29 January 2016

They Were Sooo Continental

You don't wear Continental clothes or a Stetson hat!

That line comes from Otis Redding's Tramp.  The song is an argument between a woman and Otis.  She accuses him of being a tramp because, as she says, he's "straight out of the Georgia woods". 



We in the United States of America are as continental--in the literal sense of that word--as anyone in the world.  After all, we occupy a large part of the North American continent.  However, when we say "Continental", we use it in the way the British mean it:  of mainland Europe, particularly France, Italy or Germany.

Even though we Yanks like to think we tossed off the yoke of the British crown, it seems that we still emulate them in every way we can.  We speak their language. We may have a different accent, but so often, we mean it the way they do--sometimes even more so.

And so it is with the adjective "continental".  It not only refers to the geographical location; it also has the connotation of "sophisticated", "refined" or "elegant".  Or it can be just a politically correct way of saying "exotic" or a polite way of saying "sexy".  And here, as in Blighty, it is also a way of saying "French" without saying it.  (Hmm...What if "Freedom Fries" were called "Continental Chips"?)

That latter connotation was commonly employed in British cycle advertising just after World War II. Before the big fight, the worlds of British cycling and the British cycling industry were very insular.  Brits thought, as Americans would in the years just after the war, that if it was made in their country, it must be better. 

In some cases, their biases had at least some basis in truth.  Pre-war Schwinn Paramounts were built from Accles and Pollock tubing; all over the world, some of the finest frames have been, and still are, constructed from Reynolds tubesets.  Six-day racers favored BSA components, particularly their cranks, pedals and hubs; town bicycles all over the world were equipped with Sturmey Archer hubs and, to this day, all manner of bikes in every place imaginable sport Brooks saddles.

However, for all the vibrancy of the club-cycling scene, bicycling in Britain was still, in the main, utilitarian.  On the other hand, France, Italy and other countries on "The Continent" had lively cultures of racing, and many people, at least superficially, emulated the riders of the peloton.    It is said that British service members who fought on "The Continent" brought back a taste for Contiental bikes and parts--as well as other things.

British Cyclo Gears with 1/8" chain

British cyclists started to demand bikes with derailleurs.  However, until 1954, Raleigh did not supply any bikes with them.  And, in 1955 British Cyclo were still making most of their cogs for 1/8" chains, even though increasing demand for three- and four-speed freewheels meant that more and more riders wanted and needed cogs for 3/32" chains.  Other bike and parts manufacturers in Britain were slow to respond to those changes.  In fact, some simply continued to offer the same products the were making before the war, as if it were somehow unpatriotic to pattern new products after, let alone offer, the freewheels, derailleurs and such that were made mainly in France.

Once they started to make or import (as Ron Kitching did) those items, they were still loath to make Gallic references.  So, those items--particularly, for some reason, large-flange hubs--were called "Continental" parts.  In an article he wrote on the Classic Lightweights UK site, Steve Griffiths said this habit may have been inspired by the Prior hubs made in France during the 1930s, which had some of the largest flanges (and most profuse drilling) ever seen. 

Prior Hubs. I love them.  Did someone use Spirograph to design them?

The flanges on that hub were riveted to smaller flanges which, as on most hubs at the time, were attached to a steel shaft.  So, the British Hub Company did the same with their Airlite hubs.   Collectors pay more for Priors and Airlite Continentals than most people pay for bikes.  They look interesting and, from what I've read, they spin smoothly. However, they both share a problem:  Prolonged use can loosen the rivets.

They're Continental, all right.  So is Swiss cheese.



  1. Love those Prior hubs! i have an old F.B. 3-piece track hub in my collection that still rolls great. Interesting thing about those high flanges... i believe that the reason for the wide flange was to shorten the length of the spokes since older spokes weren't quite as strong as today's. Wide flanges helped to keep the wheel stiffer and reduced the need for constant re-truing.

  2. Mike--Aren't they great?

    I always knew the large flange hubs are, at least in theory, stiffer. Your explanation of why they were used makes sense: I recall a time when even the best spokes were like spaghetti compared to what we have today!