The two-wheeler industry in Nuremberg played a significant role in the bicycle's evolution from a luxury item into an affordable article for everyday use, and also into the first individual mass mode of transportation. A single reason most of all explains why Nuremberg in particular became the center of Germany's bicycling industry – its well-developed metalworking industry already offered a large, highly skilled workforce.
Back in 1886, Carl Marschütz, a bicycle pioneer from Neumarkt in the Upper Palatinate, founded the Herkules-Werke in Nuremberg. That establishment was followed by Victoria, Triumph, Premier Cycle, Mars, Sirius and more. The bicycle industry grew vigorously – by 1897, some 50,000 bikes, a quarter of all bicycles produced in Germany, came from Nuremberg.
A diverse supplier industry grew up around the bicycle works. Schweinfurt's makers of ball bearings and hubs earned a worldwide reputation, as did Friedrich Fischer's cast-steel bearing factory and another company, Fichtel & Sachs. Nuremberg made handlebars, chain guards, lubricant cups, saddles and tool pouches, not to mention bicycle bells and lamps.
Hercules – Where It All Began
Carl Marschütz, born in 1863, apprenticed at Josef Goldschmidt's furnace factory in Neumarkt. A meeting with an English penny-farthing rider sparked a fascination with the newfangled vehicles. A short time later, Marschütz arranged for his boss, the furnace maker, to meet mechanic Eduard Pirzer, who assembled penny-farthings out of English parts at his own workshop. It was the starting point for Express-Werke, the first bicycle factory outside England. Not long afterwards, Marschütz took charge of Express's sales office in Nuremberg. In 1886 he then founded his own velocipede factory, which would become the Hercules-Werke.
Over the next decades, Nuremberg, which had a long history as a metalworking center, evolved into the hub of Germany's bicycle industry. Hercules always played an important role, and also survived for decades beyond every other Nuremberg bicycle maker.
The Hercules Velodrome
The Hercules Velodrome, festively inaugurated in 1899, served "both for learning to ride a bicycle and for practicing and preserving this sport during the winter season." Until it was destroyed in 1943, it was Nuremberg's largest roofed hall.
As the era of the high-wheeled penny-farthings drew to a close early in the 20th century, riding the new low-wheelers was much easier to master, and people began learning to ride on the street instead of at bicycle schools as before. The Hercules Velodrome came to be used for various large events, and also housed a restaurant. Along with a vast range of sports events, it also presented concerts of all kinds. In 1917 the Velodrome hosted the first mass meal prepared by the wartime "People's Kitchen" for Nuremberg's hungry population. In the 1920s it became a gathering place for large political demonstrations – sometimes including violent fights with the National Socialists – as well as a setting for gigantic beer festivals.
Mars – From Furnace Factory to Bicycle Maker
Furnaces were built and sold mainly in the winter months. So Paul Reissmann, the owner of a Nuremberg furnace factory, went looking for a second seasonal product to fill out the production schedule during the summer season. He happened upon the bicycle, which was enjoying a massive upswing. Production at the Mars bicycle works began in 1898. The extreme fluctuations in the bicycle market led Mars to begin developing motorized two-wheelers as early as 1902.
Triumph – A Joint English and German Effort
The Triumph-Werke owed its founding to an unusual Franconian-British "one-two" pass: In 1884, Nuremberg native Siegfried Bettman emigrated to England, where he began making "hobby horses," another name for penny-farthings. Business was so good that he decided to found a subsidiary in Nuremberg. This operation became independent from the parent firm in Coventry in 1913, but continued to cooperate with the English company into the 1920s.
The Triumph-Werke on Fürther Strasse was one of Nuremberg's biggest bicycle factories. It stopped making bicycles in 1956.
Two pioneers in the bicycle industry were Max Frankenburg and Max Ottenstein, the founders of the Victoria-Werke. They opened for business in 1886, in a small workshop with 20 workers that made high-wheeled penny-farthings along the lines of English models. Within just a few years the pair were also offering their own designs and their first low-wheeled bikes. These were a success. The company grew fast, and moved into a large site on Ludwig-Feuerbach-Strasse, which would remain the firm's headquarters for 50 years.
A tale survives from these early years that to go along with each new bicycle, Victoria would give purchasers a bagful of pea-sized fireworks (which you may know by a variety of colorful names in English, like "bang snaps," "pop-pops" or "whizbangs") to scare off aggressive stray dogs.
