Looking at the pristine penny farthing propped incongruously in Richard Birch’s entrance hall it’s clear riding it would be a big challenge.
Mounting it would be the first obstacle and staying on it would probably be the second.
The front wheeel has a 54-inch diameter,’ said Richard.
‘When I’m sitting on it, my head is nine feet above the ground: it’s a long way to fall.
‘There’s a step part way up the frame tube to help the rider to get on but I believe some people used a mounting block, a little like getting on a horse.’
Nor is it a risk he or I are about to take, partly out of a sense of self-preservation but mostly because we don’t want to mangle a pristine and beautifully restored machine.
‘It dates from the 1870s and it was built in the Midlands by the Coventry Machinist Company, which later became Aerial motorcycles,’ he said.
‘I haven’t actually ridden it yet but I imagine it would be hard to pedal because it’s a direct drive to the massive front wheel so it’s highly geared. I think they were built for promenading really rather than as a practical mode of transport.
‘I might try it out but it would have to be somewhere flat, certainly not down the hill outside my house. And I think it would have to be somewhere where there weren’t too many spectators either.
‘I understand there’s a loony group of people in the UK who acutally race them though, and I also know of someone who did a lap of the TT course on one, back in the 1980s I believe.’
The owner of the penny farthing, or ‘ordinary’ as it was perhaps misleadingly known at the time, is Bill Bewley from Cumbria, whom Richard knows through the island’s Vintage Motorcycle Club, of which he is chairman.
‘I think he’s planning on putting the penny farthing in his lounge,’ said Richard.
Restoration has presented a number of challenges to Richard who has greater experience of restoring vintage and veteran motorcycles. An organisation called the Veteran-Cycle club has offered advice. For jobs Richard was not able to complete himself, Steve Moynihan and his staff at MR Engineering at Balthane, and Phil Wall at the Ramsey shipyard industrial estate have given invaluable support.
The cycle itself shows surprising ingenuity and engineering skill, given its date of manufacture.
‘It must have been an expensive machine when it was produced,’ said Richard.
‘It uses self-aligning roller bearings and some of the engineering used remains challenging today, such as the frame tubing which is both curved and tapered on its main spine and on the rear forks.’
State of the art braking, circa 1870, is via a wooden twist grip which applies a metal block from above directly on to the front tyre. A special locking mechanism prevents it from being applied by accident as the rider runs and jumps on the bike to set off.
‘Otherwise I guess it would be very easy to apply the brake inadvertantly as you jump on and immediately pitch yourself over the handlebars,’ Richard suggested.
The entire brake system was seized solid and had to be remade. Richard has also re-spoked the wheels himself, first making up a jig to ensure the finished wheel was true. It is radially spoked so the spokes don’t cross as they did on later examples and as they do on a modern bicycle.
Each penny farthing was made to order, with the front wheel diameter made to match the owner’s inside leg measurement: the taller the owner, the bigger the wheel.
The crank on the front wheel was also bent and had to be remade.
In fact, the whole bike was in a pretty terrible state: ‘I think if I had sat on it, it would have collapsed completely,’ said Richard.
Surprisingly however, a business in the south of England was able to supply a replacement for the decayed pig skin-covered seat.
‘The business was run by the same chap who did a lap of the TT course by penny farthing 30 years ago. It’s hard enough on an ordinary push bike, I can’t imagine how it could be done on a penny farthing because the gearing is so high,’ said Richard.
According to Richard the original tyres, which were perished, would probably have been white as carbon was not added to darken the rubber until the early part of the 20th century. The tyres are made from a solid cylinder of rubber cut to length then held in place with a spiral screw which joins the two ends once it is in place on the rim. The pedal rubbers have also been replaced, the shiny metal parts are nickel plated and a number of new stainless steel nuts and bolts have been used.
One finishing touch to the bike’s paintwork still remains to complete it, and it is likely to discourage all but the most competent of would-be riders in the future.
‘Many examples were black with intricate coach lines. These were painted in gold leaf so that’s one of the last things to be done to finish it off,’ said Richard.