Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

03 February 2012

Is It English Or American?

Today, if someone has heard of AMF, he or she is most likely a bowler.  AMF remains one of the main manufacturers of pin-setting machines and other equipment used in kegling.

However, not so long ago (I say things like that to make myself feel young!), AMF was actually one of the world's largest bicycle manufacturers.  Around the same time, they also manufactured Harley-Davidson motorcycles.  But AMF bicycles never inspired the sort of loyalty that HD motorcycles have long enjoyed, and with good reason.   Most AMF bikes--which were sold under the "Roadmaster" name--were sold in department stores and were inferior even to other department-store brands like Murray and Columbia.

Roadmaster was a free-standing bike brand before AMF took them over in 1950.  A few years later, AMF would sell another line of bikes made for them in England--in Nottingham, no less.  You may well have seen one of those bikes, sold under the name "AMF-Hercules".  I saw a pretty fair number of them when I was growing up.

Those bikes bore all of the hallmarks of an English three-speed:  the same kind of lugged frame made from mild steel, the steel sidepull brakes, handlebars, stem and cottered cranks--and, most important, the same Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub.

In fact, if you stripped away the AMF-Hercules decals and badge, you'd probably think you were looking at a Raleigh, Rudge, Robin Hood or one of any number of other English three-speeds from that time.

However, the AMF-Hercules bikes differed in a few details from their Anglo peers.  It seems that AMF marketers thought that the bikes would sell only if they were given some of the same baroque flourishes found on American balloon-tired bikes (like the Schwinn Phantom and Hollywood) of the time, which in turned echoed the fulsomely-fendered and lushly-chromed cars of the time.

I mean, look at that chainguard.  Would any bike maker in Albion come up with something like that?  Or look at the two-toned seat and matching bag.  I don't recall seeing anything like those in the Brooks catalogues!

So...Was it an English bike trying to be American? Or was it an American bike in the body and soul of an English bike?


  1. Don't forget about AMF bikes being in "Breaking Away"! They were the crappy single-speeds used in the Little 500. From what I heard, AMF was sooo desperate for any publicity that they put up with the AMF bikes being called "crap" in the movie itself!

    Yeah, the AMF-Hercules look nice except for the space-age chainguard that doesn't fit the rest of the bike.

  2. And, perhaps most notably of all, Roadmaster bicycles play a supporting role in Breaking Away. My very first ten speed was an AMF Roadmaster. Someone stole it, which has made me ever after a bit more cautious about locking bikes.

  3. Anybody know the year of the orange columbia pictured above