Old Bike

When you undertake to investigate a bicycle for the first time, take an old one as a subject, and endeavor to put it in perfect running order.

Brief History of the Runwell Cycle Company of Birmingham

Note: There is no official history of the company, and no collection of company records, with the exception of a few scrapbooks at the University of Warwick (UK). Since the author of this article did not have access to these scrapbooks, much of this information has been gathered through Internet research. If you believe any of this information is inaccurate, or if you would like to add something, please feel free to submit corrections or contributions.

For most Britishers, the name Runwell today connotes a mental hospital and community of that name east of London. However, between 1904 and the 1960s, it was also a small bicycle manufacturing firm located in Birmingham. The Runwell Cycle Company produced bicycles of several makes to meet the high domestic and export demand for bicycles in the first half of the twentieth century. By the post-World War II period, the ascendance of major manufacturers like Raleigh, and the declining popularity of bicycling, had forced many smaller companies like Runwell out of existence.

The Runwell Cycle Company was founded by William Henry Jennings (born 1873 in Derby, England). When Jennings was twenty, he moved to Leeds, where he was listed as a “clothier’s traveler.” By 1904, he had moved to Birmingham, where he founded the Runwell Cycle Company on Lawson Street.

Jennings’s granddaughter remembers her grandfather as a kind, generous, and good-hearted man:

My earliest vivid memory of my grandfather is of my grandfather’s 60th birhday party in London before the war. Grandpa was a member of the Magic Circle and entertained all his small children (grown-ups, too!) with conjuring tricks, to their great delight. During the war, he stayed in London (14 Great Eastern Street) and I visited him there when the war ended.

In 1945 my father had settled in the country in Warwickshire and it was then that grandpa gave me and my brothers a Runwell cycle each, which gave us the much appreciated freedom of being able to roam the countryside during our teen years. Grandpa wrote to us, too, and also gave us very generous birthday presents. I always remember him as being kind and generous and I believe his staff thought this too.

The Runwell Cycle Company started small, but “through sheer hard work and business acumen,” Jennings expanded the business until he had depots and branches in most of Britain’s large towns, and an overseas depot in Java.

One of Jennings’s daughters recalls that:

Father knew all of his workforce by name and never employed anyone who belonged to a Union. There was always a happy atmosphere and we enjoyed going round the factory talking to the people and watching them tune the spokes in the wheels. He used to leave us on the a.m. train and came home twelve hours later and brought work to do on the weekends.

The Runwell company relied on the strength of its bicycle frames and the quality of their construction to sell bicycles, rather than their brand name alone. In their advertising, they advocated quality workmanship and affordability as virtues of a good bicycle. Runwell originally manufactured only bicycles, but by the late 1920s seems to have also begun manufacturing toys and sundries, and by the 1950s had also begun manufacturing parts and accessories for the auto industry. While still focused on building quality bicycles, their earlier advertising claim that, “we concentrate our energies on bicycles alone” fell by the wayside. By the 1960s, the firm was known primarily as a parts and accessories supplier, and no images or examples of advertising could be located after 1961.

The Runwell bicycle in the author’s collection features a distinctive design element of the Runwell brand that was most likely in production in the 1930s: an unusual “rigid safety frame” design that includes an extra angled support connecting the head tube and top tube. Other features of the author’s late 1920s or 1930s model are provided here for reference purposes: rod brake on front wheel, Perry single-speed coaster brake hub on rear wheel, Westwood rims front and back, bottom bracket oiler, hub oilers, 32-spoke front wheel, 40-spoke rear wheel.

I have gathered a gallery of images of Runwell bicycles and advertising here. Hopefully it will grow over time.

*All quotations from original correspondence with Julia Jennings, 28 October 2008.

Here's a Surprise

It turns out that the Phillips was originally a deep red, not black like I had assumed. The fork steerer tube gives a pretty clear indication that this was the original color. It seems, in fact, that the base coat was black with the red on top, which creates a rather striking and rich red. This could mean that the bike is not pre-war, since most specimens from the 1920s and 1930s seem to have been black. However, at least one pre-war Phillips that I know of had a rather more striking original color scheme. In other words, the color doesn't do much to help date the bike, but it certainly did come as a surprise to me.

Also, I've managed to scrape the yellow paint off the head badge. This will be black, red, and gold when finished, like this one.

My New Project: Phillips Ladies Roadster

I just picked up this Phillips loop frame ladies roadster. A few bits of the rear rod brake mechanism are missing, the pump braze-ons are broken off, the wheels are wrong, the saddle is after-market, the rear hub was swapped out and replaced with a Bendix single-speed coaster (original would have been a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed, most likely), the mudguards are missing, and it's been painted a horrific yellow (original was black, I'm hoping the decals might still be under there somewhere so they can be reproduced). But the chrome is in good shape and I'm absolutely smitten with the lines. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of patience to get all the missing bits together, but in the meantime, it's going to be a privilege to have this classy lady in my garage.

PS -- The previous owners told me this was pre-war (which is what they were told when they bought it), and I'm inclined to agree, but I do not have independent confirmation on this. Does anyone know if there is a Phillips serial number guide or any scanned catalogues out there somewhere?

Reader Project: John's 1963 and 1964 Huffy Sportsmen

Remember John's 1955 Huffy Sportsman that was a brother of a different color to mine? Well, by some strange twist of fate, John came upon two more Raleigh-made Huffys, an almost-identically matched pair, in fact, and decided to restore them as a wedding present for his nephew and bride (the men's is 1963, the women's 1964). The results are astonishing, and John did a fantastic job of documenting his work. We hope the happy couple will spend many enjoyable hours awheel on these lovely bicycles.

Making a Saddle Bag, Part IV

No real substantial update this time, but I wanted to share some photos of the entire bag finally all stitched up. The top edges haven't been finished yet, the top flap needs some work, and a few spots on the sides need to be reinforced and tightened up, but hey, it's starting to look like a saddle bag finally!

Making a Saddle Bag, Part III

I've finally had some time in the evenings again to work on this project, but I haven't made a lot of progress. I have one side fully stitched in now, which means the bag is finally taking its proper shape. I ended up getting most of the other side done before I realized it wasn't going together very well (the seam was kind of loose), so I took it out and started over. I'm mostly finished with the second side now too, I just need to stitch up the front edge.

I'm still using a simple back stitch, which seems to be working fine. To sew the sides in, I ended up going with a small curved upholstery needle. Since I'm basically sewing from inside the bag, I find that this needle is really quite necessary.

My earlier suspicions that I somehow made the top flap too short have been confirmed. I'm trying to decide just how I'm going to fix the problem. I think I will probably just try to extend the side flaps (which have yet to make an appearance) around the front, but I'm not sure if I can do that in one piece, or if I should use a separate piece.


Making a Saddle Bag, Part II

Making a Saddle Bag, Part I

Can I Make My Own Saddle Bag?

Out of My Way

On the way home from running some errands this morning, as I approached my turn to go home, I decided that I wanted to keep riding, just for the sheer joy of it. I only went an extra block, but it got me thinking about the difference between riding a bicycle and driving. Whenever I'm driving, I really don't like having to go out of my way, even if it's just a block. As a driver, I've been conditioned (as most have) to expect convenience, and anything that inconveniences me in the car seems like a massive hassle. On a bike, though, a detour just means more time on the bike, and (usually) more fun. When was the last time you decided to drive your car an extra block just for fun?

PS -- One of the errands was to get a different needle for my saddle bag project. Updates on that, and other things, coming soon!