Cars and drivers owe a big thanks to bicycles

Bike innovation helped build cars and roads

We know how bikes can change lives, be used to improve daily life and be a way to becoming a more mindful person, but bikes have helped more than just the folks zooming along on them. Ironically, from technology to roads to even the first innovators of the automobile, cars have a lot to thank bikes for.

A bicycle produced by the Wright Cycle Company now resides at the National Air and Space Museum
A bicycle produced by the Wright Cycle Company now resides at the National Air and Space Museum

Bikes and cars have co-existed since the late 1800s. However with the internal combustion engine proving tricky to nail down, bicycles proliferated while cars still plodded along and often only in the hands of the wealthy.

When the safety bicycle was created with two equal size wheels and a chain-driven gear it took the place of the high wheeler, a bike with a monstrous front wheel with the pedals directly attached to the front hub, and cycling exploded and was everywhere. In fact, the bike became the first mass produced product ever, with around a million bikes being made by roughly 300 American manufacturers in the 1890s. 

Innovation

Bikes brought about many innovations that we now take for granted in our daily lives. Even on cars, where technology seems light years ahead of the simple bike nowadays, many of its fundamental attributes can be traced back to the bike. Here are some examples: 

Pneumatic tires

The first air-filled tires were created by John Boyd Dunlop to prevent his 10-year old son from having headaches while riding his tricycle on rough roads. His patent application stated interest in only cycles and light vehicles. 

Lightweight tubing

Even today cars use high-tech tubing from bicycles for frame construction. Caterham Cars, makers of unique road-going cars that are equally suited for track day shenanigans, use tubing from Reynolds that was originally crafted for bicycle frames. 

Caterham Cars use a steel frame constructed from Reynolds double-butted steel bicycle tubing
Caterham Cars use a steel frame constructed from Reynolds double-butted steel bicycle tubing

Roads and highways

The national highway system was a product of cyclists wanting to venture outside of cities on something other than a rutted, unmaintained path. In the late 1800s, when cycling had its strong influence, a group of politically powerful men lobbied for road infrastructure in the US and Europe.  

Cars that enjoy roads like this have bikes to thank
Cars that enjoy roads like this have bikes to thank

Ball bearings

In 1869, a bike mechanic in Paris named Jules Suriray designed the first radial style ball bearing. It was used in the Paris–Rouen cycle race of 1869, one of the first road races ever. James Moore won the race on a bike equipped with the new, revolutionary bearings and popularity grew.

Wire spinning and wire spokes

Crafting metal wires for all sorts of manufacturing can be traced back to bicycle manufacturing. The earliest cars used spoked wheels. 

Inventors and innovators

Let’s not forget the early bicycle mechanics who turned their mechanical passion and expertise into automobiles and airplanes. Because of the bike’s early dominance, nearly every automobile manufacturer in the 19th century and early 20th century began thanks, in some regard, to bicycles. Car companies that came from bike manufacturers include: GMC, Ford, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Peugeot, Rover, Opel, Pope, and many, many more. 

Ford's first ever car, the Quadricycle, used bicycle wheels and tires
Ford's first ever car, the Quadricycle, used bicycle wheels and tires

Henry Ford’s first automobile was named the Quadricycle and consisted of quite a few bicycle parts, including steel spokes and pneumatic tires. Ford rode his bike everyday to his job as a engineer and preferred cycling to the city's public transport trams. Another little known fact was that Ford was a lifelong cyclist, often going for a three mile ride after dinner.

The Wright brothers built the first airplane with bicycle parts, which made sense since they owned Wright Cycle Company and manufactured their own brand of bikes. They used their bike brand to fund their first forays into flying.  

The Wright brothers used bike manufacturing to fund their dreams of flying
The Wright brothers used bike manufacturing to fund their dreams of flying

Charles and Frank Duryea built the first gasoline-powered American car that actually worked. Together, they began as bicycle makers in Washington D.C. and used their skills to found one of the first American car manufacturers. Ironically, one of their cars is credited with the first ever auto accident with a cyclist. It happened in New York City, the biker suffered a broken leg and the driver spent a night in jail and was issued America’s first ever traffic violation. 

Bikes and cars tend to have an arduous relationship. While most cyclists tend to have and drive cars, those drivers who don’t ride bikes often, or who have to share the road with the often slower moving biker, can take a pretty sour view on bikes. That's a shame, because if those drivers knew the debt the automobile and even the very road on which they are driving have to the bicycle, they’d change their tune drastically. 

Russell Eich

Tech Writer, US
Russell fell head over heels in love with bikes in the '90s, and has been involved in the bike industry ever since. Between wrenching in bike shops, guiding professionally, and writing about bikes, Russell has honed an appreciation for what works, gained knowledge of what doesn't, and can barely contain his enthusiasm for what comes next. His two-wheeled passion continues in the Rocky Mountains high above Boulder, Colorado.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road, cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: High altitudes, forgotten singletracks, bike parks, roads without cars
  • Current Bikes: Custom Meriwether steel hardtail, Specialized S-Works Enduro 29, Kona Jake the Snake, Trek 69er, and a bunch more
  • Dream Bike: Yeti SB5c, Intense Tracer 275C, Black Cat custom road
  • Beer of Choice: Gin + Tonic
  • Location: Rollinsville, CO, USA

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