While it’s not surprising that a few of the bicycles built by one of the world’s top cycle manufacturers such as Coventry Machinists Co have survived for 133 years, there are some delicate parts on a bicycle that nearly always succumb to the ravages of time. Worn leather saddles and handlebar grips are damaged easily but are easily replaced. However, when they were new, the majority of early British bicycles also displayed gilt transfers (decals) – very few have survived.
Like a beautiful butterfly that lives only for a day or two, transfers usually have a short life span compared to the rest of the machine – ironically, if an owner cares too much for their bicycle, and polishes it too frequently, these unique transfers are rubbed out and are irreplaceable.
The art of gilding – applying fine gold leaf to solid surfaces – goes back thousands of years. Historically, gold leaf was used to provide a perception of high value and importance, which no doubt unconsciously draws our attention to them on a bicycle. Is it their temporariness that plays a major part of their attraction …the idea of ‘cheating time?’
I love all aspects of Victorian safety bicycles. The innovative designs, the quality of their engineering, history of the manufacturer, the fittings and accessories …all these aspects play a part., But while I find it hard to resist any old bicycle that retains its original paintwork, I know that the primary source of my attraction is if it has original transfers. I am hopelessly addicted to patina 🙂
The original transfers shown here are on an 1890 Coventry Machinists’ Co ‘Swift’ Model C. It’s one of the first diamond frame machines, with duplex seat tubes, and its transfer on the rear mudguard (above) reveals that it was sold by the company from their French depot. (I bought it from my friend Camille in France).
It’s the bicycle I rode most during lockdown. Here’s a video of it in action
“The technique was invented by Simon Francois Ravenet, a French engraver who moved to England to perfect the process he called ‘décalquer’ (meaning to copy by tracing); it became widespread during the decal craze of the late 19th century. Other names used over the years were ‘mineral transfers’ in the USA, and ‘diaphanies’ or ‘cockamanies’ in England (hence the word ‘cockamamie’) and ‘lithographs’ and ‘lithoplanies’ in Europe.
The process of lithographic or chromolithographic decoration involved the production of a pattern on paper or paper-backed sheets, from which the design was transferred onto a ceramic vessel. This enables the accurate and uniform reproduction of logos, drawings, paintings and illustrations in single or multiple colors. Decals were not stickers applied to a vessel; they were enameled images transferred to the vessel. The first experimentation with decals as a method to decorate pottery occurred in Europe in the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the late 1870s that ceramic manufacturers in France made significant technological advances in the use of decals. Attempts to copy this technology were made without success in Trenton, New Jersey at about the same time. The use of decals on American-made ceramics was rare prior to around 1900, appearing primarily on imported European porcelains before that time …the earliest successful decals were manufactured in England, France and Germany.”
Coventry Machinists Co was the first British bicycle manufacturer, You can see more early bicycles made by this historic company via The Museum link below