Reproducing an 1896 Wright Van Cleve

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On Training Wheels
The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park (DAHNHP) has asked us to create a roadable replica of an 1896 Wright Van Cleve bicycle. The DAHNHP manages the original Wright Cycle Company at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton, Ohio where the Wright brothers began manufacturing bicycles in 1896, and the Park would like to have an historically-accurate example of the bikes that were made there. (The Wrights actually had six shops; 22 S Williams was the fifth. No. 6 at 1127 W Third St – where Wilbur and Orville made their first airplanes – was moved to Greenfield Village in 1937 and became part of The Henry Ford museum in Michigan.) It’s the DAHNHP’s plan to mount this replica bike on a trainer stand and let visitors “ride” a Wright bicycle.

In case you’re wondering, “us” is the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, a loose collection of wing nuts in the Dayton area who build replicas of Wright aircraft and other artifacts for museums worldwide. We do this to support educational programs organized around the quixotic idea that young people can learn with their hands and well as their heads. STEM and STEAM is all well and good, but we’d like at least a few future scientists and engineers to know which end of a screwdriver to hang onto.


This is an example of our day job, an airworthy replica of the 1902 Wright glider. We’ve built over a dozen Wright aircraft so far, all from the Wrights’ experimental period, 1899 to 1905. Actually, we didn’t build this particular aircraft so much as shouted encouragement at those who did. It was built and flown by a crew of exceptional seventh- and eighth-graders from Russia (Roo-shee), Ohio. We just helped. Conversely, it’s the airplane of which we are the proudest.

In addition to airplanes, we’ve built a few post-1900 Wright bicycles, all assembled with 28” Pope frames, Sager saddles, Fauber cranksets, and mustache handlebars to match the two late Van Cleves on display at Carillon Park in Dayton. This is our first attempt to create an early Van Cleve, and to do so we had to travel to The Henry Ford, which has the only pre-1900 Wright Van Cleve in existence. There kind and helpful curators let us spend several hours with the bike, making measurements and taking photos. We thought you might like to see some of these, and we hope you will help us identify what we’re looking at. Our knowledge of early bicycle technology is a mile deep but only an inch wide. We would very much appreciate the input of folks with broader expertise.


This is the bicycle we have been asked to recreate, a Wright Van Cleve on display in the sixth Wright bike shop now at Greenfield Village. The underside of the crankcase is stamped “45,” which we take to indicate a frame size. However, it might also be a Wright serial number. If so, this would mean that the bicycle was probably built in 1897. The Wrights built about 300 bikes between 1896 and 1902. The post-1900 Pope frames that we have seen commonly have a stamp in the same place, but the numbers are much larger. Any opinions? Was this a Pope or a Wright stamp?


This is the Van Cleve badge. The log cabin supposedly represents Newcomb’s Tavern, which was and continues to be the oldest building in Dayton, Ohio. The tavern was built in 1796, the same year Dayton was founded, then was rediscovered in 1894 and restored in 1896 just in time for Dayton’s centennial celebration. This was also the same year the Wrights began assembling their own bicycles. “Van Cleve” was another reference to Dayton’s pioneer past. Mary Van Cleve, Wilbur and Orville’s great aunt, was the first to jump off the pirogue onto Dayton soil after a long trip up the Great Miami River. The Wrights used the double entendre “Van Cleves get there first” to advertise their new bicycle.


The frame was probably manufactured in Hartford, CT or Westfield, MA by Pope. It seems to be the very same frame used for the Columbia Model 40 from the same era. The crossbar stands about 36” off the ground. Later Van Cleves were 31-1/2” high. Why were these early bikes were so tall? We’ve heard a number of theories. The most rational seems to be that this was a racing bike and the height enabled the rider to extend his leg fully on the downstroke, transferring more power to the drive train. On the other end of the rationality spectrum, someone at the Grand Rapids Swap Meet speculated that it was to keep your feet out of the horse manure that littered the road. Any more theories, rational or otherwise?


