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The Starley Coventry Rotary

James Starley has been called the father of the bicycle industry… and his nephew John Kemp Starley in 1885 produced the Rover Safety Bicycle, considered the first of the modern bicycles.

In the late 1800′s Coventry, England was about the center of the universe for european bike manufacturing. In the late 1870′s the Coventry builders began producing tricycle designs that touched off an explosion in tricycle popularity. There were some years in the 1880′s that tricycles outsold bicycles.

Tricycles were considered the luxury cars of the day. They were also considered more suitable for the ladies…

Competition was fierce and many trike designs came and went, but one of the most successful designs was James Starleys design the Coventry Rotary:

The Coventry Rotary was a unique design, with only the large wheel driven and the two smaller wheels steering in tandem. Other “single-drive” trike designs had problems “cork-screwing” but the Coventrys long wheelbase mitigated this problem. The Coventry Rotary was also narrower than most trike designs, which made it easier to roll it through doorways.

The Coventry Rotary was also a “two-track” design while other trikes were all “three-track”, which meant that the Rotary only had to deal with two-thirds as many ruts and stones etc on the poor roadways of those times.

The scorchers of the day liked to race, and in the trike racing the Coventry was also a winning design.

And it had a reputation as a good trike for lugging cargo… lots of space to tie stuff on. At some point a cargo version was built too:

The Coventry was first offered to the public in the spring of 1877, not as the Coventry Rotary but as the Coventry Lever:

The Lever was only produced through 1877 and 1878, when the improved Rotary version began production, with the pedals and chain we are more familiar with today.

The side wheel, which has tangent spokes (another Starley innovation), was 50 inches in diameter. The front and back small wheels 24 inch. Solid rubber tyres were fitted to all wheels. The track was only 26 inches and the wheel base 5ft. and overall length was 7ft., 3 ft. wide.

I have been researching the Coventry because of a picture posted earlier in this History Pics blog of M.Gustave Trouvé riding his Coventry up and down the Rue de Valois outside the “Exposition internationale d’Électricité” held in Paris in 1881.

M.Trouvé has often been termed the French “Thomas Edison”. In 1880 and 1881 he was riding his Coventry around Paris using it as a test bed for the electric motors he was building. Most accounts refer to his trike as the Coventry Rotary, but I believe this is incorrect. Having studied the picture of M.Trouvés trike (the only image I am aware of, originally published in “Physique et chimie populaires” Volume 2, by Alexis Clerc, 1881-1883) and the history of the Coventry, I am convinced his trike was in fact the Coventry Lever of 1877-1878.

Posted: March 10th, 2011
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