Monday, December 20, 2010

The Drop Frame Bicycle - The 'Queen of Safeties' Returns

[image via Atomic Antiques]

Browsing through my favourite vintage bicycle posters, I've always noticed something unusual about the ones of the Boston-based Overman Wheel Co.: The lady's bicycle appeared to have only a single curved tube - rather than a down tube and a top tube, like the vintage loop frames we are accustomed to seeing. Could this be artistic license for the sake of making the graphics simpler, or did bicycles like this really exist? Several times I had tried to investigate, until finally I found what I was looking for:

[image via the Smithsonian Institution]

The Overman Wheel Co. "Victoria" - a "drop frame woman's safety bicycle," according to the Smithsonian. It had 28" wheels, rod-like brakes, what appears to be some sort of suspension contraption on the fork, an enormous saddle, high handlebars, and a chainguard. Finally, confirmation that the bicycle hinted at in the posters was a real model. And for a machine that was manufactured in 1889, the Victoria looks awfully familiar...


And you thought this design was funky and new, eh? Bicycles in this style have been popping up in Europe with increasing frequency over the past 5 years, and have recently made their way to the US as well: A single, oversized curved tube connecting the head tube and the seat tube - sometimes with reinforcements and sometimes without, combined with a suspension fork, suspension seat post, plush saddle and high handlebars.

[image via Tom Coghlan]

The reasoning behind the single curved tube design, is that it allows for extra low step-over height, making the bicycle especially accessible for those who wear long, loose clothing, as well as for those who have balancing problems when mounting even the standard step-through frames. And the funny thing is, that while everyone agrees that the low step-over is beneficial, many also complain about how "ugly and modern" it is. I wonder how many are aware that the "drop frame" design is in fact 120 years old!

[image via The Daily Postcard]

As I've mentioned here earlier, I think that any design that makes the bicycle more accessible to those who would otherwise be intimidated by it, is a good design. With its super-low step-over, the drop frame is inviting and safe-looking - no wonder the original was described as "the queen of safeties". Having ridden a few modern versions of these bikes in Austria a couple of years ago, I found them easy to deal with. But I wish there was a way to make them look and feel a little nicer. The suspension fork on the modern bikes is probably there because the aluminum frame makes them painful to ride over bumps. But the suspension has the side-effect of creating a "bouncy" feeling that  does not give the cyclist optimal control of the bicycle. I wonder how the original Overman bicycles were made: Were the frames lugged? Was the ride comfortable? I suppose we will never truly know how these compared to today's bikes. 

I think the modern reincarnation of the drop frame is a great idea in principle, if only it could be made more elegant. What do you think of the vintage and modern versions? - could you benefit from the low step-over, or do you find the regular step-through designs sufficient?

32 comments:

  1. I hadn't realized that the modern bike pictured above was made by kettler, the same company that made my mixte many moons ago.

    I know of a hand full of people that have a modern drop frame bicycle for commuting, and they seem to love it. I'm with you on the aesthetics of it. They're not terrible, but I don't personally like the thick tubing. I bet they make good gateway bicycles. People get them, decide they like getting around on a bike, and after while decide that they want something nicer.

    ReplyDelete
  2. i am not very fond of the new design, and i find the original incredibly feminine and beautiful. looking at the front fork how it's teardrop shaped and almost non-existent, it's gorgeous and quite proportional.
    I personally do not find step-thru's hard to mount, i can totally see it's place nowadays especially for someone a little older that has a hard time using their hip in that way. And it totally makes sense that women back in that time would need it, as they were expected to wear corsets and layers of crinoline to the floor.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dutch manufacturer Sparta offers this:
    http://www.sparta.nl/NL/Fiets/Entree
    Very ugly but sells well. The frame is aluminum. 26" wheels and fat tires. Electric assist is also available; for some reason that is the only version offered in the English catalog (www.sparta.nl/GB).
    Azor makes a somewhat less outspoken SL = Super Low frame:
    http://www.azor.nl/WEBSITE_2010/pages/13%20BOUNDLESS%20NN3D%20SL50%20DIEPROOD.htm
    Steel frame, no lugs!.

    There is more on offer. Don't forget there is a whole generation of older women in Europe who never learnt to drive but - certainly in Holland - always rode a bicycle. There definitely is a market for such frames. How about this:
    http://www.vanraam.nl/pages/productview.php?product_id=36&categorie_id=

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great detective work!! Maybe the Smithsonian will let you take a spin around the exhibit building on the bike so you can give us a full report!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Funny, this Bike Commuters post appeared in my feed just after yours, and the Urbana Electric Bike, so modern, is very similar to that 1899 model you posted! Like you I think it's good they're being made for folks who need it; I don't happen to be one of them. That said, I think the 1899 models are a bit prettier than today's. They're more delicate, and I like the curved seat post.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Amy - "gateway bicycles" are a good way to put it! But I guess I don't like the whole idea of that, as it inherently implies disposability. So sad to use a bicycle for a few months or a year and throw it away or leave it in a basement forever.

