01 March 2016

Into The Fold: A Bike For The French Army

I recall reading or hearing that Peugeot invented the folding bike.   Of course, I am skeptical about that, just as I am skeptical about any other claim of inventorship unless there is solid documentation.  To be fair, though, I must say that, if I recall correctly, Peugeot has never made any claim to having invented the folding bike, although they probably were one of the first bike-makers to mass-market them.

Peugeot did, however, enter into a consortium with Michelin and the French army to buy the patents of an early folding bike, which appeared in the Peugeot sales catalogue of 1899.  

Gerard Morel folding bike prototype, 1892

That bike had its origins in 1892 when Charles Morel, a wealthy French industrialist, fell under the spell of the then-current bike craze and built a prototype of a folding bicycle. Around the same time, a French army lieutenant named Henry Gerard envisioned the military usage of a folding bike and in June of 1893 filed a patent for one he created.

Drawing for English patent issued to Charles Morel and Henry Gerard, 1896

Lt. Gerard's design was, however, deeply flawed and didn't work very well.  While looking for help in fixing the design flaws, he was introduced to Morel, who showed his prototype bike to Gerard.  Morel suggested a meeting between one of his mechanics, named Dulac, and Gerard to come up with a working design.  That meeting was successful and on 5 October 1894, Monsieur Morel and Lieutenant Gerard entered into an agreement to manufacture the bikes. 

Illustration from Revue Militare Suisse, 1897

Production of the bike began the following April. In October, a retail store for the bikes opened in Paris.  Gerard got the job of selling the bike to the military, and he supplied 25 test bikes to the French army.  The experiment was successful; the army bought more bikes and Gerard was put in charge of a bike-equipped regiment.  Soon, he was promoted to captain, largely on the basis of his success with the regiment.  In the meantime, the Russian and Rumanian armies placed orders for the bikes.

Because of his stature as a military commander, Gerard became the public face of the folding bike venture and the bikes came to be known as "Captain Gerard folding bikes".  Apparently, he forgot that Morel had the initial idea for the folding bike and wholly financed the venture and started to believe, as many people believed, that he invented the bike himself.

So, Captain Gerard sued Monsieur Morel for what he believed to be his "fair share" of the profits.  Not surprisingly, that led to a falling-out between the two men and a dissolution of their partnership.  That is when Peugeot and Michelin came into the picture.

Peugeot folding bike, 1970s

During the 1970's Bike Boom, many Americans saw (and a few bought) folding bikes for the first time.  Most Americans' introduction to folding bikes came from the Peugeot model that came with fenders, rack and generator lighting--very French!--and the Raleigh Twenty.  Since then, there have been any number of designs (and improvements) from Brompton as well as other manufacturers and custom builders.

Raleigh Twenty, 1970's

Now, as to who "invented" the folding bike:  The answer depends on how you define "folding" and who and what you believe.  Do "break-away" or "separable" bikes count?  Whether or not you count such bikes, or others that are portable in one way or another, you still have to consider that many claims by many inventors in a number of countries were made.  Most can't be documented in a convincing manner, whether because the documents were lost or they were never created or filed in the first place. 

Whoever deserves credit for creating whatever you consider to be the first folding bike, it's not hard to believe that the idea isn't nearly as old as that of the bicycle itself.

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