Hot Wheels

Henry Ford was looking for a new and better way of exploring the city and the countryside. He never liked horses, which were expensive and messy. Trains and trolleys didn’t offer the kind of individual mobility that would allow someone to satisfy wanderlust at a moment’s whim. Then one day in 1893, the man destined to become the world’s most famous automaker brought home what countless enthusiasts were touting as the perfect mode of personal locomotion: a bicycle.
Illustration by Craig LaRotonda

During the ’90s, Detroit was a city on wheels — but not of the variety that would one day earn it the distinction of being the motorcar capital of the world.

“Cass Avenue was so crowded with wheels after dark that the street twinkled with the tiny headlights and the air was filled with the clanging of bicycle bells,” Florence Marsh, one of Ford’s contemporaries, later wrote of the two-wheel mania of the late 19th century. Pedestrians on Cass, Lafayette, and other popular cycling thoroughfares “waited in vain for a chance to cross the road.”

Bicycling was the first national fad, setting free millions of men, women, and children, and popularizing such terms as “face plant” and “scorcher.” It was as much a social movement as a pastime. Cyclists championed the fight for better roads, helped advance female emancipation, and prepped the world for the coming automobile.

Bicycles came of age in Europe in the middle 1800s. The first regular sightings of “boneshakers” on Detroit streets occurred in the years following the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. These were giraffe-high contraptions with the pedals attached directly to an oversized front wheel. The rider, who needed a short stepladder or horse block to mount, sat almost 5 feet off the ground. The comical contrast between the front and rear wheels caused the British to call them “penny-farthings,” after their largest and smallest coins, though the style was more commonly referred to as the “ordinary.” They were as expensive as they were dangerous, making bicycling the pastime of a select few. In the spring of 1879, the Detroit Bicycle Club was formed. In a city of nearly 120,000 people, it had no more than 20 members and no clubhouse.

The sport blossomed with the invention of the “safety” bicycle, which by 1886 resembled the bike we know today. Pedals powered the chain-driven rear wheel, which was now of equal diameter with the front. Tires, once solid rubber, were now pneumatic. All of this made control and braking much easier (though many die-hards would continue to ride ordinaries). That summer, a state meet was held in Detroit, sponsored by local bicyclists. Membership grew and a clubhouse was rented. In 1890, two rival groups — the Detroit and Star bicycle clubs — reorganized as the Detroit chapter of the League of American Wheelmen, an influential national group lobbying hard for improved roads for its members to ride on.

Modern motorists who grumble about their car disappearing into a yawning pothole have no idea how abysmal road conditions were in their great-grandparents’ day. Detroit’s streets were a hodgepodge of cedar block and cobblestone construction veined with trolley tracks, which made for a jolting ride that left a cyclist’s jaw aching, spine screaming, and kidneys feeling as if they’d been whacked with a shovel. At that, city streets were an improvement over unpaved country roads, which were either dirt or gravel and often a challenge to traverse in either case. Because mud, dust, ruts, and chuckholes weren’t the obstacles to horses that they were to cyclists, property owners felt no urgency to do something about the sorry conditions. Over time, cyclists were able to see a fraction of America’s 2.1 million miles of rural roads become paved and identified with signposts, though the greatest benefits of the “good roads” movement they initiated wouldn’t be realized for another generation, when local road commissions and the federal government took over responsibility.

In 1890, Jefferson, Lafayette, Cass, and Second became the first Detroit streets to be paved with asphalt. That summer, a group of Detroit Wheelmen garbed in knickers and visor caps rode to Niagara Falls and back, a 300-mile adventure that helped gain it the national body’s convention the next year.

Detroit became a cycling hotbed, with the Wheelmen and other clubs sponsoring meets and excursions to communities both near and far. Completing a “century run” of 100 miles within 18 hours earned “centurions” an impressive-looking badge from the Century Road Club of America each time the feat was done. “Uphill and downhill on dirt roads, it was not a trip for the short-winded,” one reporter said of one such run to Port Huron, “and even the long-winded were content to return by steamer, which they always did.”

Beer gardens and rustic resorts catered to cyclists at the end of a hard day of pedaling. In 1889, the first bridge to Belle Isle was built, opening up the island playground to bikers. Beller’s Garden, near the bridge, did a land-rush business. “As early as 7 o’clock each clear summer evening, Jefferson Avenue was thronged with cyclists heading for the bridge, nearly half of them female,” Don Lochbiler wrote years later in The Detroit News. “Many stopped at Beller’s for refreshment, and two long racks were provided for the wheels. Under the elms, large tents were decorated with Chinese lanterns and a family of musicians … entertained on zithers and mandolins.”

On holidays, there were prize races on Belle Isle, with winners receiving everything from a concert piano to a shaving mug with the champ’s initials etched in large gold letters. Bicycle racing was a professional sport decades before football and basketball, with fans avidly following the exploits of such cyclists as Eddie “Cannon” Bald and Charles “Mile-A-Minute” Murphy through sporting journals and tobacco cards. Local favorites included Tom Cooper of the Detroit Wheelmen and his good friend and fellow “fast speed freak,” Barney Oldfield, who hailed from Ohio. Speed demons, both on and off the track, were known as “scorchers.”

