Coventry Rotary

James Starley1880

Canada Science and Technology Museum

Canada Science and Technology Museum

James Starley was, arguably, the most important bicycle-maker of the nineteenth century. It was his 1872 Ariel that had established the pattern of the popular high-wheeled Ordinary.

Starley was well aware that many more people wanted to ride than were willing to risk injury on a high-wheeler. For them, he designed the Coventry Rotary, which was the first commercially successful Tricycle.

To ride the Rotary you clambered over the tubular steel frame onto the seat, put your hands on the grips and used your feet to pedal the cranks. This turned the chain — it was the first use of a chain drive in cycling — which, in turn, drove the large 48-inch (122 cm) wheel.

To steer, you turned the “spade grip” to the right of the saddle. The grip pushed a long rod attached to one side of the front forks and the other side of the rear forks, so that both of the small wheels turned at the same time, but in opposite directions.

With three wheels and a relatively long wheelbase, you didn't have to learn how to balance. Headers were unlikely. The metal wheels and hard rubber tires absorbed road vibration. Average speed was only a little slower than that of the Ordinary.

When you needed it, you could pull the large brake lever to the left of the L-shaped grip. The lever tightened a thick leather strap against the hub of the driving wheel. It also operated as a parking brake.

All these features promised a safe ride, but there were some peculiarities. The Rotary had a tendency to steer in the direction of the driving wheel, for which you had to compensate by turning the grip each time you pedalled. So steering was somewhat erratic. And despite the stability offered by three wheels, cornering could be dangerous. You had to be very careful to reduce your speed and shift your weight as you turned.

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  • Title: Coventry Rotary
  • Creator: James Starley
  • Date: 1880
  • Location Created: Coventry, England
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