The rarely seen Moulton Stowaway joint that looks like a hinge

Alex Moulton hated the idea that his bicycles would be considered as folding bicycles. He always made the point that his aim was to produce a better bicycle, not a folder. A small proportion of the 1960s Moultons were separable for stowing in the boot of car, as were the majority of his post-1983 spaceframe machines, but Alex never, ever, made a folding bicycle.

A number of people have adapted Moultons into folding bicycles but Alex never did. The question that many Moulton researchers and enthusiasts have asked themselves is “Did he ever, in secrecy, produce a folding prototype?” More than 20 years ago, when I first saw a colour slide in the Moulton archives of the bike featured here, I thought for a few seconds that I had found evidence of just such a machine. But it did not take long to establish that this, too, is a separable machine, albeit a unique variant on the theme.

The original Moulton Stowaway joint, used in a minority of production F-frame Moultons in the 1960s, was very unforgiving if the bike was ridden without the joint bolt being fully tightened. Just one short ride with the bolt loose would distort the joint, making it looser in the vertical plane when ridden yet harder to separate.

In the 1970s, Alex Moulton made a little known attempt to improve the Stowaway joint. The only known example exists in a prototype Mk 4 Moulton. (The Mk 4 was a development of the Mk 3 that never went into production.)

Alex’s aim was to produce a joint that was fail-safe and that would not be damaged if ridden without being fully tightened. The resulting design is shown in the photos below. The front section of the main beam has a primary hook at the lower end of the joint end. This hooks over a peg on the rear section of the main beam. The top of the front section of the main beam bears upon a “hooded” forward extension of rear part of the main beam, thus holding the two parts of the main beam loosely together.

Rather than just relying on the primary hook joint, there is a pair of secondary pivoting hooks within the front section of the main beam. These hook around a peg that runs through the central axis of the rear section of the main beam. To complete assembly of the bike, the frame’s short “carrying handle” is swung into its horizontal position and fastened around the seat tube, just above the squashball suspension unit, using a bolt with a quick-release lever. A cam on the underside of the carrying handle, near its pivot, locks the secondary hooks in position. The combination of the secondary hooks and the bracing effect of the carrying handle make the joint tight in the ridden mode.

To separate the frame, the carrying handle is unbolted and swung forward, which releases the pair of secondary hooks via the cam in the carrying handle. The two parts of the frame can then be separated by releasing the primary hook.

In conclusion, this prototype joint is certainly a belt and braces job but is very complicated, expensive to manufacture and relatively heavy. It is not surprising that it never saw the light of day.

Mk4 special joint 1

Mk4 special joint 2 Mk4 special joint 3 Mk4 special joint 4  Mk4 special joint 6Mk4 special joint 5

More pics of Le Petit Bi

Elsewhere on this website you will find my article about Le Petit Bi, the 16-inch wheel French folding bicycle designed in the 1930s by A J Marcelin of Paris. Riders included the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and the artist Francis Picabia. Below are some additional pictures to supplement those in the original article.

The first is a press advertisement for the first version of the bike, showing it in ready-to-ride and stowed modes. The advert is undated but probably from about 1939.

The second picture is of the later version of the bike, as patented during the later stages of WW2, which featured a hinged frame. (There is a lower resolution version of this image, which was used in a press advertisement discovered by Bob Cordon Champ, in the main article.)

Lastly, there is a photo (ex-Cycling magazine) of their reviewer Alex Josey testing the bike. He erroneously ascribed the bike to the aviator and intelligence officer Louis Armandias, who merely brought the demonstrator models to London from France on behalf of a friend of his father.

Press advert for the original version of Le Petit Bi
Press advert for the original version of Le Petit Bi
The later version of Le Petit, which featured a hinged frame
The later version of Le Petit, which featured a hinged frame
Alex Josey of Cycling magazine road-testing a hub-geared version of  Le Petit Bi during WW2
Alex Josey of Cycling magazine road-testing a hub-geared version of Le Petit Bi during WW2


Rolling resistance – theory and practice

In theory, the rolling resistance of wheels decreases as the diameter of the wheel increases. This is on the assumption that all other factors are equal: the tyres are of identical cross-section and carcase construction, with equal internal air pressures and equal external applied loads, rolling at low speeds in still air where no significant aerodynamic effects apply, on smooth hard road surfaces, with the wheels on hubs with insignificant bearing friction.

