Bicycle HistoryThe 1930s

The 1930s

In the early 1930s – in 1930 and 1931 – bicycle import and use in Estonia continued according to the tradition established in the 1920s. Then followed several years of economic recession, and people purchased and imported bikes much less than in the 1920s.

Like in overall economy, the bicycle business reached to new upturn in 1935, and it lasted for five years, until 1940, i.e. until the end of independent Republic of Estonia during the first stage of WWII. Back then, average bicycle price was 100-140 Estonian kroons, which was slightly more than worker’s montly salary. Such low price introduced the bicycle to large population. In about 1940, there were over 200 thousand bicycles registered in Estonia – i.e. one bicycle per approximately five Estonian residents. Although there are no accurate comparative data, it is likely that the number of bikes tripled or even quadrupled during 1935-1940. As much as 80-90% of preserved pre-war bicycles (and their remains) dates back to that era.  

Bicycles were particularly popular with young people, as they allowed going to parties to neighbour villages and beyond, travelling at the distance of 10-30 km and  even more. People also used bikes to commute to work (5-10 km), especially in locations with newly established large-scale industry (Kehra Cellulose Factory, Oil Shale Industries in Viru County etc.). People also set on longer bicycle trips (lasted for several days) of hundred kilometres and more. Thus, bicycle expanded the worldview of that generation, particularly in the areas and directions without railway or bus connection.

In 1935-40, the proportion of domestic bicycles increased significantly in Estonia. In addition to small producers common in the 1920s (which continued their operation), various large manufacturers emerged; some of them (primarily ETK and Saar) also produced several details – wheels, mudguards, bearing cones, pedals, etc. Some components (saddle, freewheel, etc.) were still imported. It is likely, that in the late 1930s, about one quarter of the new bikes sold in Estonia was local produce. For example, it is known that withing the first seven months of 1939 people registered 21 893 bicycles, while ca 6000 bicycles were manufactured in Estonia on the first half of 1939.

In the 1930s, majority of bicycles imported to Estonia came from Germany (similar to the 1920s), the models remained mostly the same (Dürkopp, Naumann, Wanderer, Presto, Diamant, Adler, Göricke, etc.).

Import of English bikes was somewhat decreased in comparison to the 1920s, but they were still rather common in the 1930s. The best-known English models in the 1930s were Raleigh, Hercules, Royal Enfield, Phillips, and Sterling. However, many bikes with English-sounding names were actually made locally, probably contained some import details – e.g. I.N.D., L.B.C., The Lion Cycle, etc. In any case, local people considered English bikes and bike details as a measure of quality until the second half of the 1930s (i.e. prior to major import of Swedish bikes).

Import of Swedish bikes increased in the 2nd half of the 1930s. Popular Swedish bike models of that time included high-quality Husqvarna, Crescent, Vega, and Hermes, which, in the late 1930s, became a standard for top bicycles instead of English products. Other common Swedish models were Wiklund, Scandia, Monark, Swalan, etc. By the way, salad green Wiklund military bikes where also used in the 1930s in Estonian Defence Forces. Main difference from regular bike (besides colour and lack of galvanized parts) consisted in clamps and straps on the handlebar for fastening the greatcoat.

In the second half of the 1930s increased bicycles import from Latvia. Previously, only a few Latvian bikes came around (often as contraband to evade import duties, because due to large-scale production, bicycles were less expensive in Latvia than in Estonia), but now they were imported in batches. The produce mostly consisted of three major Latvian bicycle manufacturers – Omega, Erenpreis and Latvello.

The bicycle of the second half of the 1930s differed from the bicycle of the 1920s in terms of various features. Narrow mudguards were replaced by wider ones, which, in more luxurious models, extended sometimes to both sides of the bicycle. Front mudguard extended over front fork. It often had decorative fender figure or emblem, which was one of the most eye-catching artwork components besides the company logo. Some examples of such emblems: image of crescent moon with a girl (Crescent), Indian head (Vega), Hermes’ head (Hermes), decorative arrow (Dürkop), lion (Rudon and older Bauers), acorn with oak leaf (Phänomen), wing (ARE), boy’s head (Diamant), etc. Rear mudguard was equipped with reflector, which had been optional in Estonia until mid-1920s.

