In Search of Le Petit Bi (updated 2015-05-26)

An article by Tony Hadland from The Boneshaker, Winter 1988

In 1980 I published the first edition of my book The Moulton Bicycle. As a result I received many letters about Moultons and related subjects. One of the most interesting came from a Mr John A. Twelves.

He referred me to an article in Signal!, a wartime pictorial magazine published in occupied Europe by the Third Reich. (Mr Twelves had found the article in Signal!; Hitler’s Wartime Picture Magazine, edited by S.L. Mayer, Bison Books, 1976). The article, entitled ‘Paris on Wheels’, contained a photograph of a bespectacled gentleman wearing a hat and smoking a pipe; in the background was the hazy outline of what appeared to be the Arc de Triomphe. Nothing too special about that, except that the gentleman was riding an extraordinarily modern looking small-wheeled bicycle.

Le Petit Bi being ridden by Sartre
The cycling professor, who turned out to be no less a personage than the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. This is a superior copy of the same photo that appeared in Signal!

The caption read:

“A cycling professor. This practical construction is easier to propel than an ordinary cycle but one needs a certain amount of nonchalance in order to appear with it on the street.”

The bicycle had very small wheels of about 16″ diameter, hub brakes, a rim dynamo on the front fork (complete with ‘curly’ telephone-type cable to the headlamp) and derailleur gears. The chainwheel was a Williams pattern (or similar), closely resembling the type used on the mass-produced Moultons of the 1960s and made at various times by Nicklin, T.D. Cross and Raleigh. The frame was fully triangulated but very low slung, with the seat tube near vertical, its base being about 9″ behind the bottom bracket. The seat pillar was very long and cantilevered, similar in length to that used on the present-day Bickerton. The handlebars were also somewhat reminiscent of the Bickerton, but more closely resembled those of the 1970 Raleigh Chopper ‘fun’ cycle. The front fork was considerably offset, the ‘rake’ being about 3″. The ensemble was completed by a pannier carrier, complete with bags.

Tony Hadland on Le Petit Bi at a Benson rally in the 1980s
Tony Hadland on Le Petit Bi at a Benson rally in the 1980s

Was this strangely elegant French machine the first small-wheeled bicycle?  It certainly pre-dated the Moulton by some 20 years.

Alex Moulton does not claim to have been the first bicycle designer ever to use small wheels.  However, his technically advanced design, launched in 1963, inadvertently created the small-wheeler boom of the mid 1960s. The tail-end of that boom lingers on today in the form of the technically inferior but cheaply produced 20″ wheel shopping and folding bicycles. This has been a cause of some dismay to Moulton, who set out to build bicycles that were better to ride, not cheaper to make.

Quite apart from the mysterious Parisian machine, there were small-wheeled bicycles long before the Moulton – although none had anything like the same impact on the world of cycling. If one defines a small-wheeler as a bicycle with both wheels smaller than 26″, some of the last of the front drivers were in this class. For example, one of the Bantams of the mid 1890s had equal-sized 24″ wheels.

The Boneshaker Volume 11, No. 99 (Spring 1982) contained a photograph of the Sharrow C.C., apparently taken about 1900, one of whose members was astride a bicycle with ballon-tyred disc wheels of about 16″ diameter. The machine looked like nothing more than a conventional safety bicycle built to take wheelbarrow wheels!

Bartleet’s Bicycle Book (first published in 1931) contained a photograph of an open-framed small-wheeler with “cow horn” handlebars, which Bartleet contemptuously referred to as ‘The Freak’. It weighed 27 lb and had 20 x 1 ¾” wheels. It was given to Bartleet by the widow of Mr P.M. Browne of Chater Lea Limited but the date of manufacture, identity of the designer and maker’s name are unknown. However, it may have been influenced by developments on the Continent during the 1920s.

Readers of the then Southern Veteran-Cycle Club’s News & Views No. 204 (April/May 1988) will have seen the note on Paul de Vivie (‘Velocio’), the ‘father’ of French cycle touring. A photograph was reproduced from his Obituary in the April 1930 CTC Gazette which showed him with what N&V’s editor described as “a remarkably modern looking small-wheeled bicycle”. The machine in question certainly had small wheels (of about the same format as Bartleet’s ‘Freak’) but otherwise merely resembled a conventional ladies bicycle with derailleur gears.