Yet it is clear from observation and testing that, under some circumstances, some smaller diameter bicycle wheels can roll as easily, or even more easily, than some larger diameter wheels. This does not mean that the theory is wrong – merely that one or more of the “other factors” is not equal. The easiest factor for the average rider to control is tyre pressure. It’s a fair assumption, confirmed by everyday observation, that most cyclists ride on tyres that are at sub-optimal pressures. So, pumping up the tyres of a small-wheeler to the maximum recommended by the tyre manufacturer may well be enough to allow it to roll more easily than many other cycles with larger wheels. Choosing a small diameter tyre with a supple carcase will also help. At racing speeds, wheel aerodynamics and unsprung mass of the whole bicycle and rider ensemble can also enter into the equation and may, for example, favour a well-designed small-wheeler with suspension.

Between 1998 and 2002, British engineer John Lafford carried out rolling resistance tests on various tyres, ranging in tyre bead seat diameter from 305 mm to 622 mm (i.e. nominal wheel diameters of 16-inch to 28-inch). The manufacturers and product types, cross-sections, tread patterns, state of wear and tyre pressures all varied quite considerably. His full data may be found here:

Below is a chart generated directly from John Lafford’s data using Microsoft Excel. The vertical axis shows the various tyres tested, ranked by bead seat diameter – biggest at the top and smallest at the bottom. The horizontal axis shows rolling resistance – the less the better. The straight, backward-sloping, black line is a computer-generated trend line which reflects the general truth of the theory that rolling resistance decreases with tyre diameter. But it is immediately apparent that the rolling resistance of any particular tyre diameter may vary considerably, confirming the variance due to those “other factors” that may not be equal in reality. Hence we find some of the smaller tyres under certain conditions have actual rolling resistances lower than some of the larger tyres.

Rolling resistance of bicycle tyres of differing diameters using data from John Lafford's 1998-2002 tests.
Rolling resistance of bicycle tyres of differing diameters using data from John Lafford’s 1998-2002 tests.

The Duemila (updated 2015-05-24)

The Italians have never produced a really good small-wheeled bicycle, despite their considerable engineering tradition. They have, however, occasionally produced interesting machines that provide a talking point – even if the riding experience is less than exhilarating.

The Duemila, made in Padua, was a case in point. The interesting aspects were the exceptional fore and aft adjustment of the motor-scooter-style saddle and the integral front carrier, created by the unusual fork configuration.

Below is the front of an English-language brochure for the bike, showing how all the family could ride it – though ideally not at the same time. There is no evidence that the bike was ever marketed in the UK, which at the time (mid to late 1960s) was not part of the European Common Market, as the EU was then known.

The back of the brochure is shown below. This shows not only the adult version but the children’s model, the Duemila Minor.

The photo below, which I took in Bruges (Belgium) in the summer of 1970, shows the only Duemila I have ever seen.

The father-in-law of Imke Tietje from Hamburg inherited a Duemila and a picture of his machine is shown below.

Christian Barf kindly sent the photo collage below, which shows details of his own Duemila, including the fold.

Christian Barf kindly sent this brochure page, which shows details of the Duemila, including the fold.

The Mysterious Minifold

The Minifold, ready to ride – if you dare

American-born Tim Whitty owns the well-known Cyclecare bicycle shops in Kensington, London and Purton, Wiltshire. In 2003, at the Purton shop, he came across a fascinating little folding bicycle. It is badged as a Minifold, which sounds like the sort of name with which any folding bicycle enthusiast would be familiar. It isn’t. Neither Tim nor I, nor any folding cycle enthusiast we know, has ever heard of a Minifold.

In Tim’s photos of the bike, shown here, there’s a tape measure extended to 36 inches. This indicates that the bike is not much more than 3 feet long, which is a little less than 1 metre. The machine’s frame is unusual and interesting, in that it is primarily of cast aluminium but with several cast steel parts. As you can see from the picture below of the bike in its folded condition, the cranks fold in an unusual way: they hinge inwards, so that the pedals do not protrude.

The Minifold folded – probably what it does best

The folding handlebars are somewhat reminiscent of certain French folding bicycles of the 1960s and this impression is bolstered by the old French-style reversed brake levers. The seat support structure, with its shallow-angled, hinged, square-section seat tube and bifurcated support strut, is quite novel. Square-section seat tube is, in itself, unusual, though not without precedent. The wheels and brakes are the sort of equipment that might have been used on a Raleigh child’s bike in the 1960s. Braking is provided by a combination of cable, rod and stirrup, whereas the wheels and tyres are 12-inch, wide section. The whole machine has the look of something created in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Tim’s guess is that this was a sophisticated and expensive prototype. He thinks that the ride was found to be unacceptable and that the Minifold project was therefore abandoned. This view is supported by the good condition of the machine and the fact that the original tyres show little sign of wear.

Why did it turn up in Wiltshire? A couple of old time cyclists from the Purton area have looked at the Minifold and suggested that, in view of the constructional techniques and materials used, there may be an aerospace connection. There was a Vickers (later British Aerospace) aircraft factory nearby in east Swindon and, though this no longer exists, there are still companies in the area that have their roots in the old Vickers operation.