    Jim - I can just imagine writing them a letter to request a test ride : ) I wonder what kind of tires the wheels would need...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Velouria - Solid rubber tires like found on carraiges of the period.

    Perhaps with your growing notoriety in the bicycle world and a professionally presented request for a close, up and personal comparison/contrast for an article with photos might get your foot in the door.


    That beautiful 1889 bicycle was made by a craftsman and aesthetics is where mechanized mass production and bottom line economics has largely failed. There are a few exceptions(I always liked the aesthetics of the old Schwinn Varisty - mass production at its finest, if not its warmest).
    What it will take to reproduce the beauty of that earlier machine is that craftsman mindset and that probably will not happen on a corporate scale.
    I would like to see a company like Viva bicycles give the drop frame a go.

    I agree fully with you on the concept of gateway bicycles. Seems like such a waste of resources. But in the long run, maybe that is what it takes to get more people on two wheels.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I suspect you'd find the frame to be very springy on the original and for the same reason you see the modern ones using an oversized tube. That small single tube likely wouldn't have lent the bike much durability. Very attractive though, that original one is.

    ReplyDelete
  9. david...no the other one!December 20, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    A very interesting post, and bicycle. More research and follow-up would be enlightening!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Schwinn had a similar design for their Pixie bikes (maybe others as well???). A pretty neat design.

    BTW, as mentioned, the fork on that Overman is fantastic. The frame design may be in modern production, but that fork sure isn't. Too bad they have that clunky sus-fork on the Kettler. Why have it set up with skinny tires and a sus-fork when they could build it up with fatter tires and a rigid fork? That would give it pneumatic suspension, as well as possibly increasing durability and ride quality. I'm thinking Schwalbe Big Apples or at least Marathons. But I'm biased...

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have a feeling that suspension fork on the modern version is there to reduce the forces on that big old aluminum frame tube.

    Aluminum frames have a reputation for being pretty harsh when the tube size is over-sized but with only one tube I'd be surprised if it approached the rigidity of even the flimsiest conventional steel step-through frame. A characteristic of aluminum that is universal no matter what configuration or number of tubes is that it tends to fail all at once. You have a little crack and very soon you have 2 separate pieces, with steel you would tend to get a little crack that gradually widens till the frame droops and you say "My, that's strange, my bicycle seems to be ill..." and you climb off and push it home instead of "HOLY @#$%!" and you lay by the road waiting for the ambulance.

    The suspension fork would probably go along way towards preventing that sort of failure. You can be sure that the way they are selling it provides an adequate margin of safety but I wouldn't put a rigid fork on it (unless of course you were making bike thief bait in which case maybe a nice rigid fork and some inconspicuous filing on the bottom of the tube right behind the headset...).

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for the mention, "Velouria". This is a post from our blog with more information on the Kettler bike: http://bikesfortherestofus.blogspot.com/2010/12/kettler-city-bikes.html

    Suspension forks are very common on modern-style european bikes, even those made by traditional Dutch manufacturers like Gazelle and Batavus, as well as many German and Danish bikes. Often, the "cheaper" bike will have a normal fork, and the suspension fork will be offered as an upgrade, or on a more expensive model. They can look appropriate in the right context: http://www.gazellebicycles.us/brands/gazelle-bicycles/city-bikes?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage_gazelle.tpl&product_id=121&category_id=13

    Does anyone have a city bike with front suspension? I've only used bikes with no suspension (other than pneumatic tires!), a suspension seatpost, or a sprung saddle. Perhaps the front suspension helps with potholes and cobblestones?

    But we can all agree that the pneumatic tire was a great invention. That poor lady in the Smithsonian exhibit was in for a rough ride on those cobblestones!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Joseph - I rode a front suspension city bike in Vienna in 2009 for couple of months, though it was a regular step-through and not a "drop frame" bike. This is the bike here. I am pretty sure the suspension was there to counteract the harshness of the aluminum ride. The resulting ride was soft, but somewhat bouncy. I didn't hate it, but it's not my preferred fork construction either. An additional thing to consider, is that with a suspension fork like this, especially on an inexpensive bicycle, there are more breakable parts on the bike.

    PS: Your Kettler post is linked in the main text of this post, via clicking on the Kettler picture and the inscription underneath it, too.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Joseph - Just to be clear, Dutch "manufactures" are beginning to add suspension not because they are beneficial, or even suitable. They do it because Giant Bicycles sells them the same crappy bikes they sell in America (and in Wal-Mart!) for very cheap. Then the Dutch "manufactures" keep the same prices and jack up their profit.

