Some real “pedal power”
by Jeff Rowsam
When the two-wheeled bicycle (as we know it today) became popular before WWI, most major world armies found military applications for this new transportation mode. Today, however, visitors to historic military events tend to be surprised when they see a vintage bicycle in military paint color on display with wartime Jeeps, trucks, and tanks.
The shortages of materials including fuel and raw industrial materials during both World Wars made the bicycle a low-cost, rugged, and easy-to-maintain mode of transportation. While motor transportation could be scarce and fuel rationed, the bicycle could continue to pedal onward.
By the outbreak of WWII, military-specific bicycle designs were commonplace. Military bicycles served in every theater, peddled by Axis and Allied soldiers, alike.
To meet the need for efficient transportation in England’s defense factories, civil defense, Home Guard and coast watcher patrols, air field shops, bomber maintenance hangers and across paved military training bases, the military purchased civilian bicycles.
Simultaneously, however, the military issued specifications for specially-designed bicycles that would go into combat. These included models that could be folded and dropped with airborne troops or carried ashore in amphibious operations. Small, simple, lightweight, fast, and quiet were highlights of these combat-specific bicycles.
The English firm, Birmingham Small Arms (“BSA”), built an staggering variety of military and civilian tools, weapons, and vehicles, ranging from Lee Enfield rifles to military bicycles and motorcycles and much more.
Two of the most famous BSA military bicycles are the folding Airborne (or “Para”) model and the rigid frame man’s Mark V military design. The Para Bike featured a unique hinged folding frame, telescoping peddles, and handlebars that rotate to make a compact folded machine. Today, “all things airborne” hold special appeal to military collectors, and the BSA airborne folding bicycles are near the top of that list.
The other, lesser-known British military bicycle is the conventional, solid frame man’s model built to the Ministry of Defense’s pattern, first by BSA and later by other manufacturers. During the War, two variations were produced: The Mark V and later, the Mark V* (pronounced “mark 5 star”).
Both of these rugged models featured a simple rear cargo carrier of standard military pattern. The Mark V had a mechanical, hand-operated rod brake on the front wheel and a coaster brake in the rear hub.
The later version, denoted by the star (or asterisk) after the Roman Numeral “V,” omitted the coaster brake, replacing it with a hand-controlled rod brake system to both the front and rear wheels. The double rod brake Mark V* was built in fewer numbers. To many military and bicycle collectors, it is the “overlooked BSA military vehicle.”
Following a specified service period — and just like most military items — the bicycles were released to civilian through surplus sales. Most ex-military bikes lost their original wartime finish and features as they were often repainted and modified to the new civilian owners’ needs. Finding a Mark V* bicycle in original unmodified wartime condition is a collector’s dream item today.
A TRUE SURVIVOR
The original condition BSA Mark V* featured in this article retains the original finish and features of war time service bicycles. It also presents evidence of war time shortages of critical items forcing manufacturers to find substitute materials to keep production running.
The rough, black paint used for the bicycle’s finish is one such example of wartime production expediency. Manufacturers were looking ahead, however They did not want post-war customers to be turned away by what may have be seen as poor quality during the company’s war production. To that end, BSA added a special decal in two locations on the bicycle: Each declaring the unit had “BSA War Time Finish.”
The classic three-stacked or “piled” Martini Henry rifles is a long-time BSA trademark. Many items like machine tools built in the US under hurried contracts and short production schedules for war plant production carried similar “War Time Finish” tags on rough finished outer castings.
While perhaps not as glamorous to some collectors as a Jeep, 6×6 truck, or armored tanks, the ubiquitous two-wheeled bicycle soldiered many miles at home and at the front. Pushed and pulled through front-line mud and rain, ridden quickly from ordnance shops to mess tents, or where ever the need for rapid individual transportation was needed, the simple two-wheel bicycle met the need, making it a true military vehicle by any measure.