket by Fauber and 16 x 1 5/8 inch tyres. The production went on for some years as long as the interest for small-wheeled models was on top.

Geared towards racing
Gear hubs, which had been around ever since the first few years after the turn of the century, did not grow truly popular on regular bikes until the 60s. First came the Sachs model Duomatic which switched easily from first to second gear with a slight back-step on the pedal. Mini bikes were normally equipped with this gear device. The three gear Sachs Triplex had its breakthrough the following decade. Bike race successes in the late 1960s rubbed off on regular bikes and, in 1970, bicycle fashion had it that bikes should be sporty. The company MCB was the dominating force on the bicycle market and had great success with their bikes, but prosperity and inner organisational problems in this big conglomerate were a constant cause for concern. Prosperity problems were not greater than the ownership problem, however, which turned the company into an unwanted child. The owners seemed to change on a daily basis and the company's organisational structure was somewhat unclear. This was the case during the entire decade.

The racing bike became the latest trend towards the end of the 1970s due to its success in competitions. This model spread to the general public, but not all of these bikes had the ten or twelve gears and the light and stripped frame that characterised a racing bike. In the early 1980s more and more models came equipped with drop handlebars, but most of them were in fact regular bikes made of steel and equipped with stainless steel fenders and rims, carrier, lock and so on. In other words, no lightweight bikes.

From one extreme model to another
The racing bike had its era of greatness up until 1989 when the mountain bike made it big time. Racing bikes became almost unsaleable in just one year and everyone wanted a mountain bike. None of the Swedish manufacturers believed that this trend would get a hold of the market; this bike with its wide, heavy 26 inch tractor tyres and low frame without fenders, lights, a lock and a carrier could not possibly manage to break through. The tall functional Swedes, in love with all things practical, were nevertheless won over by it, and it was not unusual to see a person more than six feet tall sitting bent over mountain bike. All this just a year after the 26 inch wheel bike had officially been declared a children's bike.

In the aftermath of the sport, racing and mountain bike trend, the ordinary bike received its renaissance and nostalgia characterised bicycles just a few years after the mountain bike boom. Suddenly, all the remaining bike brands started selling great quantities of regular 28 inch wheel bicycles, which appeared to emanate from the 40s, but had the latest technology. By the mid 1990s, mountain bikes and nostalgia bikes were not as popular anymore, both models drifted towards the middle again and the more semisporty trend ended the twentieth century.

Enormous progress has been made in the "world of wheels" ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the bicycle has not undergone any radical change in the past 100 years. A number of inventions have been made, but it is still the 28 inch or 26 inch wheeled, chain driven bike with diamond frame, which is the most popular. In fact the bicycle found its form a long time ago, yet there is always some new improvement that is said to be better. If only manufacturers were better at reading their bicycle history, maybe they could find their way back to light, strong and durable constructions.


Irresponsibly out of the head of Åke Stenqvist
Translated into English by Anders Jonsson

Sources: Lots of catalogues & books with long forgotten titles. The following books by Gert Ekström has been helpful: Svenskarna och deras velocipeder and Älskade cykel, plus the books Svenska cyklister i segertröjor and På två hjul.


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