Wright Bicycles

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efore they built airplanes, the Wright brothers built bicycles. Like so many Americans in the early 1890s, they embraced the bicycle craze that swept the country in the wake of the invention of the "safety bicycle" – a bicycle with two equal-size wheels, front and back. This design was much easier to mount and ride than the "ordinary bicycle," which we now remember as the high-wheel bicycle.

First Bicycles

Wilbur Wright bought a used high wheel ordinary bicycle for just $3 while the Wright family lived in Richmond, IN between 1881 and 1884. In 1892, Orville bought a new Columbia safety bicycle for $160. In the same year, Wilbur purchased a used Eagle safety bicycle for $80. Both enjoyed cross-country cycling and Orville would occasionally enter races. He once won a rocking chair in a race at the Montgomery County Fair.

First Bicycle Shop

The Wrights opened a bicycle sales and repair shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, OH in 1892. They carried many brands of bicycles, including Fleetwing, Reading, Coventry Cross, Envoy, Smalley, Warwick, Duchess, and Halladay-Temple. Prices ranged from $40 to $100. The Wrights also rented bicycles and sold parts and accessories.

It's probably not an accident that the Wrights decided to open in 1892 or that they chose a location on West Third Street. The League of American Wheelmen held their twelfth annual meet in Dayton on July 4 and 5, 1892. It was a huge event with thousands of cyclists visiting the city to compete in thirteen different races for prizes worth up to $500. The visiting cyclists were also invited to tour the city and by far the most popular destination was the Central National Soldiers Home with its exquisitely landscaped grounds. The Soldiers Home was west of Dayton along Dayton-Eaton Pike, better known as West Third Street. The Wheelmen would have passed right by the Wright Cycle Exchange on their way to and from the Soldiers Home.

Bicycle Shop Locations and Names

As their business grew, the Wright brothers moved their bicycle shop six times and changed the name once.

  • 1892 – Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street, Dayton, OH.
  • 1893 – Wright Cycle Exchange at 1015 West Third Street, Dayton, OH.
  • 1893 to 1894 – Wright Cycle Exchange at 1034 West Third Street. The name was later changed to Wright Cycle Co.
  • 1895 to 1897 -- Wright Cycle Co. at two locations – the main store at 22 South Williams Street, Dayton, OH  and a branch in downtown Dayton at 20 West Second Street.  The branch store was closed in 1896.
  • 1897 to 1908 – The Wright Cycle Co. at 1127 West Third Street, Dayton, OH.

Manufacturing Bicycles

In late 1895, the Wrights began to make preparations to manufacture their own bicycles. They introduced the "Van Cleve" on April 24, 1896.  The Van Cleves, ancestors of the Wrights, had been among Dayton's first settlers, arriving in 1796. Dayton was about to celebrate its centennial in 1896 and historical awareness was high – it was a good choice for a brand name. Later in the year, the Wrights introduced a second, less expensive model called the "St. Clair." Again, the name was drawn from local history; Arthur St. Clair had been the first president of the Northwest Territory, which later became Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

The term "manufacture" is used loosely here, as it is in most Wright biographies. Both the Van Cleve and the St. Clair bicycle were largely assembled from parts made elsewhere. Frames, handlebars, seats, cranks, and tires were purchased from sources such as the Davis Sewing Machine Company of Dayton, OH (which later became the Huffy Corporation), Sager Manufacturing Company of Rochester, NY, and Pope Manufacturing of Hartford, CT. The only parts the Wrights were known to have made from scratch were their bicycle wheel hubs. The Van Cleve was built around a tall frame, possibly intended for racing, and sold for $65 when introduced. The St. Clair had a shorter frame, was easier to mount, and was initially priced at $42.50. During their peak years of production, between 1896 and 1900, the Wrights manufactured about 300 bicycles.

There is some controversy over whether or not the Wrights manufactured a bicycle called the "Wright Special." The only reference the Wrights made to this bicycle was in an announcement that appeared April 17, 1896:  "For a number of months, the Wright Cycle Co. have been making plans to manufacture bicycles...we will have several samples out in a week or ten days, and will be ready to fill orders before the middle of next month. The WRIGHT SPECIAL will contain nothing but high grade material. " But the Wright Special never materialized. The bicycle the Wrights unveiled seven days later was the Van Cleve. The name "Wright Special" appears in none of their advertisements or catalogs from this time, so it's reasonable to assume that the Van Cleve was the "special" bicycle the Wrights had advertised.

