B G Bowden and the 1946 ‘Streamline’ Cycle

Bowden Cycle

Bowden Cycle

The streamline cycle, shown here in an early press photograph, used a new energy-storing device calculated to revolutionise cycling by storing energy when travelling downhill and releasing it on climbing. It was designed by Ben Bowden, a well-known Leamington industrial designer and consulting engineer, to be displayed at the Britain Can Make It exhibition in London in October 1946. Mr Bowden, who came to the Midlands to work in the car industry in Coventry, had most recently designed the Healey Elliot, a 2.4 L sports car, which was in 1947 the first British car to break the 100 mile an hour barrier. In WW2 he designed an armoured car which was used by King George VI and Winston Churchill.

The futuristic lightweight aluminium bicycle, which Bowden called ‘The Classic’ created substantial public interest initially but British bicycle manufacturers at the time were reluctant to invest in the high degree of re-tooling needed to produce it.  Bowden felt that the bicycle had reached its climax so far as design and methods of propulsion were concerned, and so he developed a special device incorporating a dynamo and motor set to store energy while the bicycle travelled downhill and release it on climbing hills.  He claimed that the device would generate sufficient power to overcome the additional resistance given by a 1-in-10 gradient at a speed of 5 mph. The cycle had an electrical bell operated by pushbuttons. On each handlebar twist-grip controls operated the brakes. There were built-in front and rear lights and the machine was completed by a small dashboard incorporating a minute radio set and loudspeaker. It looked entirely unlike any bicycle on the road at the time and even today its styling remains unmatched. It was a roaring success at an exhibition at the Town Hall in July 1947, although one small boy was overheard to remark, “Wot, no engine!” It was referred to by the press as “The Tomorrow Cycle,” and less flatteringly, as “this lightweight oddity”

Bowden Spacelander Prototype

Bowden Spacelander Prototype

As no British manufacturers came forward, in 1949 Bowden considered having the bike manufactured in South Africa but changes in import policies there prevented that taking place.  In the early 1950s, Bowden moved to Michigan in the United States and in 1960 began production in fibreglass instead of aluminium, abandoning the hub dynamo and adapting the assembly, and giving it a new name: The Spacelander ,  to capitalise on interest in the space race.  It was originally produced in five colours, Charcoal Black, Cliffs of Dover White, Meadow Green, Outer Space Blue and Stop Sign Red. It originally cost $89.50 which made it one of the more expensive bicycles on the market.  Although the Spacelander with its dual headlights and rear lights built into the body frame of the bike, was produced for just one year, after a revival of interest in it as a collector’s item in the 1980s, it remains the most sought-after middleweight bicycle ever made.  The follow-up Bowden 300 E, which also had a fibreglass body, is even more rare: very few are known to exist.  Spacelanders can be bought on eBay for upwards of $800. A set of lights can be acquired for a similar amount.

Benjamin George Boden was born on 3 June 1906 in North Kensington. He died aged 91 on 6 March 1998 in Florida.  He came to Warwickshire as a car designer and by the 1930s he had become chief body engineer for the Humber car factory at Coventry. In 1945 he left to form his own design studio in Leamington Spa with John Allen. The studio, Allen-Bowden Ltd, at 4 The Parade, was one of the first such design firms formed in Britain, and was known to work in collaboration with other designers, – Achille Sampietro, for example, developed the chassis of the Healey Elliot. In the United States, Ben Bowden worked on the early Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Thunderbird. His futuristic bicycle was again produced briefly in the late 1980s, when the first reproduction, modified to improve durability, sold for $4000.

Margaret Rushton

The Leamington Omnibus Winter 2015

Sources: Leamington Spa Courier

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