One of my favorite three speed blogs to follow is The Bike Shed. Now based in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut just north of where I called home a couple decades ago, The Bike Shed fixes up old three speeds, both British and American.
Just a few days ago, they posted a piece with a tantalizing tagline: What Was the “Golden Age” of English Three Speeds, Anyway? They argue that while the quality of British three speeds peaked in the 1950’s, the “golden age” for them here in the States was definitely the 1960’s.
The people I’ve spoken to over the years point to the period between 1960 and the 10-speed “bike boom” of the early 1970s as being the popular “golden age” of the three speed in the U.S. These riders, generally born between 1940 and 1960, relied heavily on English three speeds to get to school, commute to class, pick up groceries, deliver newspapers, etc. It is also interesting that this period do not coincide with what collectors today think of as the “golden age” of English bikes in the U.S. In fact, collectors sometimes deride the bikes made after the early 1960s as increasingly more cheaply made than earlier bikes.
The quantity of English three speeds imported into the U.S. is much closer to the popular memory than with the collectors and experts today. The vast majority of English three speeds imported into the U.S. came into the country from 1960 through 1975. There was strong demand for these bikes after the decline of the balloon tire bikes, but before the 10-speed road bike boom of the early ’70s.What Was the “Golden Age” of English Three Speeds, Anyway?
I like this refutation of the “received wisdom” by some that the only worthy British three-speeds came from about 1930 to 1960, and any bike after that era is at best unworthy, at worst, will self-destruct under the rider while riding. This bias gets tossed around a lot on the “For the love of English 3 speeds…” thread on Bikeforums. I always get the feeling that many (not all) of those who frequently comment on there are more collectors than riders, so of course rarer bikes appeal more to them than a garden-variety 1972 Raleigh Sports.
But I’m more about “doing things with three speeds” than being a collector. For those of us who want bikes to ride, not become part of a collection, the 1960’s and 1970’s British three speeds are great. And because they are still fairly common, it’s easy to find one. And because they are common, you’ll be more willing to ride them than be worried about ruining a collector’s item.
If rare three speeds from before 1960 are your thing, that’s cool. But don’t knock those post 1960’s bikes!