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 dubious results. 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 and lugged American-made Schwinn three speeds out there, but oh man, they are very rare.) 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 I wouldn’t spend a lot on purchase and/or restoration.
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 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 gear, only switching to low when I encounter a hill and to high when I need to power along. If I was going to ride long distances or in really hilly terrain, my derailleur bike would be the appropriate tool for the job. But for around town, the three speed is ample and able.
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!