Vintage Velo: Columbia Chainless Model 51

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Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #24, published in August 2013. Words and photos by Jeff Archer.


During the 1870s and 1880s, the “ordinary” or highwheel bike (as seen in Bicycle Times #8) was the dominant ride. Since the pedals were attached directly to the drive wheel, the only way to go faster was to ride a larger wheel. Each pedal revolution would propel the rider a longer distance. There were obvious limits to how large a wheel could get, and it was dangerous having your behind four-plus feet off the ground with your legs captive under the handlebars.

By the mid-1880s, chain drive was being developed, which would allow the use of different-sized sprockets to “gear up” the bike. This allowed the wheel size to shrink and get the rider closer to the ground, hence the name “safety bike.”

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The first models used a solid rubber tire that didn’t cushion the ride to any significant degree. It would be several decades before the first automobiles hit the scene, so roads were mostly unimproved dirt paths, heavily rutted by horse and wagon traffic. To improve the rider’s comfort and safety, pneumatic tires were introduced. In 1890, barely over 1 percent of the bikes sold used pneumatic tires; just four years later, this figure was almost 90 percent.

These innovations also led to bikes being very similar to one another, so manufacturers began looking for ways to differentiate their bikes from the competition. Using different frame materials was one such way to set bikes apart. Manufacturers experimented with bamboo, aluminum and wood (sound familiar?). They also tried different frame configurations—curved seat tubes, split seat tubes, truss frames, rear suspension and spring forks (again, sound familiar?). Another possibility was the drivetrain. Curved cranks, oversized chainrings, shaft drive and a spur gear drive were all attempted.

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The 1898 Columbia Model 51 pictured here featured a shaft drive. The drive used a bevel-cut gear on each end, which meshed with corresponding bevel-cut gears on the crank and rear hub. Benefits included no chain slack, less exposure to dirt and no chance of getting tangled in the chain, which was especially attractive to women, who were almost exclusively riding in skirts or dresses at the time.

The League Cycle Co. introduced the U.S. to shaft-driven bikes in 1894, but it was a small, under-capitalized company. The behemoth bike company at the time, Columbia, purchased the design and introduced its version for the 1898 model year. The featured Model 51 is one of their first-year models. They sold well for the first couple of years, but sales slid until shaft-drive bikes were discontinued in 1920. The design was more expensive to produce, a crucial factor in a time of falling prices. Wheel removal was much more difficult in the event of (frequent) flat tires and, if the frame was damaged, the shaft would stop working. The New Departure coaster brake hub on this bike was also new for 1898 and made a much larger impact in the marketplace.

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If you remove the dates and make some company name changes, this tale reads like a story from 1998, or from 2013.

This bike can be seen at the Museum of Mountain Bike Art & Technology, housed at First Flight Bicycles in historic downtown Statesville, North Carolina. If you can’t visit in person, check out the collection at www.mombat.org.

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