Politically powerful 19th-century cyclists created road infrastructure in the U.S. and Europe—and many of them went on to lead the fledgling automobile industry.
When Carlton Reid set out to write his book about the history of how bicyclists led the late-19th-century push for better roads—and later became the vanguard of the motoring movement—he thought it might be of interest to a relatively select few. He posted the project, titled Roads Were Not Built for Cars, on Kickstarter, and hoped for the best. Reid, the executive editor of the United Kingdom trade publication Bike Biz, was shocked when he met his £4,000 goal (about $6,250) in less than 24 hours. He eventually brought in more than £17,000 in pledges, and when he published the book this fall, the first print edition immediately sold out.
Fortunately, Reid’s meticulously researched and handsome work is available for the iPad, where it comes with 10 videos and more than 500 fascinating historical illustrations. (A second printing is in the works.)
The book, which is engaging and anything but dry, tells a story that has been mostly lost to time and politics: how cycling pioneers in the late 19th century, many from the powerful ruling classes, lobbied successfully for the improvement of the road networks in the United States and Europe, and how many of those same leading cyclists then went on to become leaders in the fledgling automobile industry. In so doing, they steered the future of transportation away from rails and onto roads.
Reid recently talked with me over Skype from the U.K. about the complicated class implications of cycling and driving, the way bicycles provided the technological foundation for the automobile, why the history of cycling was suppressed, and why Hitler disliked bicycles so much.
How did you get started on this project?
I was doing a previous campaign, because I’m a campaigning, bolshie kind of cyclist. I had this taxation campaign, talking about how cyclists pay just as much money to be on the roads as motorists. It’s slightly different in the U.K. to the U.S., we don’t have a gas tax as such.
I started doing some history behind the taxation of motoring. And then I started scratching behind some of the individuals who were very, very prominent in motoring in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s. I discovered that one of the key figures had a bicycling organization background, and yet he was one of the key motoring gurus around. He’s called Rees Jeffreys. And I then thought, ooh, that’s interesting. Then I found the equivalent in America, a guy called Horatio Earle.
And I thought, you’ve got two people here, both sides of the Atlantic, both have come from organizational cycling backgrounds, both were very prominent in motoring circles, both of them were known in their countries as the fathers of good roads, the biggest roads gurus going.
So it was like, hang on, if they’re both cyclists, who else might have been involved in cycling organizations before them? And so I just started peeling back all the individuals who automobile historians treat as their founding fathers. And they all had bicycling backgrounds. You just peel back their histories and lo and behold: they started in cycling, they learnt their lobbying in cycling, everything they basically knew was from when they were young men in cycling, There weren’t many young women, It was a very sexist, very white, very elitist bunch of people here. It was not egalitarian at all.
Of course historically, bicycling was a big factor in exploring what it meant to be a free woman.
Bicycling itself was a great emancipator. But the organizational brains behind the first motoring organizations and the first cycling organizations, I can hardly name any women who were doing organizational stuff.
This is not ancient history by any means, but it is quite forgotten. Why do you think it has become so thoroughly obscured?
Partly because cycling became proletarian. So cycling became something you didn’t want to be associated with. In the 1920s, it was still fine. By the 1930s you were ashamed of your background in cycling and you didn’t tell anybody.
So a lot of the old motoring pioneers just stopped talking about cycling. An awful lot of them went out of their way to obscure their own backgrounds. Because cycling became something that you just didn’t do anymore as an elite member of society, it was something that the working classes did.
And then the automotive historians very much wiped out huge swaths of history for basically polemic reasons. A lot of these automotive historians also started in cycling, and they knew intimately where motoring came from, and yet they decided to write out history
Very explicitly in Nazi Germany, they red-penned the cycling origins of motoring. First, because of the proletarian aspects of cycling, but also because cycling was, in effect, English. So the Nazis really didn’t want their Übermensch, their motoring supermen, to have an English cycling background.
So the Nazi party in the early 1930s wrote to the two big encyclopedias, and they said, you have to take out the name of this Jewish engineer who created an automobile before Karl Benz, so they had to scrub him out because he was Jewish. And at the same time, they said, you’ve also got to take out all the cycling references. So at that point, quite literally, cycling was cut out of history.
