The bicycle by definition is a form of the velocipede, which means it has wheels and is human-powered. Some of the earliest true bicycles made in the mid-1800s were called velocipedes by the manufacturers. Learn about those antique bikes along with some cool vintage models valued by collectors today.
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Beginning With the "Dandy" or "Hobby Horse"
The first human-powered vehicle with two wheels was nicknamed the "dandy" or "hobby horse," and sometimes the two names are combined into "dandy horse." They were also known as Draisiennes since they were conceived by a German inventor, Karl Drais.
Dating to the early 1800s, these were different than bicycles as we know them today because they had no pedals. The rider would straddle them and scoot along with their feet.
Made entirely of wood, dandy horses were barely steerable and quite hard to balance. They went out of fashion fairly quickly, and decades passed before the next iteration of the two-wheeler was introduced to consumers.
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The Velocipede or "Boneshaker"
These bikes were called velocipedes by manufacturers, but the consumers who rode them came up with the nickname "boneshakers." As that moniker infers, these bikes were very uncomfortable to ride due to the inflexibility of their construction consisting of an iron frame and tires, two wheels made of wood, and pedals attached directly to the front axle. Some had brakes on the rear wheels, and most had bells to aid in navigation among pedestrians and horse traffic.
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Penny-Farthings or High Wheel Bikes
This type is what many folks associate with antique bikes, and the first to be referenced as a bicycle. With a large front wheel (designed to propel the bicycle faster than the slightly older "boneshakers" shown above), and a very small back wheel, these have a distinctively different look in comparison to modern bikes.
The names most associated with this novel style are penny-farthing (referencing two types of British coins with vast differences in their sizes) and high wheeler, but will sometimes be called a high wheel or an ordinary. Some will reference them as "boneshakers," even though that's not quite accurate. They had solid rubber tires and long spokes that made the ride smoother.
The increased velocity of these bikes was all well and good, except when it was time to make a stop. Many riders were thrown from the bikes as they came to an abrupt stop during a crash, even with something as simple as a stone or a rut in their path.
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The Safety Bike
The safety bike was intended to be more user-friendly than the penny-farthing. This style of bicycle reverted to having two wheels of the same size, which made it easier to mount and navigate. Further improvements included the addition of a rear-wheel chain drive to aid in speedier locomotion without having a large front wheel. Hard rubber tires were eventually replaced with pneumatic tires, which imparted even more comfort to the ride of these bikes.
With increased safety and a more comfortable ride, more and more people took up cycling in the late 1800s. The first safety bikes were expensive though, so they were usually owned by the upper class. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the cost of ownership came down, so more and more working-class men used them as transportation. Women also became more interested in riding two-wheeled bikes during this period.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Schwinn's Fat Tire Bikes
In the 1930s, familiar bicycle manufacturer Schwinn introduced a fat tire bike called the Excelsior. It was originally designed for rambunctious riders such as teenage boys. Interestingly, the Excelsior frame served as a model for the first mountain bikes made decades later.
This company also made the cool Aerocycle, Jaguar, and Phantom models that collectors relish finding in excellent condition with original paint. Even in poor condition, they sell for hundreds today. Original parts from pedals to handlebars are also worth good money to those doing a bike restoration.
Like the Centennial Phantom shown here, some vintage Schwinn models have been reproduced, and they're collectible now in their own right. These sell in the same price range as vintage models when in excellent condition.
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Bikes of the 1960s and 1970s
Interest in bicycles grew during the 1960s, and many new models became popular. English three-speeds were in demand early in the decade, and then 10-speed derailleur racers with downward curving handlebars garnered consumer attention later. The derailleur was invented many decades earlier, actually, but was more common in Europe than the United States until the late 1960s.
While there were certainly others, Schwinn remained a dominant manufacturer of bikes in America during this era. Their production includes three-speed Traveler and Paramount styles along with the ubiquitous 10-speed Varsity. Also in demand were the banana seat models with high handlebars such as the Stingray and Grey Ghost. Many of these bikes sell in excess of $1,000 today when they are in very good to excellent condition.