Before and during World War 2, the letters pages of the cycling press occasionally raised the possibility of using smaller wheels. Henry L.G. Heath of Reading, in Cycling, 18th February 1942, pleaded for more research into 24″ wheels with “light and lively” 1 7/8″ to 2″ wide tyres. He added:

“Small wheels and bulgy tyres have been tried by the late ‘Kuklos’, who rode them in Sweden, I believe, and he praised their behaviour. A Mr Clutterbuck, who was the CTC Consul for Sussex, I believe, had several bicycles and a tandem fitted with this ‘attire’, and in the cycling Press a few years ago he grew almost lyrical over the speed, comfort and handiness of his machines …”

So, it can be said with certainty that the mysterious French bicycle was by no means the first small-wheeler. Nonetheless, I was keen to find out more about the machine. Consequently I made an appeal via N&V for more information. Surely someone in the then Southern Veteran-Cycle Club had further information?  Alas, I did not receive a single reply.

A chance discovery

However, a year or two later, whilst entering Herne Hill Stadium for the Club’s annual Family Fun Day, I had a pleasant surprise. There was the mysterious French small-wheeler being ridden around by a young boy. It transpired that the machine belonged to Bill Whyte, who is a V-CC member living in Harrow. He had bought the machine after seeing it advertised in N&V.

The vendor, who was not a member of the Club, lived in the Wembley area.  It appears that a relative of the vendor had worked in France for many years. The bicycle, which folded for easy storage, was kept in the office as emergency transport. On the death of the relative, the bicycle was brought to England, along with his other personal effects.

Subsequently, at a Benson Rally, I again met Bill Whyte and his rare French small-wheeler.  My brother-in-law, Roger Jeffree, was with me and took the photographs which illustrate this article.

Unfortunately, Bill knew nothing about the design history of the bicycle, nor even its brand name. However, it was a delight to be able to inspect the machine, which still had what appeared to be its original, though well worn, 400A Dunlop ‘Cord Ballon’ tyres. The apparently lugless frame construction was beautifully executed and the bike was complete, apart from a missing front mudguard. It had a Pelissier three speed derailleur but, unlike the bicycle in the Signal! photograph, side-pull calliper brakes and a radially spoked front wheel.

Bill Whyte demonstrated how the seat tube slid through the frame, and the handlebars folded down, to make a neat package which would stand on end; the back of the integral pannier carrier being fitted with rubber buffers for this purpose.

Bill Whyte folding le Petit Bi
Bill Whyte folding le Petit Bi

A wartime test report

Some time later, John Pinkerton found a reference to the elusive machine in a wartime copy of Cycling. In due course loan of the requisite volume was arranged with V-CC librarian, Bob French. The 4th February 1942 edition of Cycling revealed all – or so it seemed at the time.

The editorial commenced thus:

“Those pioneers of the lightweight era in cycle construction who, 15 or 20 years ago, had for their slogan, ‘As little bicycle as possible’, will perhaps see something of their ideal in ‘Le Petit Bi,’ which the Assistant Editor of Cycling test-reports in this issue.”

Although expressing certain reservations, he felt that, if such machines became popular after the war, it could benefit cycling. He concluded:

“This way, perhaps, more utility cyclists will graduate to the comfort and efficiency of the orthodox lightweight than was the case from the lifeless lumps of steel that gave the label of ‘hard work’ to cycle transport after the last war.”

(Interestingly, this is what did happen to some extent after the small-wheel boom of the mid 1960s.)

The test report of Assistant Editor Alex A. Josey occupied a two page spread. It revealed that ‘Le Petit Bi’ (The Little Bike) was first produced towards the end of 1938 by a Frenchman, “now in this country”.  He was named as L.S. Armandias and his full address was also printed. It was in Farnham Royal, Buckinghamshire.

The machine Alex Josey tested was similar to that shown in the Signal! photograph, except that it was fitted with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub gear. He listed the claimed advantages of Le Petit Bi:

“1. The Petit Bi stands upright on its carrier with the saddle retracted and handlebars folded. It can thus be stored in a cupboard or wardrobe and carried about as one’s personal luggage. A cloth cover with zipp fastener is supplied which turns the machine into a suitcase.
2. It is suitable for adults of both sexes and children as well, because the saddle pillar can be easily adjusted.
3. The Petit Bi is lighter than the ordinary bicycle.
4. The small wheels are an advantage. They resist buckling better. They are easier to rotate.
5. The machine is less cumbersome than an ordinary bicycle.
6. The peace-time price of this machine was £9. Tandems cost £14 5s.”

Alex Josey reported that the machine was easy to ride, balance and steer. However, he did not think that the steel-framed example he rode was significantly lighter than a conventional machine, nor much easier to carry. He pointed out, though, that a significantly lighter alloy version had gone into production shortly before the war broke out.

Josey criticised the lack of handlebar adjustment and was certain that Le Petit Bi was “not a serious challenger to the ordinary bicycle for normal sporting purposes”. But he thought that, for utility riders, the machine might have considerable appeal, especially as it “had the added attraction of being suitable for every member of the family to use”.