You write that Hitler himself had a strong dislike of cycling.
He was actually a cycle messenger himself during the First World War. There’s no way of proving this, but I suspect that he didn’t like cycling because being a cycle messenger was quite lowly. I think he probably wanted to be a motorcycle messenger, because that had the kudos in the First World War.
Why do you think the book got such a strong response on Kickstarter? Was any particular type of person interested?
I wanted it always to be not an anti-motoring book. The person who did the foreword is the head of the British equivalent of the AAA. I didn’t want it to be just a cycling book.
It is a polemical book, obviously. And it does stress to motorists that, you may hate cyclists, but they actually are responsible both for the roads you’re driving on, and also for the automobiles themselves. The technology that you’re driving comes from cyclists, too. The DNA of a car is much stronger from bicycles than it is from horse and carts, for instance.
I think an awful lot of motorists, when I get feedback on social media and I get kickback, say, "Oh, you’re saying the roads are just for cyclists." It’s not that at all. But it does say we have to share roads. And that is something that clearly is anathema to an awful lot of motorists, who, they see a cyclist on the road and they really, really despise the fact that a cyclist is there.
If I can do one little thing to show motorists that actually we’ve got a shared history here, that we’re not two tribes, we’re the same people, we want the same roads, let’s just live together. That’s kind of the message for the book. But that’s quite radical. You say, “Share a road,” and to some motorists that’s an incredibly aggressive message.
What were the surprises you found during the course of your research?
I thought the book would be about equal rights for motorists and cyclists, let’s live together, blah blah blah. And then I discovered how many of the people and automobile brands had bona fide yet hidden bicycle backstories. So GMC, the archetypal truck/SUV brand in America, you go in their corporate history, it starts about 1902, talking about the Grabowski brothers -- and yet never mentions that the Grabowski Brothers had a bicycle business, which is where they got their money to create the motoring business.
And then you can go to almost all the motoring companies—Chevrolet, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, I’ve got a list of 65, and I’m still discovering other ones, they’ve got a bicycle backstory too.
You really wouldn’t have motoring, you wouldn’t have automobiles, in the shape, the style, the speed of acceptance, you wouldn’t have any of that, I argue, if it weren’t for cyclists. Because those cyclists are the ones who morphed into the motoring promoters. And if it hadn’t been for the motoring promoters, probably trams would be our mode of transport right now.
Everyone in the 1890s assumed that would be the case. The future was trains and trams and bicycles. And all of the legislators, all of the bureaucrats, both in the U.S. and the U.K., were basing their extrapolations of the future on streetcars for cities, and trains for everywhere else.
Then there was a tiny, tiny, tiny clique, really a handful, of people, who had a different idea. They thought, if we modify our bicycles, and put this on and this on and this on, and do what we used to do on bicycles on these new four-wheeled things, we’ll create that future.
It was those cyclists who promoted motoring. There wasn’t a cutoff where all of the automotive pioneers ditched their bicycles. It really wasn’t like that. Ford was still cycling in his seventies on a very lightweight English roadster. Every evening he would go out on his bicycle.
So it’s a very different history than the one we know.
We look at history with filters. And we’ve filtered out all the cycling stuff, just ignored it. And we just start with a clean sheet of paper, there’s Karl Benz, there’s Henry Ford. And then we actually ignore the iceberg, we ignore the cyclists underneath who actually created motoring.
You write about how the ideal of personal freedom that has come to be represented by the automobile is a direct historical descendent of an ideal that came from the bicycle.
For sure. For motoring to take off, you had to have a bunch of people who were happy to be off in the sticks mending stuff. Because the first cars weren’t terribly reliable. Who were the bunch of people who were comfortable being off in the sticks mending stuff? The bicyclists.
History is important. You’ve got to know where people have come from. What are their influences? They didn’t create motoring from scratch. They had models to look at. So if we know how important the bicycle was to the automobile, and how important cyclists were to roads, that might give us a fresh understanding of how maybe roads should be shared by all. Because they wouldn’t exist in that form if it hadn’t been for those pushy cyclists in the 1890s.
This interview has been edited and condensed.