By then, 5/8" pitch chain had been completely abandoned and replaced with ½" pitch chain, but sometimes wider than normal chain was used. More and more gents bicycles (particularly in case of products from Sweden, but also those from elsewhere) were equipped with chain case. In Swedish bicycles, they were usually made of aluminium and embellished with decorative cutouts, which made them one of the most decorative parts of the bike.

In the 1930s, double-operated springs replaced two simple compression springs of a saddle, where upper part of the spring affected the compression and lower part the tension. Luxurious models had soft saddle covers – it was particularly common in Swedish bicycles, but also in deluxe models of local manufacturer ETK. Yet one peculiarity of the ETK Original Luxus was Lepper Corona saddle with as much as four springs at the back.

Bicycle frames in the 1930s tend to use external gaskets instead of internal gaskets (with the exception of Husqvarna). The external gaskets of the front frame of Swedish bicycles had the design consisting of decorative patterned cutouts, which gave specific appearance to certain model. In German bicycles, the front frame was painted in bright colours, different from basic colour (in Estonia – black); its design often consisted in the “radiation head” (in German Strahlenkopf) motif and marbelisation.

Another element characteristic of the bicycles made in Sweden in the 1930s was large rack with two springs and decoratively upturned mudguard ends. A characteristic feature of Swedish women’s bikes was, among other things, making central shaft and cranks in one piece, which reduced the number of capricious junctions (Sweden used this system until the 1970s-80s). The Swedish bikes from that time usually had rustproof spokes and stainless steel or non-ferrous metal handle bar ends.

Until the end of the 1930s, there preserved a tradition that was rooted already in the 1920s, where major foreign manufacturers made bikes for Estonian market that were different in build and appearance. People still preferred nickel details (larger manufacturers also used chromed detailes since the mid-1930s); this goes primarily for wheels and mudguards. While the bicycles on the Western European market had predominantly painted wheels and mudguards, the situation in Estonia was quite the opposite – only a few bikes on Estonian roads had painted wheels and mudguards.

As a rule, the bicycles intended for Estonian market had beaded edges tyres also in the 1930s, whereas Western Europe had abandoned this standard at the end of the 1930s. At the same time, Westwood (Wedgewood) type was introduced for wheels intended for tyres with beaded edges, where flat rim was repaced by a rim with the deep groove, which facilitated installation of wired tyre and made the wheel more rigid. It was particularly important when riding along local uneven roads, where old-type flat base wheels frequently bent. Such a westwood (sometimes also called wedgewood) rims intended for tyres with beaded edges represent one specialty of Estonian bikes in the 1930s – they were quite rare in Western Europe, but here (and in Latvia) they were most likely used in more than 95% of new bicycles.

Another version used in Estonia at that time, besides the beaded edge Westwood, was English version with flat edges (intended for wheel-brake) and deep profile German-Swedish version (where the front wheel brake usually affected the tyre). The bikes of German and Swedish (as well as Estonian) origin usually had 36 spokes, whereas typical front wheel of English bicycle contained 32 and rear wheel 40 spokes. Besides, most of Perry freewheels (English copies of Torpedo freewheel) were intended for 40 spokes.

Swedish quality bicycles made in the late 1930s specifically for Estonian market were particularly spectacular (Husqvarna, Vega, Crescent, Hermes). Abundant use of high quality chrome with numerous decorative details – cutout aluminium chain cases, mudguard emblems, figurative external gaskets of the front frame, decorative chain wheel patterns, upturned mudguard ends, etc. – made them look like the most luxurious bikes that have ever been seen in Estonia. By the way, there are no such bikes in Sweden, because of reduced use of chrome in bikes for domestic market.