So, if you have any further information about the Minifold, please get in touch.

Viking’s small-wheeler

How a bicycle became a moped then a bicycle again

The Viking small-wheeler

Alex Moulton’s famous small-wheeled bicycle was launched in November 1962. Raleigh, who had reneged on an agreement to manufacture the Moulton, were stunned by its success and in July 1965 launched their response – the balloon-tyred RSW16 (Raleigh Small Wheels 16″ diameter). CWS, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, responded to the RSW by producing a somewhat similar machine, the Co-op Commuter, but which had a mixte frame. That is, instead of having a single main beam linking the seat tube and head tube, it had a downtube and twin laterals – a pair of small diameter tubes running from the head tube via the seat tube to the rear wheel dropouts.

In May 1967, three months before Raleigh bought out the original Moulton bicycle concern, the Nottingham-based company launched a motorised version of the RSW16 – the Raleigh Wisp. Clarks Masts of Binstead, Isle of Wight, then decided to make a rival to the Wisp, as a way of diversifying from yacht mast manufacture. What better basis than the nearest pedal-powered rival to the RSW16? Clarks therefore contracted CWS to produce a slightly modified version of the Co-op Commuter to which the Isle of Wight company attached a small petrol engine of their own design. Thus was born the Clark Scamp moped. Opinions about Scamps differ. One writer has described them as “horrible things which flexed alarmingly when you rode them and were hopelessly underpowered so you had to pedal like mad to get up any incline.” J.S. Lycett, however, argues that the Scamp was “quite a usable machine and undeserving of a poor reputation.” He has an interesting article about the machine on the Moped Miscellany website.

The Raleigh Wisp, a motorised RSW16. Part of an advert in a trade magazine.
From ‘Motor Cycle & Cycle Trader’ 26th May 1967
Promotional cartoon showing general arrangement of the Clark Scamp moped. From J.S.Lycett’s article cited in the text

The Scamp had a gear-case in the rear wheel, with the engine mounted on the side of the gear-case. The petrol tank was in the upstand of the luggage rack, below the saddle and above the rear wheel. The tyres were 16 x 2″ moped type. A Sturmey-Archer BF 90mm hub brake provided stopping power for the front wheel, whilst a simple long-reach calliper brake provided rather less for the rear. According to Lycett, the Scamp would cruise at about 26 mph (43 kph) and climb moderate hills without pedalling if “taken at a run.” He considers that it “falls naturally into place between the clip-on cyclemotor and the NSU Quickly type in the evolution of the moped.”

However, neither the Raleigh Wisp nor the Clark Scamp were commercially successful. They faced fierce competition from superior Japanese imports. Clarks produced only some 3,500 Scamps before they ran into financial difficulties. These were not helped by failures of the Scamp’s starting mechanism, caused by breakage of a plastic pawl on the centrifugal clutch. In 1968 Lloyds Bank therefore appointed a receiver/manager who disposed of nearly all the finished machines and all the spares. (See Ken Mettam’s short article on the Moped Miscellany website.) The descendant company, Clarks Masts Teksam Ltd, is still based at Binstead and specialises in “mobile mast installations for every purpose”, especially mobile communications. They have representatives in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, France and South Africa – but no parts for Scamps.

Viking Cycles had gone into liquidation in 1967. One of the directors, former Team Viking manager Bob Thom, together with others, formed a new Viking company. They wanted to continue production of the clubman-type cycles with which the name Viking was synonymous. Viking Holdings of Wolverhampton built a good relationship with the nearby Co-op Federation Cycle Factory in Birmingham and especially with its managing director, Harry Simonds. Consequently, the Co-op built some frames for Viking.

After Lloyds sent the receiver into Clarks, the Co-op was left with a surplus of frames and other parts (other than the engine) for the Scamp. Bob Thom managed to get about 200 of the frames, which were finished as pedal cycles and sold as Vikings. Anybody expecting a small-wheeler with a dash of Viking lightweight sportiness was in for a shock. These machines were essentially unpowered Scamps: the tyres were Avon Moped Grips, the CLB handgrips included a twistgrip throttle and the saddle’s vertical adjustment was minimal. Even the rubber-sleeved fixing pins for the fuel tank were there. Despite the lack of variable gears, the Viking weighed in at a formidable 35 lb (approx 16 kg).

The Viking small-wheeler is a very rare machine with a chequered history, but interesting nonetheless. It is one of the less successful ripples that flowed from the splash made five years earlier by the Moulton.

(The Viking head badge illustration is courtesy of John Gleave. All photos of the blue Viking small-wheeler are copyright of Tony Hadland.)

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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!