The humble three speed was the way people got around for many years without much complaint before the proliferation of derailleur geared bikes in the 1970’s.  Now we think we can’t ride a bike without the maximum amount of gears possible. But there’s a beautiful simplicity in having only three speeds.
Before the three speed internally geared hub, bikes had but one single gear. While one gear is adequate for many purposes, the addition of two more gears, one for climbing hills, and one for powering on flats or going downhill, opened up a new world of opportunities.
The country most associated with three speed bicycles is the United Kingdom. And there’s a very good reason for that. The UK is where the three speed internally geared hub was developed by Sturmey-Archer. Many British bicycle manufacturers affixed three-speed hub wheels on their bikes, namely Raleigh and her many subsidiary makes and models. (Not coincidentally, Raleigh owned Sturmey-Archer.)
From the years between “the wars” up until the ten speed boom starting in earnest in the 1960’s, the three speed bicycle was king in Britain.  It was an affordable way for the working class to get around, whether to commute to work or more leisurely jaunts into the countryside.
And it wasn’t only the British enamored with three speeds. Raleigh exported millions of bikes to the furthest reaches of the globe, and many of them made their way to American and Canadian shores. Often Raleigh would make a three speed for an American company and simply slap that company’s name on the bike. (The Huffy Sportsman is a good example. It was essentially a Raleigh Sports with a Huffy badge, made in England.)
American companies did make their own three speed models, with various degrees of success. If you’re looking at old American built (vs. rebadged) three speeds, Schwinn was the best as they turned out bikes on par with Raleigh, although even heavier if they were an Electro-Forged model. (I know there’s some fillet brazed or lugged American-made Schwinn three speeds out there, but these are not common.) The Columbia Sports III with Sturmey hubs seem to be OK too. Other US makes and models should get the job done if they are in good shape, but if I was me, I wouldn’t spend a lot on either the  purchase and/or restoration of one.
Other nations built three speed bikes too! Many Dutch city bikes have three speed hubs, along with German ones. Japan as well. You will sometimes see a 1970s era Japanese three speed on your local Craigslist. My ex-roommate owns a Norwegian model from the mid-century with a Sachs Torpedo three speed hub. Even the derailleur obsessed French had some Sturmey-Archer equipped city bikes!
I’ve ridden three speed bicycles around Portland for years and have found it perfectly sufficient for my day-to-day needs.  The low gear does remarkably well on most hills.  When I ride my 12 speed derailleured bike, I’m constantly shifting, trying to find the perfect gear.  With my three speed, I mostly have it in middle or high gear, only switching to low when I encounter a hill.  If I was going to go on a long bicycle tour in hilly terrain, my derailleur bike would be the appropriate tool for the job. For around town, the three speed is ample and able. And Portland is by no means a flat city.
But three speeds are also good for longer rides! As long as the hills are not too steep, one can go quite far on one. In fact, during the middle part of the 20th Century many British folks would tour the countryside on laden three speeds. If they hit a hill too steep, they walked until they could pedal again. I’ve done rides up to 50 miles on a three speed. Distance is possible. These bikes are remarkable!

47 thoughts on “Why Three Speeds?

  1. I have always had a little love affair with bikes. About 10-13 years ago I found a old 70’s Huffy 3 speed at a garage sale. Brought it home cleaned it up and proceeded to strip the higher quality parts of a Schwinn Suburban 5 speed. I swapped the brakes, toe clipped peddles. Bought new tires, cables and a seat. Road it for a few years and sold it to a friend who was down on his luck. A few years after I figured that he and his better half possibly lost interest and that the bikes I sold him would be no longer being used a sitting in the back corner of his garage. It was because I was missing that clunky old Huffy. It had a quality I missed that no other bike had. What’s a guy to do?
    My guess was correct they were no longer using it. Sad to say they the sold it. My loss.
    Fast forward to 2017 I was garage sailing and found a 3 speed. It was all there but it wouldn’t shift, tires were very cracked, brake cables were locked and covered in dirt. It was so deeply covered in dirt I couldn’t tell what condition the chrome rims were in let alone the color of paint. We bargained and agreed to the rock bottom price of $10. Not knowing what brand it was only that it said “made in England”. I brought it home thinking that I would get involved with it later and shoved in the shed and forgotten.
    Come late 2018 while volunteering at the local non profit bike shop. Someone dropped off a Huffy 3 speed. It was rough. Thinking my dream had been realized we negotiated a price. Then I grabbed it out of the rack, ” gosh that’s heavy I thought”. promptly I went back in and backed out of the deal we all smiled knowing. A few days later while digging in the shed I found the lump of dirt in the corner that was forgotten. My interest was peaked what did I buy? Looking closely it read “Raleigh”, Oh! Into the house and down the stairs. Oil was squirted hear and there. For three days the same treatment squirt, squirt, squirt, pull and adjust.
    I couldn’t ride it because the rear tube wasn’t holding air. Things we’re starting to move more and more and I could see it was all there and needed very little. Excitement was starting to build when I started to rub out the paint and polish the chrome. Underneath was an extremely nice looking 1974 Relegh Sports 3 speed. Working on the details uncovered a nice bike that anyone would be proud to own or be seen on. It wasn’t beaten up just neglected. Over the course of last fall and winter it all came together.
    This spring it was on the road in original unrestored working condition. It showing its age as certain items are wearing and finding NOS suitable parts of the era are high on my list to keep it as close to original. And it’s not a kick stand queen having put close to 300 miles on it this summer.
    I have come to really get into these old Raleghs I happen to come by a 1968 Sprite 5 speed
    ( the 3 + 2 speed IGH ) this one was set aside not used just forgotten All that it needs cosmetically is to remove a heavy coat of dust. Mechanically a good service and tune up is all it needs .
    A dream is tempting me to put some aluminum rims and better brakes on one to really see what these old steeds can do with some modern up grades. Think Speed McQueen of Cars fame.

    1. As you say, adding aluminium rims and a double chainwheel (50-40 teeth) is a great idea. It transformed my Raleigh. The spread of gears in the original is not up to snuff in hilly Tasmania, but the 6-speed does much better, a rear derailleur was added to keep the chain tension Also, the original Raleigh seat, although OK for short errands is too wide for touring, something narrower is an improvement.

      Sergio Montes

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