The Victoria Velodrome
The Victoria Velodrome was built opposite the plant in 1897. Its vast, pillarless hall offered more than 2,300 square meters of rideable area where people could get skilled instruction in riding a bike. The public was enticed with amenities like a restaurant and a reading room, along with an exhibit of the latest Victoria bike models and a variety of courses and events. An electrically powered mechanical band called an "Orchestrion" provided background music. Subscriptions to use the Velodrome cost 6 marks a year, and anyone who bought a bike from Victoria got free riding lessons.
The arrival of the low-wheeled bike, which anyone could easily learn to ride, quickly made these bike schools redundant. By 1905 the great hall had already been demoted to storage space.
The Nuremberg General Bicyclists' Union
Nuremberg owed the rise of its bicycle industry not just to the achievements and imagination of bold entrepreneurs and creative engineers, but also to the many clubs that popularized riding a bike. The "Velocipede Club" of 1881 was followed by the "Bicycle Club Nuremberg" in 1883, the "Bicyclists' Association" in 1885, and the "General Bicyclists' Union" in 1886 as an association for all "German-speaking cyclists."
By 1900, there were no fewer than 52 bicycle clubs in Nuremberg. The city became a magnet for interregional events and meetings for bicycle fans. Riding a tall penny-farthing was an athletic challenge, yet the early bike clubs focused more on socializing than sports. However, construction of the bicycle race track at the Reichelsdorfer Keller spurred a rapid escalation of athletic ambition among the Bicyclists' Union membership, and produced a long list of bicycling heroes that comes right down to the present day.
Race Track at the Reichelsdorfer Keller
The Nuremberg competitive bicycling scene picked up international prestige when the race track at the Reichelsdorfer Keller opened in 1904. An audience of 12,000 spectators watched the first bike race on the 400-meter cement track.
Exciting motor-paced races became a specialty at the Reichelsdorfer track. Cyclists riding in the slipstream of a pacemaker motorcycle were soon reaching speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour. Here's how it worked: "The massive motorcycle runs absolutely uniformly and steadily, enabling a harmonious collaboration with the cyclist. The cyclist must always stay right behind; otherwise he will fall out of the slipstream of the ‘coal sack' (as the pacemaker is nicknamed). If that happens, an ‘ooo' from the pacemaker signals that the pedaler is completely out of steam. If the biker feels things are going too slow, an 'Allez' resounds in the pacemaker's backward-opening ear muffs."
The last motor-paced races at the "Keller" were held in 2017, after which the track was shut down.
"Scheller" Racing Bike, ca. 1955
After his racing career ended, successful Nuremberg bike racer Fritz Scheller had a bicycle business in Nuremberg. Here he also offered his own brand of racing bikes, which met the era's highest quality criteria and often appeared in races. He got his frames from the Express-Werke in Neumarkt, fitted them with high-quality components, and made a great many adjustments to reduce the bikes' weight. The bicycle shown here was ridden by legendary Nuremberg racer Georg Voggenreiter.
Bike Competes with Train
Sensational Stress Test on a Hercules Bicycle
– thus read the nationwide headlines in March 1952.
Probably the biggest stress test ever on a bicycle was performed by Nuremberg's Hercules-Werke. A Hercules bicycle, chosen by members of the press at random off the production line, was used to connect a locomotive with eight loaded freight cars … and showed it was fully up to the task. It pulled the eight cars along with no detectable alterations. Only a brake shoe on the first freight car caused the bike to break up – not at the welds, which is what the test was targeting, but on the top tube. The experiment was repeated several times, always with the same results.
The bicycle dealt perfectly well with the extraordinary stresses. It was only a brake shoe that later caused a tube in the frame to rupture – but the weld connections held firm. And that was what the test was intended to prove.
The Mayor's Bike – A Hercules Atlanta
The Atlanta touring bike was one of the last bicycles to be made and assembled in Nuremberg. Hercules gave it as a present to Nuremberg's mayor at the time, Peter Schönlein, a passionate cyclist. One unusual technical feature is the combined 3x7-gear hub and chain shifting system from Sachs.
Text and choice of images: Matthias Murko
Implementation: Brigitte List
Museum for Industrial Culture, Nuremberg