By 1896, the bicycling craze was approaching its peak. That year the Wheelmen — characterized by one observer as “the new bon tons of Detroit’s smart set” — built a clubhouse for its 450 members at 53-55 E. Adams (a site now occupied by Comerica Park). The ornate three-story stone-and-brick structure, which cost an estimated $40,000, featured an auditorium, library, kitchen, dining room, baths, billiard and whist tables, and a bowling alley. A long wrought-iron bike rack ran along the front of the building. The club became the scene of dances, banquets, and other social events.

The pastime’s exclusivity faded as more and more people discovered its joys. Prices fell to the point that most members of the middle class could afford a new or used bike. The cost of the cheapest model in the Sears catalog dropped from $55.95 in 1894 to $17.85 four years later. This still was a significant expenditure at a time when the average working man made about $50 a month. But stores offered credit payments of $1 or $2 a week. According to P.N. Jacobsen, a cyclist enthusiast in the 1890s, local thoroughfares became “daily thronged with wheelmen,” the most reckless of whom wove in and out of traffic as teamsters swore at them and streetcar conductors shook their fists. Pedestrians and dogs were at risk. Minor accidents — a skinned knee, a bent wheel — were common. Looking to curb the number of nighttime mishaps, a city ordinance required riders to use a small kerosene-lit brass lamp when cycling after dark.

The Detroit Police Department’s “scorcher cops” had their handlebars full controlling sidewalk cyclists and chasing scofflaws down city streets, sometimes in freewheeling Keystone-Kop fashion. As far as is known, their tactics didn’t include using a portable slingshot-like device to fire small lead balls at a scorcher’s wheels in hopes of breaking the spokes and disabling his machine — a practice reportedly used by Chicago’s finest. But more than one madly pedaling offender was “brought to grief” by a tenacious “wheelcop” whose speed and lung capacity surprised the object of his pursuit. “It was one of those cyclized policemen,” noted a local historian, “who gained nameless immortality a few years later when he wrote the first violation ticket for a speeder in one of those new-fangled automobiles.”

Bicycle clubs gather on the steps of Detroit City Hall in the 1890s, when the cycling craze was at its zenith.

Obnoxious bikers didn’t confine their antics to city streets. Taunting farmers and kicking up dust were considered good fun by some scorching through the countryside, though even the most conscientious bikers found it hard to avoid spooking cows and terrifying poultry as they rode past in search of a bucolic picnic spot. Country folks responded by pelting cyclists with eggs, stones, and horse droppings, setting dogs loose on them, and planting rocks in their path. Farmers around Milford began stringing wire across roads abutting their property. Enterprising cyclists fought back by welding vertical rods to the fork of their bike to avoid possible decapitation.

For ladies, the bicycle was a liberating invention. Victorian women were second-class citizens, their lives as restrictive as the corsets they wore. The tenor of the times can be gleaned from an 1897 item in the Detroit Free Press. It described a certain Mr. Wilkins, who was sitting around the cracker barrel one day when a man rushed into the store with terrible news. “Your wife’s just met with an accident, Wilkins,” he announced. “She ran over a dog while riding her bicycle, and they’ve carried her to the hospital.”

Wilkins was visibly distraught. His “face turned pale” and his voice trembled. “Did you notice,” he asked, “whether it was a liver-colored dog with two white spots on his fore shoulder?”

Women cyclists got the last laugh, shucking their corsets and long trailing dresses for the more comfortable ensemble of shirtwaist blouse, leggings, low shoes — and most shocking — a divided skirt, bloomers, or knickers. Once homebound and dependent on men for getting around, they were now free to explore the same far-off vistas on their own. They ignored warnings that riding would harm their reproductive organs or cause them to follow pathways to immorality and damnation. Instead, they struck an early and significant blow for the feminist movement. Susan B. Anthony, the country’s leading suffragist, declared in 1896: “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.” Historians estimate one of every three cyclists was a woman.

Like all fads, the cycling craze was bound to end. By 1900, the bicycle — once a novelty item and a symbol of conspicuous consumption — was so ubiquitous that a used model could be bought for $5. With the dawning of a new century, two-wheeling gave way to a new sensation: “automo-bubbling” in one’s motorized car. Soon automobiles, be they electric- or gas-powered, were too fast for the swiftest bicycle cop. In 1908, Detroit bought the country’s first Harley-Davidson police motorcycle in order to keep up with a new generation of scorchers.

Several of Detroit’s biking aficionados would make their mark in the automobile age. The Dodge brothers, Horace and John, shifted from building bikes to cars, while Edward Hines, a charter member of the Wheelmen, became one of the great innovators in highway development. (The traffic dividing line and the world’s first stretch of concrete highway were among his accomplishments.) Henry Ford turned to a pair of bicycling daredevils, Tom Cooper and Barney Oldfield, to jump-start his faltering automaking career.

In 1902, Cooper financed Ford’s building of a 10-foot-long behemoth called the “999.” It was too powerful a machine for even a speed maniac like Cooper to handle, so Oldfield — who had never driven the car before — was asked to take the wheel in a well-publicized challenge race in Grosse Pointe. Before his world’s record run, one that made household names out of him and Ford, the former champion cyclist spoke like a true scorcher. “Well, this chariot may kill me,” he said, “but they’ll say afterward I was going like hell when she took me over the bank.”