    Suspension forks on a city bike are a scam, through and through.

    As proof, notice how Gazelle, for example, is getting rid of the metal sprung saddles on some of their "modern" models. But sprung saddles are without a doubt a more efficient system than suspension forks, no?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Wow, that is totally fascinating that those modern designs actually have an historical counterpart. I admit I like neither the old nor the new version of that particular frame. They're both too googly for me. Amazing to see, though.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thank you for posting this, Velouria! I had previously been wondering about this type of frame after seeing the main character of the popular Japanese comic/tv series "Inuyasha" illustrated riding such a bike. Interested parties can check out Kagome on her bike here:
    http://tinyurl.com/3a2kjwh

    I also thought it was just artistic licence, but the Schwinn posted in an earlier reply looks like the one from the comic book! I wonder if this style is popular in Japan? You'd think in two and a half months there I would have noticed, but alas bikes were of no interest to me.

    That said, I still can't get used to the look of no top tube... it gives me the heebie jeebies.

    ReplyDelete
  17. It must have been an adventure trying to ride that bike while wearing a whalebone corset, a floor-length skirt and a giant plumed hat. It would be enough to make one swoon from a case of the vapors.
    Please assist my fading memory. Was the term "safety bicycle" coined because it was fitted with a freewheel, or is this bike likely a fixed-gear?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Robert Frost was once asked what was lost when poetry was translated. His response? "The poetry."

    There's an analogy to the modern iteration of the drop-tube frame. Part of the reason for drop frames was, as Velouria points out, ease of entry for people in long, loose clothing--specifically, the long hoopskirts women wore in those days. But it was also designed with "grace" that may seem quaint to, or upset, people now.

    Not only is the beauty of those old bikes lost but, from what the post says, so is the ride. The old bikes had long wheelbases, which made them relatively stable. Ironically, in an attempt to replicate it and the comfort those old bikes probably offered, the bike was made less stable not only with its design but with suspension.

    It seems that the new version is the wrong version of the right bike for reasons (a retro vibe?) that have nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of the bike.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Carine - Wow... No matter how many of these things I see, my brain has a hard time processing anime : ) But that frame looks like it's at least partially lugged, at the seat tube - wonder what bike they based that design on!

    MT - If I understand correctly, bicycles became "safeties" when they became normal looking - ie same-sized wheels, rather than boneshakers. And its definitely a fixed gear, as I think all bicycles were until right before 1900. So add "fixed gear" to your corset/giant plume imagery...

    Justine - I giggled at your application of Robert Forst's quote in this context : )

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thanks, Velouria. I probably could have consulted Sheldon, but I'm lazy.
    "Queen Victoria rode a fixie" would make a cool bumper sticker, no?

    ReplyDelete
  21. Look closer at the fork on the Victoria; it's a suspension fork. There is a linkage below the crown and the curved member is a spring.

    Also, the idea behind suspension is to enhance a bicycles stability by preventing wheel deflection when a bump is encountered and by reducing shock to the rider. The assertions to the contrary in the article and comments are puzzling. Do you really believe that people are dumb enough to buy something that reduces rideability, adds weight, and increases cost solely because of marketing trickery? Are we part of the chosen dozens who can see The System for what it is? It just sounds kind of snobby to me.

    ReplyDelete
  22. M. Pewthers -

    {If you read the post, I did write that the original drop frame has a suspension fork.}

    It is not about being dumb or smart. It is about vantage points and priorities. In the 90s people (myself included) rode mountain bikes for transportation when they did not need them, because there were no other options.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Velouria-

    Sorry, I had missed the comment about the fork on the Victoria.

    As to the rest of what I wrote, it was in regard to comments made about current bikes that are spec'ed with suspension forks. People are buying bikes with suspension forks on purpose and not because there are no other options; I do not believe that this is just because they don't know any better which is what would have to be true if they provided no advantage.

    Also, of the bikes that I bought in the '90s (my teens), only one was a mountain bike; there were many options.

    I don't want this to come off as vitriolic, I really like this blog and think you do a great job. This was just an issue that I felt was worth addressing. I'll postpone my rant against people who speak so harshly about aluminum until another day...

    ReplyDelete
  24. M. Pewthers - No worries, please feel free to say anything you like. I think the suspension issue is complicated, especially if we're talking about why it is being bought by us/ sold to us. If I am to summarise my view, it is this: I sincerely believe that a pleasant ride quality on a city bike can be achieved better with the combination of good tubing, high quality frame construction, proper frame geometry, a suspended leather saddle, and good tires. When those features are present, a suspension fork is unnecessary. Therefore, I see the use of a suspension fork as a "band-aid" - to cover up a badly made bicycle. It is easier (and cheaper) to produce a badly made bicycle + cheap suspension fork, than a high quality bicycle. And it is true that a badly made bicycle with suspension fork will feel better than a badly made bicycle without one. But a well made bicycle will feel even better. That is my honest view, and if it comes across as snobby, I guess that cannot be helped.