Le Petit Bi seems to have captured the imagination of some Cycling readers, as the letters pages of the 18th February and 25th February both carried correspondence on the subject.

Folding handlebars of Le Petit Bi
Folding handlebars of Le Petit Bi

Tracing the inventor

Several years passed without me getting any further down the trail of Le Petit Bi. Writing The Sturmey-Archer Story editing the quarterly Moultoneer and other commitments meant that there just were not enough hours in the day.

Recently, however, I decided to try to trace Mr Armandias, the Frenchman described by Cycling 46 years previously as the inventor of Le Petit Bi. It was just possible that he had stayed in England after the war, although, if still alive, he would be quite old by now.

A bit of detective work revealed that Louis S.M. Armandias was indeed alive, aged 81, and living very close to his wartime address in Buckinghamshire. However, when we finally got to speak on the telephone he expressed himselt quite mystified. He had, he told me, lived an unusually full and active life, and considered that he had a good memory; but he had no recollection whatsoever of Le Petit Bi, let alone inventing it!

I sent him photocopies of Cycling’s wartime test-report and he sent me some fascinating papers on his life and career. It transpired that his family has lived on both sides of the English Channel for decades. He has dual nationality and is completely bilingual. During the war he worked on the development and manufacture of the undercarriage for the Halifax bomber. He it was who introduced from France the high pressure (4000 psi) Messier hydraulic system which it used.

In the early part of the war Louis Armandias started Rubery Owen Messier Limited as its Technical Director. Later he had two completely separate identities: one as a flying course instructor for The Bristol Aeroplane Company Limited (where he met Alex Moulton, personal assistant to the Chief Engineer); the other as a Captain in Army Intelligence where, no doubt, his dual national background and perfect French were put to good effect. In 1944 he became involved with the early military use of helicopters; he was granted helicopter licence no. 5 in Britain and no. 3 in France.

After the war he returned to undercarriage design and manufacture, becoming co-founder of British Messier Limited. Thereafter he was involved in many different managerial and consultancy roles, mostly concerned with aeronautical and other military engineering. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and in 1953 was awarded the Medaille de L’Aeronautique by the French Government for his achievements in aeronautics.

Having seen the photocopies of the wartime article in Cycling which I sent him, Louis Armandias vaguely recalled bringing two Petits Bis into England on his father’s behalf. He thought this might have been about 1935. But one thing he was certain about; he was not the inventor of the machine. Plainly, Cycling had got the wrong end of the stick!

Later he discussed the matter with his son, now 62, who recalled the two sample bicycles quite well.  Originally, they had been kept at Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire, and presumably it was one of these that was tested by Alex Josey.  They then moved with Louis Armandias to Battledown Manor, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham. Later they were moved again, this time to Ellingham House, Cheltenham. It was about this time that he was operating under two identities and folding bicycles were distinctly low on his list of priorities. When he finished at Ellingham House his secretary cleared everything out including, he presumes, Les Petits Bis. That seems to have been the last he saw or heard of the mysterious bicycle until I contacted him in 1988.

Le Petit Bi folded and stowed on its tail
Le Petit Bi folded and stowed on its tail

Tracing the patent

Having established that Louis Armandias was not the inventor, I carried out a search at the Holborn Reading Room of the Science Reference and Information Service of the British Library (formerly the Science Reference Library).  Searching the Patent Abridgements in Group XXXI (Class 136), which includes bicycles, I eventually found British Patent 526,773. The side elevational drawing included with the abridgement clearly showed that it was, indeed, Le Petit Bi – although the trade name was not mentioned.

The abridged patent gave the inventor’s name as A.J. Marcelin and the application number as 10184, dated 31st March 1939. That fits in fairly well with the date of introduction in France given in Cycling – late 1938 – bearing in mind that the British Patent probably lagged a little behind the original French one. (It is a fair assumption that there is a French patent, although I have not checked this.) However, it seems probable that Louis Armandias’s vague recollection of 1935, as the year he brought the sample pair to England, is three or four years too early.

Was Marcelin a professional inventor? A brief search of patents revealed no others under the name A.J. Marcelin for the period from the mid 1930s to the end of the 1940s.

In order to find out a little more about ‘the little bike’, I requested that the full patent be brought up from the vaults. This revealed the inventor’s full name and address: Andre Jules Marcelin, French citizen, 174 Rue de l’Université, Paris (Seine), France. With an address like that, perhaps Signal’s description of “A Cycling professor” takes on a new significance. Was the rider shown in their photograph Marcelin? Did he feed them the line “easier to propel than an ordinary cycle”.

