Building an 1880s cross-frame hard-tire safety for a TV series
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
Five weeks ago, I was commissioned to make a reproduction cross-frame hard-tire safety bicycle for an upcoming HBO TV series. I'm not allowed to publish the name of the series yet (watch this space), but the series is a period drama set in 1880s New York, and they needed period-correct bicycles for various scenes. While there are several builders who make high-wheel ordinary bicycles that would fit the era, no one else offers hard-tire safeties, so the production people approached me to ask if I could build them one. I had never done one before, but I accepted the challenge as an exciting opportunity. I never counted on the virus pandemic, of course, which made the whole process challenging to coordinate and execute! Nonetheless, it has been very rewarding, and I hope to get the chance to build more in the future!
I chose a cross-frame hard-tire safety to reproduce, since it was one of the earliest popular designs of the safety bike, and the production wanted something that would be correct for a wide range of dates and visually striking. The design is even referenced in later stories, such as HG Wells' Wheels of Chance from 1896. By then it was used as an example of older bicycle technology, but it had become iconic in its own right. Still, it is now a very unfamiliar type of bicycle to most people, and a challenge to produce - especially on short notice!
I started with a lot of raw materials, mostly steel tubes and rods like these. These parts would eventually become handlebars, brake parts, chainstays and the seatpost.
My workshop at the start of the project - I have a lot of work to do!
Here's a short video of me brazing the fork together.
The almost complete fork, mounted in the jig, with the raw material for the two main tubes of the frame standing next to it.
The top tube, showing my hand-filed miter that I would soon join to the headtube. I have already brazed the seat tube lug onto the back end of the top tube.
The top tube and head tube mounted in my jig for brazing.
Once the seat tube had been bent and I was able to braze the seat tube into its lug, the frame started to look like a bike. I was able to properly set the angles of the jig at this stage.
Checking the alignment after brazing. It is extremely important to keep everything straight as the frame is made!
The rear stays cut and laid out in the jig.
The rear dropouts brazed onto the stays. You can see the subtle bend I put in them to allow clearance for the large chain!
The seat binder I made using my 1918 Seneca Falls Machine Company Star lathe.
Lathes make lots of chips and shavings!
The frame is nearly complete here - the seat binder is now in place, and the head tube reinforcement is brazed on as well. You can see the front stay mount just under it on the bottom of the top tube.
I made all of the small parts here by hand (except for the two bolts, which I just added threads to). Here they are ready for nickel-plating!
The frame, fork, and rims ready for painting.
The painted frame with the headtube badge, bottom bracket lubrication port, and seat binder bolt installed.
The 30" diameter wheels with the solid rubber tires installed. The final parts of this process were a challenge, as many businesses and people were in lockdown for the Coronavirus. I had to do my part to keep the economy rolling, keeping the painter and the nickel-plater on task even in isolation so I could get this done by the deadline! The spokes for the rear wheel needed to be shortened at the last minute, and I dropped them off in a local wheel expert's mailbox so he could rethread them for me. We still haven't met in person! All of the help and contributions were much appreciated - I couldn't have done this (especially in time) without the support and help of several people:
Bob Chung from PT Cyclery
And anyone else I am forgetting.
Thank you all!
Once all the parts were finally ready, the bike could come together and be ridden! After only five weeks, I had built a unique historic design bicycle and could test-ride it around the block.
I love these nickel-plated solid stays! The nickel-plated double-pitch chain will probably never wear out.
Spoon brake, kerosene lamp, and coasting pegs.
The nickel-silver head tube badge with the Victorian Cycles logo.
Chain stay adjusters and lubrication port for the bottom bracket. An elegant curve for the front stay.
Since I didn't have the wheels built until the last minute, the exact angle of the brake spoon was pure guesswork on my part. Pretty good guess, right?
I love the shine of new nickel-plated parts! The brake is very effective on this bicycle. Since the parts are heavy steel, there is little flex and all of your hand-force goes into slowing you down.
Custom walnut pear-shaped grips.
A comfortable cockpit.
Very heavy-duty chain and sprockets! The gearing on this bike is low, mostly because the roads in the 1880s were rough, but also because safety bikes appealed to more cautious riders, who appreciated lower gearing.
Solid rod chainstays and a custom fixed gear sprocket for the heavy-duty chain.
You can see the mounting peg on the left side of the hub here. Spokes are radial front and rear, as tangent lacing was not yet common. 13 gauge spokes help to add strength.
The connection point for the front stay is on the back side of the bottom bracket shell.
Close-up of the front of the bottom bracket shell, showing the stays and the functional lubrication port.
So, that is my first custom cross-frame hard-tire safety bicycle! A worthy challenge and a beautiful, comfortable ride. It is remarkably easy to ride! If you are interested in ordering one for yourself, please let me know! I'd love to do more like this.