Penny Farthings making a Comeback
Using eye-tracking technology to monitor driver behaviour, a recent study for an insurance company found that drivers failed to notice 22% of cyclists on the road. But “Smidsy” (sorry, mate, I didn’t see you) is of less concern to those who ride high wheelers. And by high wheelers I don’t mean 29ers, the wheel size that has taken over in the world of mountain biking, I mean real high wheelers: 48-inch diameter wheels for titches like me, 60in diameter wheels for the tallest of riders. Motorists tend to notice penny farthings.
This Victoriana visual is a cliche. High-wheelers back in the day were not slow, they were the fastest things on the bad roads of the day, not something that endeared them to rural folk, unused to through traffic and suspicious of strangers, speedy or otherwise.
Direct drive bicycles of circa 1877 through to the early 1890s had developed bigger and bigger front wheels not for comfort on these rutted roads but to make the bicycle go faster. This was before the development of bicycle chains, and chain wheels and cog sizes of different sizes.
Penny farthings were hard to ride, dangerous, expensive, and technologically advanced. They appealed to wealthy young men with time on their hands and who craved the speed and excitement of such machines. A penny was the red Ferrari of the age.
When same wheel-size, newfangled safeties came along, from 1885, high-wheel bicycles became known as ordinaries, as they were the ordinary, standard bicycles of the time. High-wheelers were also given the coinage-based term of disparagement. Yet, Penny farthings are making a comeback, and not just for reasons of caffeinated nostalgia. In 2012, Graham Eccles started an in-town postal service in Bude, Cornwall, using a modern penny farthing variant, and an IT specialist from Hull made his own penny farthing out of washing machine parts.
Pennies can be practical machines, perfect for clocking great views over hedges and into HGV cabs, for instance. Historic machines sell for £5,000 upwards, but you can combine a love for artisan-crafted bicycles with the desire for a modern high-wheeler because there are a number of penny farthing makers around the world, making machines to order. Josef Mesicek of the Czech Republic can produce a penny for you in classic black but there are also 88 other colours to choose from, including shocking pink. Rideable Bicycle Replicas of the US is a retailer of what it calls “hiwheels” and it’s even possible to order a penny replica from Taiwan, the “bicycle island” where most high-end modern bikes are made.
But if you want to buy a penny from somebody who’s been there, done that, you really can’t beat splashing your cash with former F1 race-engine mechanic Joff Summerfield of London. For £1,500 you could have a Mk 5 Summerfield. The earlier models were made for Summerfield’s solo penny farthing trip around the world. He left these shores in 2006: “I ended up being away for two and a half years,” he said.
Summerfield, a manufacturer of hanging basket brackets and who made 10 pennies last year, was following in the “globe girdler” wheel tracks of Thomas Stevens, a Brit who lived most of his life in America and who was the first person to cycle around the world. Stevens did this on a 50-inch penny farthing between 1884 and 1886.