09 September 2016

A Columbia Folding Bike--From England?

I came of age as a cyclist during the '70's Bike Boom of North America.  Ten-speeds were the bikes of choice.  Of US bike manufacturers, only Schwinn had been producing derailleur-equipped bikes in the years before the boom.  Other manufacturers--such as Columbia, Murray and AMF--began to offer "lightweight" bikes made of flash-welded gaspipe tubing with derailleurs and hand brakes.  To be fair, Schwinn's "lightweights"--with the exceptions of the Paramount and Superior--were also tanks with derailleurs fitted to them.  

AMF Hercules three-speed, made in England

A similar scenario played out during the 1950s and 1960s.  While the number of adult cyclists--and the demand for adult bicycles--were nowhere near as great as that of the 1970s, both increased gradually during those two decades.  And American bike manufacturers were not ready to produce the bike requested by adults:  three speed "English racers".  None--not even Schwinn--had ever made such a bike.

Schwinn responded in the way they would to the demand for ten-speeds in the 1970s:  they fitted their heavy frames with Sturmey-Archer three-speed hubs and called those bikes "lightweights".  On the other hand, other American bike companies did something that would have, in an earlier decade, seemed unthinkable:  they imported bikes and re-badged them.  

So, English three-speed bikes were sold under the brands of AMF (Hercules), Huffy and other American companies.  Strip away their decals and they are indistinguishable from Raleigh, Rudge or other English three-speed bikes of the time.

Columbia was another American manufacturer who imported English three-speeds.  That fact leads me to believe that this Columbia might also have been made by one of those British manufacturers:

The tell-tale signs of a Raleigh folding bike are there:  the brakes, the Sturmey-Archer hub, the cottered crank (at least in the style seen on that bike).  But the frame doesn't look like any of the folding or "shopper" bikes Raleigh was making at the time.  The frames of most such machines had, in essence, a down tube but no top tube.  The reverse is true on the Columbia in the photos. I wonder how that affects the ride.

I watched the bike on eBay a few months ago. No, I didn't buy it!  I admit, I was tempted: It would have been an interesting project.  Apparently, not many of those bikes were made, and from what I could find, Columbia offered them in only one year:  1966.

Fifty years later, no bike like it--or, for that matter, the old English three-speed--is made today.  And, of the bike brands mentioned in this post, only two exist today:  Schwinn and Raleigh.  Both are owned by conglomerates and their bikes are made for them in China or Taiwan.  Which means, of course, that it's unlikely that any bike like the Columbia folder will be made any time soon.


  1. i wonder if you stripped out to overhaul that folder if you'd find a Raleigh marque on the BB spindle or the stem? The AMF Hercules 3speeds were essentially rebadged second-line Raleighs with cost-cuting production shortcuts (eg: pinched and cut fork ends vs brazed-in dropouts)like the later Triumphs, Phillips, and other marques that Raleigh cannibalised.

  2. Mike--I wonder the same thing.

    "Cannibalized" is a good way to describe what Raleigh did to the British bike industry: Not only did they gobble up the brands you mentioned, by the 1970s they owned (via TI industries) almost all of the remaining British component makers, including Sturmey Archer. Of course, Raleigh turned into roadkill: They, like so many other companies, source their bikes in China. The only mass-producer remaining in Albion is Pashley.

  3. In the late 30's and early 40's, Schwinn made lightweight "English Racer" type adult bikes. http://bikeshedva.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-guide-to-schwinn-new-world-bicycle.html and http://schwinncruisers.com/catalogs/1939.html for examples. I don't they caught on but Schwinn did try.

  4. Roger: Thank you for that link. I have never seen one of those bikes, but they look interesting. From a few feet away, they look like Raleigh roadsters. One difference is, of course, the Ashtabula cranks. They are heavier than the three-piece cottered cranks found on Raleighs (and most other European bikes), but they are much easier to work on.

    It's interesting that in the late 30s, Schwinn execs thought they could revive a then-moribund market with lightweight bikes. They were a bit early to the party. You have to give them "props" for trying, though.

  5. I was going to talk about the 30's/40's Schwinn lightweights, but Roger beat me to the punch! ;-) Anyways, here's the "tourist" lineup from the 1940 catalog. Note that they had a Paramount Sports-Tourist (chromoloy lugged), a Superior Sports-Tourist (chromoly fillet brazed), and a New World Sports-Tourist (I believe it was also chromoly fillet brazed, but could be hi-tensile and welded, hard to tell.) All of them have cottered cranks. It doesn't show it here, but I know that a Sturmey Archer three speed hub was an option. (At this time a three speed hub on a sports tourer was just becoming "standard" in the UK, but many still were single speeds.)

    As for the mystery Columbia, could it be made in East Asia, either Taiwan or South Korea? I think by the 70's Raleigh was beyond making rebadged bikes (mostly due to expense) so countries like Taiwan would be the place for an American company to go for cheap bikes. Or maybe Eastern Europe? I've come across a few funky Soviet Bloc folders.

    1. Anon--Thank you for those links.

      As for the provenance of the Columbia: It may well be a Soviet Bloc bike, as you say. On the other hand, given that the bike is from 1966, I would doubt that it came from Taiwan or South Korea, as those countries didn't start exporting bikes to the US until the '70s. Perhaps the bike was made in Japan, as some odd bikes were still coming from the Land of the Rising Sun.