Folding Bikes - A Complete History

Folding Bikes - A Complete History

The popularity of folding bikes has soared in recent years. Easy to fold and store whilst on public transport, more and more people are opting to swap the morning traffic jams for a healthier commute, and a folding bike is allowing them to do this with ease. In this article, we look at the past, present, and future of the foldable bicycle.

Brompton foldable bike

Image taken from Brompton.com

When was the first Folding Bike produced?

The folding bike may seem like a relatively new cycling innovation, but they were actually invented in the late part of the 19th century. American Inventor, Emmit G Latta filed several patents for improvements to bicycles and in a patent in 1887, he stated:

"The object of this invention is to provide a machine that is safe, strong, and serviceable, and more easily steered than the machines now in use, and also to construct the machine in such a manner that the same can be folded when not required for use, so as to require little storage-room and facilitate its transportation."

Original Folding Bike Patent - E G Latta

 

Original Folding Bike Patent - E G Latta

Emmit G Latta's original 1887 patent for a folding bicycle

The patent was sold to the Pope Manufacturing Company and as no existing examples of this bike have been found, we can sadly only assume they never put it into production. 

In the 1890s the French army took interest in using folding bikes for military purposes. The British Army followed suit and in 1900 Mikael Pedersen developed a folding version of his Pedersen bicycle. It weighed 15 pounds and had 24-inch wheels and a rifle rack. In the following years, multiple countries invested in folding bicycles for their respective armies, due to the fact that they were a means of transportation that could be airdropped along with paratroopers.

Italian Bersaglieri during World War I with folding bicycles strapped to their backs.

Italian Bersaglieri during World War I with folding bicycles strapped to their backs.

The British WWII Airborne BSA bicycle was designed so that, when airdropped, the handlebars and seat would hit the ground first. This is because if the wheels hit first they could be damaged and bent, making the bike useless. Folding bicycles were used throughout the duration of WWII and were used by British paratroopers, Commandos, and second-wave infantry units on the D-Day landings and at the Battle of Arnhem.

When did Folding Bikes become popular with the general public?

Although the design of the modern folding bike may seem new and innovating, with it’s smaller wheels and low frame, you can see similarities with certain bikes from the early 20th century. A Patent for a folding bicycle called ‘Le Petit Bi’ was filled in 1939 and was later manufactured to great success.

A variation of Le Petit Bi

A variation of Le Petit Bi. Photo courtesy of the Embacher Collection.

The 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in folding bicycles with new models being made across Europe. In fact, the majority of bike manufacturers had at least one foldable offering leading to many different designs being available to purchase. Another design of note is the 1970s British folding bicycle, Bickerton. The first Bickerton had small wheels and a low frame, as well as some unusually large handlebars. The frame was made of lightweight aluminium and was easy to fold and carry. Below is a video of Bickerton inventor Harry Bickerton demonstrating his design with relative ease.

What are the most popular Folding Bike brands today?

This classic 70s Bickerton design is what inspired British inventor Andrew Ritchie to create the Brompton, which is the largest manufacturer of folding bikes in the UK hand-making over 45,000 bikes per year. They are highly regarded as one of the best folding bikes available and thanks to their highly customisable style, you can create a Brompton that’s perfect for you. The image below shows a prototype design from the late 1970s. 

Brompton's original design - 1980s

Photo taken from Coeurcycliste.com

Another bike brand whose design has evolved from this style are DahonDahon also started producing folding bikes in the early 80s and currently own an estimated 60% market share. They sell a wide range of bicycles with the majority of them following the standard folding bike design. This is a design that has seemed to resonate with people and is what is typically thought of when thinking of a folding bike.

Dahon Launch D8

A 2019 Dahon Launch D8

Despite Dahon and Brompton making up the majority market share of folding bikes, not all companies decided to follow suit with this style of bike. In 1987, UK engineer and designer Mark Sanders launched the Strida 1. This uniquely designed foldable bike was inspired by the Maclaren baby buggy which becomes narrow when folded. With its wheels together, this allows you to roll the bike instead of carrying it. Strida have continued to release newly designed foldable bikes over the last 30 years, keeping the 'A-Frame' design. 

Strida S30X

STRiDA S30X - Special decal design inspired by the modern gift Diamond to celebrate the brand's 30th anniversary

What does the future hold for Folding Bikes?

More and more people are choosing to commute by bicycle and as such the folding bike's popularity is continuing to grow. This means designers and engineers are getting more inventive with their designs. German inventor Karsten Bettin designed a foldable bike that is so compactable it can actually be taken on to planes as hand luggage. The bike is called The Kwiggle and its folding dimensions are 55 cm high x 40 cm wide x 25 cm long making it the smallest folding bike in the world. It's just 60% the size of a common folding bike, it weighs just 8.5kg, and it's capable of travelling at 30 km per hour. The bike launched on Kickstarter and unfortunately was unsuccessful, but you can order one from their website. Its quirky design will certainly catch people's eyes.

As well as designers aiming to make their folding bikes smaller and lighter, they are also designing them to be more practical. In 2010 a folding bike was introduced called the "Ville". This is a folding bike that folds into a handy shopping cart, allowing the rider to push their bike around the store with them instead of them locking it outside. The design won the Bronze Prize at IDEA Design Awards 2010 but unfortunately, this is another design that didn’t catch on.

Ville Folding bike shopping cart

Folding bikes have evolved from essential military equipment to a commuters dream and with over 175 different folding bike manufacturers worldwide, buyers aren't short of choice. With different folding methods and different foldable designs, it is becoming easier and easier to find a folding bike that best suits your needs. Interesting designs like the Kwiggle and Ville may not have caught on originally but you never know what the future holds for Folding Bikes.

Brompton being secured with a Litelok

A Litelok Gold securing a Brompton - Images by @Flatpedalz


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