In their 1900 catalogue, the Wrights dropped the St. Clair line and recast their entire offering under the Van Cleve brand. The catalog refers to a "Standard"  and a "Special" model of their Van Cleve bicycle. The Standard model had parts of higher quality than the Special, but both models were Van Cleves. The Standard Van Cleve was now $47. The Special Van Cleve bicycle, with its economical components, sold for $32. Furthermore, the customer could request other available parts and expect an adjustment in the price. The notations of "Special" in the bicycle shop ledger most probably record a customer's request for the least expensive option described in the Van Cleve catalogue; they do not indicate a different brand.


During the years the Wright brothers were assembling bicycles, they constantly improved their product to keep it at the cutting edge of evolving cycling technology. The Van Cleve featured a wheel hub with three unique features. First, the bearings were adjusted by screwing the inner bearing races or "cups" in or out of the hub. (Most hub bearings were adjusted by tightening nuts on the axle.) The advantage of the Wright hub, according to the Van Cleve catalog, was “…the wheels can be removed from the frame and replaced…without changing the adjustment of the bearings.”  Second, the bearings were sealed with felt washers. Dayton only had 12 miles of paved streets in those days and the dust played havoc with bicycle bearings, causing them to wear quickly. The washers not only kept the dust out, they created a reservoir inside the hub that bathed the bearings in oil. “They are absolutely dust proof, and oil retaining to such a degree that only one oiling in two years is all they require.”  Third, each hub carried it's own spar parts –  two extra outer bearing races or "cones" on which the bearings rode. These were likely parts to wear out on early bicycles. “In case a bearing cone is worn or injured, these can be removed and transposed…”

The "coaster brake," an internal friction brake inside the rear hub that was activated by back-pedaling, first appeared in 1898. It seems to have been simultaneously invented by several people – Harry P. Townsend, of the New Departure Manufacturing Co, James S. Copeland of the Pope Manufacturing Co., and William Robinson of Brooklyn, New York all filed for patents within a year of each other. That same year – 1898 – the Wrights designed their own version of the coaster brake that would work with their special wheel hubs. They contracted with Charley Taylor, a local machinist, to make the brake parts. The brothers would hire Charley in 1901, and in 1903 he would help them to build their first aircraft engine.

In 1900, the Wrights announced a "bicycle pedal that can't come unscrewed." Pedals were mounted to the crank by threaded spindles.  On early bicycles, both crank arms had standard right-hand threads. As the cyclist pedaled, the action tended to tighten one pedal and loosen the other, with the result that one pedal kept dropping off the bike. British inventor William Kemp Starley had solved a similar problem years before when the right-hand cups that housed the crank or "bottom" bearing on early bicycles kept coming loose. He simply reversed the thread direction on the right cup so the pedaling action kept it tight. It wasn't long before bicycle makers realized the same solution could keep the pedals in place. Wilbur and Orville were in the vanguard of those manufacturers that offered right-hand threads on one crank arm and left-hand threads on the other.

Business Profits

The bicycle business was good to the Wright brothers, initially. In their best year (1897), they made $3000 or $1500 apiece in a time when the average American worker was doing well to make $500 per year. They also managed to save $5000, which went a long way in financing their aviation experiments. However, this market wasn't to last. Beginning in 1898,  there began a serious shakeout among small bicycle manufacturers as they either closed up or sold out to larger businesses. The world bicycle market had been saturated by thousands of small assembly firms that had sprung up to satisfy the initial rush to own a bicycle. These thrived until huge manufacturing firms geared up for mass production, selling bikes for as little as $10 apiece by the turn of the century. At the same time, they bought up many smaller businesses, eliminating competition the Wrights refer to this state of affairs in the introduction to their 1900 catalogue.

To remain competitive, the Wrights were forced to lower their prices and consolidate. Their 1900 catalog showcases the one remaining advantage they had over big manufacturers, the Wrights' ability to build customized bicycles. Clients could choose different cranksets, forks, handlebars, saddles, and pedals to suit, or add features such as fenders, chain guards, and brakes. The Wright brothers built Van Cleves to order.

