LD Conventre, or Convent Town - so named after the priory founded there just before the Battle of Hastings by Earl Leofric and his heroine wife, Lady Godiva - presents many features of interest alike to the lover of antiquarian research and to the keen observer of modern enterprise. The "three tall spires," conspicuous from afar, have for many generations past looked down upon the narrow streets and antique houses of the ancient midland borough.
The beautiful steeple of St. Michael's Church, rising in graceful outline to the height of 303 feet, prepares the visitor for the discovery that the church attached to it is one of the largest and most interesting in England. Under the shadow of the church, in a room opening out of St. Mary's Hall, one of the oldest and finest halls in England, are ranged a set of charters, leases, agreements, etc., that range from the far distant time of the Plantagenet and Anglo-Norman kings down to modern days. Buildings of the most modern construction and appearance stand side by side with structures of the Commonwealth epoch, and thus throughout Coventry the increasingly assertive present is toned down and restrained by a strong flavour of the near and remote past.
Coventry has for centuries been the home of active industry. It was, four hundred years ago, the home of the woollen industry. To this succeeded dyeing and weaving. In modern days it has been noted for its production of ribbons, trimmings, and various kinds of manufactured products dear to the feminine heart. As one industry becomes overclouded, or seems about to pass away, another develops. In the last fifteen years the history of the town has repeated itself. As the ribbon trade has grown weak, cycle production has grown strong. The latter, probably, will never do for the town fully what the former has accomplished, but we hope to show in this paper that it is doing a great deal in the way of providing labour and trade.
We turn then from the architectural and antiquarian glories of Coventry, from its historical associations and past industries, to glance at it as the home of the cycle, the town from whose workshops come forth in their hundreds and thousands the speedy bicycle and the slower but safer tricycle, the roomy sociable and the compact tandem.
It was our good fortune recently to visit two of the largest works in Coventry.* We propose to sketch here a few of the interesting sights and objects that came under our notice.
Rink skating in Coventry, as elsewhere, had its brief day, and has now ceased to be followed. The rink has been utilised by the well-known Singer firm as a showroom for tricycles, and a walk through this room impresses one with a vivid notion of the scale on which tricycles are now produced. Here are to be seen the parcel post and the milk carriers ; combination machines for two, four, or even six riders ; tandems of the newest construction ; and, carefully preserved as curiosities, boneshakers of the early epoch of tricycle development. In another part of the works the visitor is shown at certain seasons of the year hundreds and hundreds of bicycles that ere long will be carrying their riders over English highways, Italian roads, Indian paths, and Australian streets. Among the most devious routes and into the most out-of-the-way parts of the earth the bicycle and its adventurous rider can now make their way.
Perhaps the strongest impression left upon the mind after an inspection of such works, is that the cycle trade is not only a large and flourishing enterprise, ministering to the love of athletic exercise, recreation, and health, but that it is fast becoming a useful helper in many branches of business. The production of machines is now so great as to employ large numbers of men, and to constitute the manufacture an important branch of industry. At the Stanley show, held in London in February, 1886, some four hundred and fifty different machines were exhibited, and the list of exhibitors included over one hundred names.
Londoners are already familiar with the vermilion-coloured parcels-post tricycles. Many milk-dealers are finding machines, such as the one figured here, quite as convenient and much more economical than a horse and cart. Newspapers are sent out from the printing-offices to local distributors in increasing numbers by means of tricycles. In short, for the conveyance of goods to the weight of 150 or 200 lb., the carrier machines bid fair to come into very general use.
When bicycles or tricycles become a matter of personal interest, more especially when this is due to the resolve to become a proprietor and a rider, the cost of any machine of good make seems unreasonably high. This was the writer's conviction at first, and although he is quite prepared to see a fall in prices in coming years, he yet freely confesses that after carefully following all the processes of the manufacture, he does not see how a first-class machine can be other than a somewhat expensive article. The materials must be of the best. The patents used are ingenious, and many either yield a royalty to the patentee or represent a large capital sunk by the maker. Yet in most cases the excellence of the machine is due to the patents, and the use of inferior materials would make it dear at any price.
But we are a long while getting from the warehouse to the works. So without further delay we will take a walk through, merely premising that we write only for the general reader, not for the specialist.
first-class machine, like a racing bicycle, or a Singer's Apollo, or an Imperial Club tandem, when seen complete and ready for use, strikes the eye as a whole and gives an impression of unity and perfect adaption to its end, viz., the speedy and comfortable motion of its rider. Gradual acquaintance with the somewhat complex construction of a good machine comes to most riders in the course of time. If anything is needed to complete this process a visit to the storerooms of a large maker will ensure it.
On the occasion we are describing we visited first the rooms where the screws and nuts of all sizes, balls for the bearings, cranks, pedals, collars of various kinds, etc., etc., abounded to an almost bewildering degree.
