A peek inside the rather beautiful book ‘A Cycling Lexicon’ – a pictorial A–Z of bicycle headbadges collected by Jeff Conner, a professor of biology in Michigan, and curated and designed by London-based Carter Wong Design (and available to buy here).
“Many years ago I discovered a long-abandoned bicycle in a Spanish orange grove, its little brass badge begging to be rescued from the rusting frame. As a graphic designer with a passion for all things cycling, I still have this decorative headbadge sitting proudly by my desk. It serves as a reminder of the detailed craftsmanship employed by bike manufacturers of yesteryear, and is a constant source of inspiration for me along with other graphic ‘finds’.
Historically, the bicycle industry expanded rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century, providing the working class with an easy and cost-effective mode of transport. Given the emergence of choice there was a need for companies to identify their products. The badge proudly riveted on the headtube became the mark that distinguished the manufacturer; a signifier of brand kudos way before fancy marques found their place on car bonnets.
Made from tough materials including stainless steel, brass, zinc, copper, aluminium and silver, and using elaborate techniques such as die-pressing and acid etching, manufacturers transformed these ‘badges of honour’ into miniature works of art. This is where their magic came to the fore as these artisans distilled the DNA of the brand into a piece of metal usually no larger than the size of two postage stamps.
The designers of these miniature marvels sought inspiration from many quarters, some more obvious than others. While they looked to create individuality there were many recurring themes across countries, evoking both status and spirit. Heraldic escutcheons abound: rampant lions, coiled serpents, strident eagles, regal crowns and leaping stags. So too the representation of freedom – the ability to take off unrestrained at speed with ease – symbolised by a plethora of winged wheels and swooping birds with names to suit such as ‘Liberty’ and ‘Glider’.
Two other narratives that appeared repeatedly were those of strength and precision. For the former there are knights in armour, burly warriors, Indian chiefs, the mythical Hercules and the animal kingdom, represented by a rhino and an elephant. For the latter there are British firearm-turned-bicycle-manufacturer BSA, and Royal Enfield with its strident ‘Made Like A Gun’ motto.
These headbadges signalled the era of affordable mobility. A new dawn of engineering accuracy and prowess; from optimistic sunrises and shooting stars, to very ‘modern’ representations of the future such as speeding aircraft and space rockets.
Whatever the symbol, whatever the design, every badge has a story of provenance and personality to tell. We have the seemingly obvious Paris Cycles’ Eiffel Tower icon (all the while made in North London), Dutch brand Avada with its windmill, as well as the more idiosyncratic headbadge such as that produced by Hetchins. Having fled Russia during the 1917 revolution, and settling in London’s East End, Hyman Hetchins sold sheet music before turning to bicycle production. His headbadge proudly displays the City of London arms as a mark of respect for his adoptive home.
The bikes these headbadges once adorned have long since vanished. With the passage of time we will probably never get to discover the reasons why the smiling young girl appears on Mareze’s marque, or who Good Luck’s top-hatted gent was.
However, it is reassuring to know that there is renewed interest in all things handcrafted and individual. The collection of headbadges illustrated in this book is a testament to the skills of every designer and craftsman who undertook this enviable task. It is also a tribute to one man in Michigan, a professor named Jeff Conner. Like myself, Jeff has been besotted with bicycles all his life and started collecting headbadges when his wife complained about the number of bikes cluttering up their house.
While these diminutive metal shields could not act as talismen to protect their manufacturers from demise, we do have Jeff and other avid collectors like him to thank for saving these graphic jewels from oblivion – and opening our eyes to a wonderful world of cycling folklore.”
Phil Carter is Creative Director and fellow founder of design group Carter Wong, formed some 30 years ago. An avid cyclist, his daily ride to and from the studio feeds his soul and fires hiscreative imagination. // Jeff Conner is a professor of Biology at Michigan State University and is obsessed with all things cycling. Despite having amassed several hundred of the headbadges found in the Cycling Lexicon, he is yet to find an elusive ‘Q’ or ‘X’.
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