It's interesting to note that in the very same year the Wright bicycle business began to decline (1898), Assistant Secretary to the Navy Theodore Roosevelt convinced the War Department to pay Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Samuel Langley $50,000 to develop his 1896 Aerodrome into a man-carrying flying machine. Although this was supposed to be a secret, the amount was the largest sum ever paid by the War Department to develop a weapon and the news soon leaked. Wilbur and Orville were already studying the "flight problem" and knew that all aircraft to date had inadequate controls. Langley's aerodromes had none at all. A year later the brothers would begin research in earnest with the express goal of developing an aircraft control system. Although none of their biographies discuss the Wrights' financial motives, its not unreasonable to assume that the Wrights saw in this news a way to survive the coming shakeout. If Langley was successful, the War Department would need a control system to make their flying machine practical.

They came close to abandoning this plan, however. In mid-1902, after testing two unsuccessful gliders in 1900 and 1901, Wilbur confided to his friend Octave Chanute that the bicycle business was declining and he was looking for another manufacturing line. Chanute suggested small heaters for carriages or electric refrigerators. Fortunately, just a few months later the Wrights flew their 1902 glider and made the aeronautical breakthrough that kept them focused on airplanes.

Selling the Business

The Wright manufactured very few bicycles after 1902 and  none after 1904 they were much too busy developing their airplanes and trying to find a market for them. When they finally began to sell aircraft in 1909, the bicycle shop at 1127 West Third Street was converted to a machine shop where employees of the Wright Company – the brothers' airplane  manufacturing business – turned out parts for the airplane engines and drive trains.

In 1909 or 1910, the Wrights sold all their remaining bicycle parts and the rights to the Van Cleve name to W.F. Meyers, a bicycle salesman, repairman, and machinist. Meyers did not make his own bicycles, but had another company put them together and he put the Van Cleve nameplate on them. Meyers continued to sell Van Cleve bicycles until 1939.

Existing Wright Bicycles

While the Wrights are thought to have manufactured several hundred bicycles between 1896 and 1904, only five still exist:

  • A St. Clair, manufactured before 1900, currently at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. (It's on loan from The Henry Ford.)
  • Two Van Cleves,  both manufactured after 1900, at Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio.
  • A Van Cleve, probably manufactured after 1900, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. (This is the only known example of a women's bicycle built by the Wrights.)
  • A Van Cleve,  manufactured prior to 1900, at Greenfield Village, part of The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

In Their Own Words

  • 1900 Wright Van Cleve Bicycle Catalogue – A 12-page catalogue, written and produced by the Wright brothers, explaining the virtues of their built-to-order bicycles. The catalogue was printed in the Wrights' print shop, just across the street from the Wright bicycle shop.

A Closer Look

  • The Wright Van Cleve, circa 1897 – The kind and helpful curators at The Henry Ford museum and Greenfield Village let us inspect the oldest remaining Wright bicycle.

This newspaper ad for the Wright Cycle exchange appeared in 1893.

The third Wright bicycle shop at 1034 West Third Street. It was at this location that the Wrights changed the name of their business to the Wright Cycle Co.

The fourth shop at 22 South Williams Street. Here the Wrights began to assemble their own bicycles.

The Wright Cycle Co. at 1127 West Third Street, where the Wrights built gliders and airplanes.

Orville and a helper at work in the Wright Cycle Co. shop at 22 South Williams Street in 1897.

A Wright Van Cleve bicycle, built prior to 1900. It was a tall bike by modern standards; the horizontal bar was 36-1/2" off the ground. Van Cleves built after 1900 had frames more than 4" shorter.

A Wright Van Cleve built after 1900. This was the "Special" economical model. The horizontal wheel is part of an aeronautical experiment from 1901.

The badge for the Wright Van Cleve, circa 1897. The log cabin represents Newcomb’s Tavern, which was and continues to be the oldest building in Dayton, Ohio. The tavern was built in 1796, the same year Dayton was founded, then was rediscovered in 1894 and restored in 1896 just in time for Dayton’s centennial celebration – the same year the Wrights began assembling their own bicycles.

1897 newspaper ad for Wright Van Cleve bicycles. "Van Cleves get there first," was a play on words, but you had to know local history to get the joke. The Wright's great-great-grandmother, Catherine Van Cleve Thompson, and her daughter Mary Van Cleve had been the first to step ashore from a boat of settlers that had traveled upriver from Cincinnati in 1796 to the site where Dayton was built.

A section in the 1900 Wright Van Cleve catalog, describing the Wrights special wheel hub.

For a short time in 1909 and 1910, the Wright bike shop was converted to a machine shop for making airplane parts.

A Meyers Van Cleve made in the 1930s.

A page from the Wright Van Cleve catalog.

The Wright Van Cleve on display at Greenfield Village.

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