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The History of Starley Bikes

James Starley (1831 - 1881) John Kemp Starley (1854 - 1901)

James and John Starley are two of the greatest British inventors/engineers, yet their name is relatively unknown in the UK despite both having been instrumental in the development of the modern day bicycle.  John Kemp Starley designed the revolutionary safety bicycle.  The main principles which guided him into making this bicycle were to place the rider at the proper distance from the ground, to place the seat in the right position in relation to the pedals and to place the handles in such a position in relation to the seat that the rider could exert the greatest force upon the pedals with the least amount of fatigue.

These principles led Starley to design the lightest, strongest, most reasonably priced, most rigid, most compact and ergonomically most efficient shape the bicycle frame could be.  The bicycle was chain driven, rear wheel drive with two similar size wheels and with a diamond frame.  In 1896, he floated J.K.Starley & Co as the Rover Cycle Company.  The capital financed the construction of the largest cycle works in Coventry, England then the global centre of bicycle manufacturing.

In 1904, Rover moved into car manufacturing, which was so profitable, so quickly, that the company dropped the bicycle arm of the business altogether.  Rover is now owned by BMW.  John Kemp Starley himself had died suddenly in 1901, aged 46.  Every cycle firm in Coventry closed their works on the day of his funeral, which was attended by 20,000 people.  

James Starley is a colossus of the self-taught manufacturing entrepreneur, of the type that ensured the industrialisation of Britain was revolutionary.  Cycling historian Andrew Ritchie described him as 'probably the most energetic and inventive genius in the history of bicycle technology'.

In 1870, he patented the all-metal Ariel bicycle (with William Hillman).  The Ariel marks the true beginning of bicycle manufacturing in Britain.  It put the country in the vanguard of bicycle technology for eighty years and earned Starley the moniker 'Father of the bicycle industry'.  The Ariel was advertised as 'the lightest, strongest, and most elegant of modern bicycles'.  One of the first customers was James Moore, the famous racing cyclist.  One innovation in particular distinguished the Ariel as a landmark in the history of the bicycle: the front wheel.  The first advantage of the tension-wheel was that it was more comfortable: in the pre-stretched wire spokes, there is an element of suspension.  Tension spokes absorb road shock much better than rigid spokes.  The fundamental advantage, though, was the weight saving - a critical matter in respect of wheels.

Starley continued to experiment with spoke technology. In 1874 his efforts culminated in the 'tangent-spoke wheel'.  It was James Starley's greatest achievement.  The tangent-spoke wheel followed the same load-bearing principles as the tension-wheel, but with cross-spokes the wheel was braced; and the force driving it was more efficiently transferred from pedal to rim.  Spokes were angled; adjacent spokes were angled in almost opposite directions; the tangent on one side balanced the tangent on the other; spokes were laced for strength; each spoke could be individually tensioned, and the wheel could be easily adjusted to stay true.

Nearly every bicycle wheel made since 1874 had been built using the tangent-spoke method.  The innovation would later be borrowed in the motorcycle, automobile and aeroplane industries, among others.  It remains the most tried and tested method for building bicycle wheels to this day.

Starley model references to components including wheels are all prefixed JS for James Starley and for frames JKS for John Kemp Starley.  Meteor Works, were the premises out of which John Kemp Starley operated.

The principles that led John Kemp Starley to design the first modern bicycle are those that Starley always aspire to in producing our components, frames and bikes in that we aim to deliver the lightest, strongest, most reasonably priced, most rigid, most compact and ergonomically most efficient components and bicycles available to our customers.

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