The full patent was accepted on 25th September 1940. Nine diagrams accompanied it:

Figure 1 is the side elevation included in the abridgement.
Figure 2 is a plan detail showing the relationship of the seat tube base to the bottom bracket and chain stays.
Figure 3 is a side elevation of the bike folded and stowed on end.
Figure 4 shows a tandem version in side elevation.
Figure 5 is another side elevation, this time of a motor cycle or autocycle version. (This had the engine and gearbox in the back wheel and a steamlined fuel tank astride the low top tube.)
Figures 6 to 9 depict details of the folding handlebars, including alternatives to the serrated mechanism used in the production machine.

Patent drawing
Patent drawing

The Unanswered Questions

The trail of Le Petit Bi has been long, somewhat indirect but rewarding. However, a number of questions remained unanswered when this article was written in 1988. For example:

  • What happened to Marcelin? (It transpires he was a serial inventor of many things, as a patent search will reveal.)
  • Is he still alive? (No, he died in 1978.)
  • Was he the man in the Signal! photograph? (No, in June 2000 I discovered that the cyclist was, in fact, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre!)
  • What did the French cycling magazines of the time say about Le Petit Bi?
  • How many were made?
  • Which company made them, and where?
  • Did the motor cycle version go into production?
  • Does anybody have an alloy framed Petit Bi, or the tandem version?
  • What happened to the two samples apparently disposed of in Cheltenham during the 1940s?

Designed 50 years ago, Le Petit Bi was no Alex Moulton high technology machine; it was not suitable for serious touring or racing. Nonetheless, it was a competently designed, well-engineered, easily stored and elegant short range, unisex machine, superior in many respects to the majority of contemporary small-wheelers and folding bicycles. As a final question, one is tempted to ask why no one is producing it today.

[Please bear in mind that these closing comments were part of the original article and reflected the situation in 1988. It’s interesting to note that Michael Embacher’s famous bicycle collection included both versions of Le Petit Bi. They were sold at auction in Vienna in May 2015.]

Post-war advert
Post-war advert for the later version, incorporating frame hinge
Picabia on Le Petit Bi
The French surrealist artist Francis Picabia on Le Petit Bi with what appears to be a gremlin on the rear carrier – surreal indeed!

14 thoughts on “In Search of Le Petit Bi (updated 2015-05-26)”

  1. Hi Tony,

    I have just found your blog after taking a snap of an old photograph seen in a pub in Sheffield over the weekend – pic on my Flickr account here >>>

    In the line up you will see a small, disc wheeled bicycle. Being intrigued & searching the web I first found your ‘Small Wheels for Adult cycles’ article which mentions small balloon tyres, in particular a Mr A Edmunds. I was going to comment there until discovering this post with its reference to ‘Sharrow’ relating it to Sheffield, and of course comparing its wheels to a Barrow 😀

    Is this the same photo by any chance & do you have any more info on the bike?



    1. Hi Ian,

      Many thanks for your interesting message. Yes, I suspect that is the same photo or one very similar. I’ve just finished work on a major new history of the bicycle, written in collaboration with my German friend and colleague Professor Hans-Erhard Lessing, for MIT Press. (To be published in March 2014, title “Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History”) While researching the book, I found out a bit more about these early balloon-tyred small-wheelers. The patented wheels were made by The Pneumatic Wheel Company and were rather like a football, squeezed between two hub plates, obviously with an airtight hole through the middle of the plates and ball for the axle. You could buy the wheels and build your own frame or buy complete bikes made by The Pneumatic Wheel Company. The company was active in 1894 and probably for a few years thereafter.

      All the best,


      1. Hi Tony,

        Wow that is interesing – i’ll keep an eye out for the book when published.

        My wife commented that they may have performed like a Dyson BallBarrow, although my immediet concern was the steering geometry as the front forks are reversed!

        Wonder if any survived…

        Thanks for your prompt reply 🙂

      2. The forks on the advert the company printed are more conventional but maybe the rider simply reversed them – easy to do with a small-wheeler. (I’ve even done it myself, though wouldn’t recommend it.) Or it could have been a locally-built bike using the company’s wheels. I don’t know of a surviving example but it would be interesting if one emerged.

    1. Hi Yaniv,
      Thanks for taking the time to email. It’s definitely not a Petit Bi nor is it a Bickerton prototype. It is, however, quite reminiscent of a 1960s French Stella folding bike that I once owned. The frame is a bit different but the tyre and wheel format, very short wheelbase and “ape-hanger” handlebars are very similar. The hub gear looks like a Sturmey-Archer and was probably original equipment, so the date on the hub shell is probably close to the manufacture date of the bike. My guess would be circa 1966.

      1. Thanks for your kind comments. I’m very glad you found the book useful. Yes, those two bikes are certainly unusual – well spotted!
        All the best,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.