    ReplyDelete
  25. "Do you really believe that people are dumb enough to buy something that reduces rideability, adds weight, and increases cost solely because of marketing trickery?"

    Absolutely. Though ignorant may be a better word. In fact, I was in that group a few years ago.

    The problem is that while suspension forks suck (except for mountain biking), the reasons why they suck are pretty subtle. Velouria, above, touched upon the issue. But it's even bigger than that, and I'd be glad to elaborate.

    For example, a frame with slack geometry, a long wheelbase, and a long fork IS a form of suspension in itself. Another fact of which you might not be aware is that front suspension forks act as BRAKES. That's right -- they absorb a ton of energy and slow a bike down. Flexible steel frames and saddle springs in fact do just the opposite -- not only do they absorb virtually no energy, but they turn bumps into potential energy and then release it back into forward motion.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Velouria - I disagree with the statement that "it is easier (and cheaper) to produce a badly made bicycle + cheap suspension fork, than a high quality bicycle."

    It's not. Reasonably high-quality, roadster style bicycles (let's say something like the Batavus Old Dutch) could be easily produced at Wal-Mart price points. Easily.

    ReplyDelete
  27. M. Pewthers - I can't wait for the debate about Aluminum as a frame material. :)

    Like suspension forks, I think that not only is Aluminum massively overrated as a frame material, but that for city bikes, it's very significantly worse, overall.

    ReplyDelete
  28. lyen -

    I disagree with your claim that suspension forks act as brakes by absorbing energy. They do, of course, absorb energy, but they do so in a nearly vertical manner which means that any energy that there is to be absorbed in that direction had to have been redirected that way by an obstruction in the wheel's horizontal path. A suspension fork keeps that energy from moving the bike off of its path.

    A slack angled steel bike with no fork may very well do a good job of absorbing some energy and without a damping mechanism it bends and then releases that energy. However, it in no way redirects that energy into forward motion. I think that the physics of that claim are faulty.

    For the record, I'm no apologist for the suspension industry. I have owned 3 suspension forks over the past 18 years (none presently) and I do, in fact, prefer a rigid steel bike for nearly all applications. With that said, I believe that there are just as many myths that exist in the anti-hype sector of bicycling as there are in the I-need-the-newest-stuff crowd and I felt like this was as good a time as any to address one.

    I will now, for the sake of the readers, drop the issue because it is not my intention to become a gadfly.

    ReplyDelete
  29. M. Pewthers - I'm not going to drop the issue because you are stating as fact things that are demonstrably incorrect.

    Maybe this will help you think it through. Suppose the front wheel of a bike comes across a bump in the road. If the bike has a suspension fork, two things happen: the fork gets pushed in and the bike is deflected back and upward (along with the rider). On the other side of the bump, potential energy is released from the rider's weight (not much for smaller bumps, if the saddle is unsprung) and from the compression of the fork. The problem here is that the friction of the dampening mechanism of the fork is highly inefficient. In other words, the fork releases much less energy as it springs back, than it absorbs when it is compressed.

    Consider the front wheel of an English-style roadster going over the same bump. With less weight on the front wheel, the wheel goes over easier and there is less deflection backwards. Also, the fork and frame and seat springs are much more flexible so they yield much more before the rider is propelled upward. Now, steel makes a very efficient spring, so as soon as the front wheel goes over the top of the bump, you get back almost all of the energy that is absorbed in the fork, frame, and seat springs.

    Now, any road surface is made up of infinitely many bumps just like this, some smaller, some larger. Why then would anyone want a suspension fork? Obviously for the REALLY big bumps. While flexible steel frames with big wheels work terrifically on small and medium bumps, they will get damaged if they meet a bump they can't clear. Suspension forks mitigate this risk, and thus make sense when bumps can be (sometimes arbitrarily) large, as is the case in mountain biking.

    ReplyDelete
  30. M. Pewthers - I realize I should have focused more directly on this claim:

    "However, it in no way redirects that energy into forward motion."

    It ABSOLUTELY does. The entire bike (rather than just the suspension fork) acts as a spring between between contact patch of the tire and the rider. As the wheel passes over a bump, that spring is compressed and pushes on the wheel, inducing forward motion as soon as the wheel passes the bump.

    ReplyDelete
  31. ". . .not only is Aluminum massively overrated as a frame material. . ."

    . . .but for cranks and handlebars as well.

    ReplyDelete