Wednesday 9 February 2022

Sturmey Archer – the beginnings

 -SG- I recently came across a book entitled ‘The Sturmey-Archer Story’ by Tony Hadland. It covers in great detail the hub gears used on cycles, as well as - briefly – those used on motor cycles. Reference is made to S-A countershaft boxes for motorcycles but again, no detail of any sort is given. Nevertheless, I freely acknowledge that much of the information which follows was gleaned from some forty-five pages of Tony Hadland’s book.

The beginnings of Sturmey-Archer are inextricably linked to the Raleigh concern and I was intrigued to learn that neither Mr Sturmey nor Mr Archer was the designer of the three speed hub gear bearing their names. Here’s how it seems to have happened!

Although there were various other cycle hub gears for which patents were applied for and in some cases, granted in the late 1890s, none was that successful commercially until the immediate predecessor of the S-A hub gear was invented by a Manchester area engineer called William Reilly, born 1867. This was a two speed unit and Reilly’s design was put into production in the late 1890s by ‘The Hub Two Speed Gear Company Ltd’. Reilly had regrettably signed an agreement with this company giving them rights over any future bicycle gear inventions. However, he fell out with his employers and joined nearby engineers Henry Royce Ltd – in due course, the ‘Royce’ of Rolls Royce. None the less, he was still very interested in the epicyclic hub gear concept. Because of his agreement with his former employers, Reilly got a work colleague – who was also interested in hub gears on his own account – to sign patent applications on his behalf. This was James Archer. All this activity bore fruit to such an extent that by early 1902, Reilly, with the help of Tom White, a machinist at Royce, James Archer and Alfred Pellant – a cycle dealer in London and a man with many contacts in the industry- had a refined and compact Three Speed hub gear ready to be put into production.

Then the Sturmey name comes into the picture. Henry Sturmey was a schoolmaster, keen cyclist, and in due course, journalist. He wrote ‘Sturmey’s Indispensable Handbook to the Safety Bicycle’ and as a result of meeting William Iliffe (Iliffe Publishing etc.) the magazine ‘The Cyclist’ was founded with Sturmey at the age of 22, as editor. The first edition came out as early as October 1879. Sturmey went on to become involved with various magazines including the Autocar and the Motor Cycle, as well as a director of the Daimler Company(1896). In 1901 Sturmey was still very much into cycles and journalism and he also applied for patent for a three speed hub gear just a few days after the Archer/Reilly application.

The net result of these successful applications was that by mid-1902 both Sturmey and Reilly/Archer had feasible hub gears ready for production.

According to I C Cohen, about whom a few details are given later, Reilly took his design to Frank Bowden, of the already flourishing Raleigh concern, at about the same time as Sturmey submitted his. Bowden decided on the Reilly design. However, Reilly’s name could not be used because of his prior agreement with the Hub Two Speed Gear Co. so Archer’s name was used, and the addition of Sturmey was simply because he was, by then, a big name in the cycling world and it added prestige. Further he had also developed a three speed gear himself which had been offered to Bowden, and both designs were similar in concept.

A separate company was established early in 1903, called The Three Speed Gear Syndicate Ltd to manufacture the Reilly hub gears, with Frank Bowden and William Reilly as two of the several directors and share-holders and at the same time a legal agreement was executed between the Syndicate and the Raleigh Cycle Co. The gear was marketed under the Sturmey-Archer name. The Syndicate’s name was changed to Sturmey-Archer Gears Ltd in 1908.

Further details should certainly be given here, about I C (Ike) Cohen. Cohen joined the company in 1906 as an assistant to Reilly, as a tool designer. He made various forthright comments about the Sturmey-Archer set-up and other personnel employed there later in life, in letters exchanged with the redoubtable Harold ‘Oily’ Karslake. Some of these were published in the Southern Veteran Cycle Club Journal in the 1980s. He left Sturmey-Archer in 1918 and went on to do similar work for both Jardines and, in the thirties, Villiers. He was an early APMC and VMCC member and his obituary appeared in the VMCC magazine in February 1960. (also by Harold Karslake).

Not long after joining the company Cohen was involved in the development of cycle hub gears with coaster (ie back pedalling) brakes and by 1908 had moved on to hub gears for motor-cycles which were not that successful. It is generally accepted that he was responsible for the design of the countershaft motor-cycle gear box – the CS type – which appeared in 1915 and was fitted to many thousands of WW1 Triumphs. It was also used by Nortons from 1915 through to 1930. However, no patents appear to have been taken out to cover its design. Despite leaving the company in 1918, it seems to me that the subsequent three speed Sturmey-Archer box – the type LS, which first appeared in the very early twenties – may also have been a Cohen design. The internals are remarkably similar in concept to the Villiers three speed box forming part of their engine/gear units from just pre-war to the fifties.

With the success of the Sturmey-Archer cycle hub gears, William Reilly should have had a secure job for life but it was not to be. By 1909 he had fallen out with Frank and Harold (Frank’s son) Bowden. The disagreement was, it seems, caused by Reilly’s brother Harry, who had helped to set up the Armstrong Triplex Three Speed Gear Company in 1906. Mr. Armstrong was Harry’s father-in-law. According to Cohen, Harry had used a discarded design of William’s, without the latter’s knowledge, but the Bowdens, not unnaturally, suspected the worst. The upshot was that William left the company and received payment for his shares from the Bowdens.

Probably on account of this acrimony, Reilly’s very considerable contribution to the business was down-played by the company in all of their subsequent publicity material. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that Cohen, in the early fifties, wrote a history of the early days of the concern and how it came into being. He sent this to the then Editor of Cycling magazine, who apparently acknowledged it and said how interesting it was. However it then disappeared and has not been traced. The suggestion has been made that its publication would have caused so much up-set to Sir Harold Bowden and the Raleigh concern that it was quietly filed and forgotten. As for William Reilly, he died in 1950 embittered by the fact that he did not receive the financial reward and recognition he felt his contribution to the world of cycling warranted. - C S J L Grigson 2010