Passing through these rooms we reach the department where the first processes in cycle manufacture begin, viz., the stamping and preparation of the different parts of a machine. To appreciate the enormous number of parts contained in a tricycle, the owner ought to dissect and then reconstruct his machine. In bewildering succession objects that the untrained eye recognises as parts of the bicycle or tricycle, and objects altogether strange, are seen. There are steel dies of many sizes and forms. Into these heated metal is forced under the resistless pressure of heavy hammers, and thus constrained to become hubs of wheels, bolts, etc.
The "stamping-shed" strikes the stranger as busy, noisy, and in appearance dangerous. From small roaring furnaces pieces of red-hot metal are drawn and beaten by ponderous hammers, under the blows of which pieces of metal fly around in a manner that tries the unaccustomed nerve. The eye gradually distinguishes that at one place a bolt is being brought into shape, in another the steel tube is being formed into the needful tapering fork of the bicycle. In other parts the round tubes are seen to change into the oval form, and thus combine lightness with strength.
In the same portion of the works those parts of the machines which require to be specially strong are hardened and annealed. Then follows the bending of the straight rims into the true circu lar form, and by brazing the ends together making one of the most important parts of the wheel.
Thence we pass to the shop where the spokes are being prepared for use by having a head formed at one end, and the thread of a screw cut at the other. In the next room we see the slight but strong steel spokes being fixed in the hub and the rim. The big wheel of the cycle is at the present time a marvel of clever mechanical skill, and it is most interesting to see how quickly the spokes are screwed home into the hub, and how rapidly under the practised hands the wheel begins to assume its familiar form. Every rider knows the value of a true wheel, but it is often a matter of time to adjust so nicely the many component parts of a 42 or 44 in. wheel that it shall run perfectly true.
We next inspect the all-important ball-bearing process. Probably the invention of recent years to which cyclists owe the largest debt of gratitude is the application of ball-bearings to the driving-wheels and those parts of the machine where power has to be applied, and where, as a necessary consequence, the resistance of friction is greatest. Many efforts had been made to overcome this difficulty with only partial success, when the happy idea occurred of constructing an arrangement that should cause the friction to occur, not around a solid cone or the entire surface of an enclosing tube, but on the surface of balls able to revolve freely in a groove. The accompanying cut will help to make this clear. It shows a section through the hub of a large wheel and the revolving axle is seen to touch two rows of small steel balls.
It is upon these that the pressure and friction caused by the propulsion of the machine falls, and as they are able to move freely in the circular grove, the mechanical resistance is reduced to a minimum. To this arrangement mainly is due the fact that, with very slight muscular exertion, a good speed can be maintained. No first-class bicycle or tricycle is without this arrangement.
The balls are made of the best steel, and have to be perfectly round. To secure this roundness they are put into a kind of mill and ground under pressure until they are perfectly smooth and round, and will pass the carefully adjusted gauges. They are then ready for use in the bearings. They vary in size from one-eighth to three-eighths of an inch in diameter. They can be fitted to the pedals as well as to the axles.
Then we pass on to the large shop where the backbones of tricycles and bicycles are being shaped and brazed, where steel drills are cutting hard metal almost as though it were cheese, where the beautiful differential gearing process is adjusted, and where the finished machines are being put together and grow under the eye of the observer.
Hard by is the tool-room, where all the implements used in the production of the machines are made. From the quality of the steel used it is needful to have tools of the finest temper, and even these are often soon broken or worn out.
In other departments those parts that need it are nickel plated, a process that adds to the attractive appearance of a machine, but which is apt to increase the burden of the owner. It is a delusion that a nickel-plated machine needs no care.
The enamelling department is visited, and then the rooms where, by means of powerful rubbers and brushes, that polish is imparted which looks so well upon the tricycle in the showroom, but which is so difficult to maintain under the combined resistance of dust, mud, damp, and laziness.
As our visit happened to fall at the end of the season, we were sorry to learn that even the cycle trade was feeling the combined pressure of the dull season and bad times. It was certain that work could not be found all the winter for such a large staff as were employed under our eyes. But the conviction left upon our mind was that cycle-making is fairly established among the industries of our country, and that it is destined to grow and grow steadily in the future. There will always be a demand for such clever and serviceable machines as those we saw in the process of construction. Not only in Coventry, but in other parts of the country, a large amount of capital is engaged in this industry, and large numbers of men are employed.
The young men will probably continue to prefer the bicycle, and judging from the lively condition of the N. C. U., bicycling in all its forms, from the championship races down to the quiet morning spin, has by no means exhausted its energy. Still we are inclined to think that for the tricycle there is a yet greater future. It affords ample opportunity for lusty youth to work off its superfluous energy. It attracts the middle-aged man; and even the man who not unfrequently has to bear with what patience he may the tortures of gout can deprive benefit from this exercise. It is an exercise and a recreation as good for ladies, and, in increasing numbers, as attractive to them as to men ; and for all business purposes the tricycle bids fair to admit of numerous and important adaptations, for which the two-wheeler is quite unfitted.
We can only wish, in concluding this sketch, that the present season, not only in Coventry, but in all parts of the country where good cycles are being manufactured, may be the best that the industry has yet known.