The rear wheel has 36 spokes and the front wheel 32. We’ve seen other bikes from this era built the same way. Can anyone tell us the reason for putting more spokes on the back than on the front? Also, our research has led us to suspect the black tires are not in keeping with the period. Is it true that black tires were not common until BFGoodrich introduced tires made with carbon black in 1910? If so, should these tires be either red or white? Can anyone recommend a publication that addresses the history of tire manufacture that would help us determine the color and tread patterns available in 1896?


Although The Henry Ford museum lists the color of this bike as “black” in their catalog, we found it is actually a deep wine-red. Historically, Will and Orv offered both black and “carmine.” Would Victorian carmine have been a deep brick- or wine-red? From our reading, we had always presumed it to be closer to a fire-engine-red. If so, would the pigment have darkened this much over 130 years?


The handlebars are wooden, most probably ash. (It’s interesting to note that the Wrights used ash for all the bentwood parts of their airplanes.) We’ve found an advertisement for wooden bars made by Louis Rastetter & Sons of Fort Wayne, IN. One of the drawings in the ad seems to match these handlebars. Can anyone tell us anything more about these bars? This was a high-end bike – why wood instead of steel? More important is how the bars were mounted to the steering column. There is no clamp at the top of the column, front or back (see inset). The ferrule appears simply to rest in a cradle. It’s not brazed to that cradle; brazing would have charred the wood. The only thing we can figure is that a bolt joins the ferrule and passes through the center of the steering column. But that would have made it impossible to adjust the angle of the handlebars or flip them over for the traditional “mustache” look. Furthermore, if this is a Rastetter, their ad shows the ferrule but no bolt. Can anyone tell us how the Wrights performed this magic trick?



The saddle is not stamped, but the Wrights mention Sager of Rochester, New York in their advertisements. This seems to be a Sager #20c if we go by the existing catalogs. Can someone confirm that this is so? If not, what might it be?

The most interesting thing about this saddle is not its brand, but how it’s mounted. The Van Cleve has a two-part seat post – a horizontal mounting bar clamps onto the post. Can anyone tell us something about this arrangement? Who made it? What advantage did it offer? The only remote possibility that occurs to us is that perhaps the mounts were interchangeable allowing you to adjust the angle of the seat without sliding it forward or back and changing its position in relation to the pedals.



The Van Clave has a unique two-piece crankset. The left crank arm and the crank shaft are apparently cast as one part, and then the shaft is machined. What looks like a hole at the bottom of the left arm is actually an indent to help center the shaft on a lathe. The right arm includes two protrusions cast 120 degrees from the arm. The chain gear is bolted to these protrusions and a step cast into the right arm. We’re presuming this was not unique to the Wright Cycle Co. because we’ve seen an illustration of the same crankset in an ad for the Columbia Model 40. This design partially solves the problem of the crank arms coming loose as they do with the 3-piece cranksets that were more common at the time. We can see why Will and Orv thought of this as an upgrade in the days before one-piece cranks. However, we haven’t clue who made it or what other selling points it may have had. Any thoughts?




Although there are many references to the Wright brothers “manufacturing” bicycles in their biographies, they were actually bicycle assemblers. They purchased frames, saddles, handlebars, and cranksets from what we now call OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), and put them together to make their Van Cleve and St. Clair bicycle brands. It’s interesting to note that they took a similar approach to aircraft manufacturing. Many of the parts of their earliest airplanes were made by suppliers in the Dayton area.

The one part they did make to set their bicycles apart was their own hubs. We thought you’d like to see some photos of these early Wright hubs. They had three unique features, as shown in the illustration from their 1900 catalog. First, the bearing was adjusted by screwing the bearing cup in or out of the hub. The advantage of this, according to the Van Cleve catalog, was “…the wheels can be removed from the frame and replaced…without changing the adjustment of the bearings.” Second, each bearing had two identical cones. “In case a bearing cone is worn or injured, these can be removed and transposed…” Third, the bearings were sealed with felt washers. “They are absolutely dust proof, and oil retaining to such a degree that only one oiling in two years is all they require.”

