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British Motorcycles

Starley Motorcycles

J. K. Starley and Co of Meteor Works, Coventry
  • 1889 Starley and Sutton Co became J. K. Starley and Co
  • 1891 'Rover Rational' tandem. (Exhibit at Birmingham Thinktank museum)
  • 1894 Won an award at the Anwerp exhibition.
  • 1889 Jan/Feb. Stanley Exhibition. Cycle for two riders.
  • 1894 Exhibited cycles at the Antwerp Exhibition.
  • 1896 Became a public company registered on 13 June, under the title of the Rover Cycle Co, to take over the business of J. K. Starley and Co.

No. 44. 'Giraffe' bicycle: invented by S. McCormack, 4 Palmerston Road, Dublin (now of Belfast) in 1893; made by J. K. Starley and Co. Ltd., Coventry. Weight 35 lbs. Presented by J. K. Starley. This machine was originally the property of Mr. G. Douglas Leechman, the eminent legal authority and patent expert.

The first 'Giraffe' was built by Messrs. Humber and Co. Ltd., Beeston, and exhibited by them on Stand No. 155 at the Stanley Show, November, 1893. In the Show catalogue appeared an advertisement, inserted by Mr. McCormack, the inventor, inviting manufacturers to take up his machine.

Later it was made, under license, by J. K. Starley and Co and the Rudge Cycle Co, but owing to other firms building similar machines without paying royalties to the inventor, these two Coventry manufacturers ceased to market 'Giraffes.'

One of the advantages claimed for the 'Giraffe' was that the rider was enabled to see over hedges: it was also stated to have a very rigid bracket, to be exceptionally free from side-slip, and a clean mount in muddy weather.

A letter from Mr. McCormack, the inventor, is attached to the exhibit.

John Kemp Starley

John Kemp Starley (1854 - 1901) was an English inventor and industrialist who is widely considered to be the inventor of the modern bicycle, and also originator of the name Rover.

Starley was born in Walthamstow, Essex, and was the son of a gardener. In 1872 he moved to Coventry to work with his uncle, the inventor James Starley. He worked with his uncle and William Hillman for several years building Ariel cycles.

In 1877 he started a new business Starley and Sutton Co with William Sutton - a local cycling enthusiast. They set about developing safer and easier to use bicycles than the prevailing penny farthing or "ordinary" bicycles. They started by manufacturing tricycles, by 1883 their productswere being branded as Rover.

In 1885 Starley made history when he produced the Rover Safety Bicycle - a rear-wheel-drive, chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels, making it more stable than the previous high wheeler designs. Cycling magazinesaid the Rover had 'set the pattern to the world' and the phrase was used in their advertising for many years. Starley's Rover is usually describedby historians as the first recognisably modern bicycle. This new "safety bicycle" was an immediate success and was exported across the world.

In 1889 the company became J. K. Starley and Co and in 1896 it became the Rover Cycle Co.

John Starley died suddenly in 1901 and was succeeded as managing director of the firm by Harry Smith. Soon after his death the Rover company began building motorcycles and then cars.


J. K. Starley's first 'Rover' safety bicycle was exhibited at the Stanley Show, 28th January to 3rd February, 1885. No suitable building being available, the Stanley Bicycle Club hired a huge tent and erected it on a piece of ground adjoining the Thames Embankment, near Blackfriars Bridge. In this temporary shelter the show was staged, J. H. Price being Hon. Organiser. The 'Rover' had a 36 inch front wheel, bridle-rod steering, and the channel shaped seat-pillar formed part of the actual frame. Itis interesting to recall that this was the only feature of the machine which Starley patented.

Within a few weeks Starley (at the suggestion of Stephen Golder, a Coventry pressman,) sloped the forks, making the steering direct. For a short time he retained the original form of seat-pillar, but later discarded it in favour of the ordinary angle pin; the result was the model used in the historic 100 miles race of September, 1885

There is an example of the actual machine in the Bartleet Collection, probably an 1888 model: it has curved forks of hollow tubular section, and a feature worth noting is the provision of small "eyes" brazed to the fork blades near their lower extremities, to which the mudguard-stays were bolted; these facilitated the removal of the mud-guards without touching the axle nuts - an improvement which was hailed as novel when re-introduced 30 years later!

John Kemp Starley was born on 14th December, 1854, and died on 29th October, 1901; he was the son of James Starley's elder brotherJohn. He worked as a mechanic at Haynes and Jefferis's Ariel Works, from 1871, and lodged with his uncle, James Starley.

He started business on his own account in 1877 or 1878, later being joined by William Sutton, previously the proprietor of a haberdashery business in Coventry. The business developing, Mr. George Franks (a retired diamond merchant) became associated with Messrs. Starley and Sutton, and it washe who evolved the name 'Rover' for the firm's product.

It has been claimed that J. K. Starley patented a safety bicycle on the general lines of his 1885 'Rover' as far back as September, 1879, but no trace of this can be found at the Patent Office; it seems tolerably certain that he did not actually construct one until late in 1884; direct steering by means of sloping forks was said to have been mentioned in his 1879 specification.

As previously mentioned, direct sloping front forks were included in Lawson's specification No. 3924/1879 but he never used them: it was left to J. K. Starley to substitute sloping forks for bridle-rods.

In 1888 the title of the firm was changed from Starley and Sutton Co to J. K. Starley and Co, the first advertisement bearing the new name appearingin The Cyclist, 5th September, 1888. Sources: Grace's Guide



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