Note the knurled mounting peg on the right end of the rear axle.


Here’s a parting shot of the Wright Van Cleve from the left rear. If readers have additional information to share or parts for sale that might work for our replica, we’d love to here from you. We’ll be updating this thread as the replica progresses.

With all good wishes,
Nick Engler, Director
Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


Riding a '38 Autocycle Deluxe
Hi there!
Very ambitious project!
Hope you can replicate this Wright bicycle.
I own an 1896 Columbia 40.
Here are some photos of a Wright and my Columbia 40. I have included a photo of the correct Garford saddle, since I have replaced the later model saddle, that came with the purchased Columbia 40.
























On Training Wheels
Many thanks for the information posted so far -- very, very helpful. Below are some images that may jog a few more memories. This is an old photo of the Wright workshop taken in September 1897, according to the calendar on the wall. The figure in back is Orville; the one in the foreground has never been positively identified. Some books claim this to be Charlie Taylor, but this photo was taken long before Charlie came to work for the Wrights. At this time, he had his own machine shop.


We have an extremely high resolution copy of this photo, and here are two details that we blew up:


The frame that Orville is working on, as well as the frames lined up on the floor all seem to match the frame of the Van Cleve bicycle at The Henry Ford. Additionally, the handlebars hanging on the wall in front of the drawknife are the same as used in that bicycle. Note the long mounting stem. We were apparently correct about there being a threaded bolt-like-thing that goes down through the steering post, but we still can't see how this arrangement would allow the builder to adjust the angle of the bars. The only thing that occurs to us is that perhaps the ferrule, which seems to be cast with the stem as a single piece, tightened around the wooden handlebars as the stem was drawn down into the steering post. This is what the funnel-shaped fillet at the top of the stem suggests, but we still cant see how it would work without a slot or something like it to make the ferrule flexible enough to tighten. -- Nick


Saint Lactose The Tolerant

Best that CABE Attached Images would allow 75MB
( Don't even know what the hay an MB is ….. )
Diggin' your thread, Nick !!

….. patric
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Riding a '38 Autocycle Deluxe
Just my 2 cents here: if I were to embark on such a hefty project as to completely replicate something to a degree that 99% of viewers would assume is “real” until they read the fine print, I think I would need every nut and bolt available for viewing and making a duplicate when necessary. The project begins to beg the question: is this necessary? For example, do you need the hidden parts to be historically accurate? I think this is the elephant in the room. You could make a hub, or even find one that is correct, but then do you fabricate all the working parts? It would be easier not to, but then when someone invariably asks, “can it be ridden”? You have to say no, it just looks real. My musings are simple: where do you begin and where do you end? The final result will be viewed by thousands of people and, many with knowledge and these issues will just be there for the final project to answer. Whatever path is taken, we all know in 2019 no one can completely replicate anything old, you don’t have the same steel, the same chrome plating, the same wood, etc. There is always a caveat, or many caveats, I guess the question is which ones to address and solve, and which ones to leave alone. My thought is make as good a replica with as many period components as possible, so at least you are reaching into the past as best you can to show people what was made during that time, then fabricate some needed parts to complete.

Craig Allen

Finally riding a big boys bike
Wood was used for handlebars and also rims because it was thought it was a weight savings. The arrangement for the handlebar post seems simple enough for making positional adjustments. The wood handlebar and sleeve that surround it have tight diameter tolerances, so when the threaded rod is tightened up it pulls everything down against the cradle and clamps it all together. To make an adjustment, it requires loosening the steering clamp bolt at the top of the steering tube and pulling the whole assembly out. In the late 1890's there were hundreds of bicycle builders and it seems like all of them were trying to attract the public's attention with some eye catching gadget many of which were not that practical. This handlebar attachment is a good example.
As a side note the Wright brothers designed their own hubs.

Craig Allen

Finally riding a big boys bike
In your photo of Orville working in his shop, according to Fred C. Fisk in the November 1980 Wheelmen magazine the man on the left is Edward H. Sines.