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The story of Kiwi made bicycles from the 1860s to the present

The Bikes We Built: A journey through New Zealand made bicycles
by Jonathan Kennett (The Kennett Brothers, 2021. 160pp.$49.90)
Reviewed by Jeremy Rose

Kennett book cover It was the Healing 10 Speed that first made me question whether import protection was a good idea.

The Healing was, as Jonathan Kennett writes in his just published The Bikes We Built, “heavy and had brakes that were dangerously ineffective in wet conditions, tiny mud guards, ugly welded joints and handlebars that were less comfortable than traditional commuting bars.”

But despite all those drawbacks it was ubiquitous in the 1980s. And its price – just $277 (about the average weekly wage at the time) – was almost certainly the reason why.

My first bike was a British-built Rotrax from the 1960s which my elder brother, Mick, restored with me for a bike tour we went on in 1978 when I was 13.

It had stylish lugs – instead of those ugly welds – GB brakes, and the tubing was double-butted Reynolds 531.

That will be gibberish to most of you, but for anyone into bicycles at the time, the Reynolds sticker was a mark of true quality, and the double-butted version – where the tubing is thicker at each end than the centre to maximise strength and lightness – was the most desirable of all.

To buy a similar bike new would have cost multiples of what the Healing set you back, and at least some of that hefty price tag was due to the tariffs imposed on imported bicycles.

If you’re wondering why a teenager in the 1980s was thinking about import licensing, my dad, Dennis was, and at age 88 still is, an economist. He’d worked for Trade and Industry early in his career, so I was aware that tariffs had helped establish local industries and created well paid jobs.

I was torn between thinking they had to be a good idea and the thought they were responsible for the shitty bikes that dominated the school bike sheds and added to the price of more desirable rides.

So, one of the real delights of The Bikes We Built is discovering just how innovative and beautifully crafted some of the bikes manufactured in New Zealand over the past hundred years are.

Possibly the most surprising of all is the full-suspension Wallaby Bicycle of 1889. The bike pre-dates the widespread adoption of pneumatic tyres. And it would take the best part of a century for full-suspension bikes to reappear on the scene.

Wallaby

The bike’s minimalist, black curved steel frame is a thing of beauty. And the suspension must have been a real blessing on the pre-tar sealed roads of the time.

We have Covid-19 to thank for the confirmation that the bike with the Australian name was a New Zealand invention. It’s owner, bike collector Bob Knight, used lockdown to clean up the bike and in the process came across the words “Wallaby Patent.”

That led him to the original patent which confirmed that the bicycle had been built by the Frederick Gough of Coventry Cycles Works in Christchurch.

Richard Pearse – better known for designing and flying the world’s first aeroplane – was also a bicycle designer. He patented a bicycle design that included self-inflating tyres and an innovative bell crank propulsion system.

The bike’s frame was constructed from bamboo earning Pearse the nickname Bamboo Dick.

In the 1890s, the government introduced a 25% tariff that would remain in place for almost a century.

But that tariff did little to stem a flood of imports peaking at 55,300 in 1937. It was the introduction of import licensing by the first Labour government the following year that marked the real beginning of protectionism in the local bicycle industry.

Kennet estimates that between 1900 and 1950 about 1.6 million new bicycles were sold in New Zealand with about half of those manufactured locally.

By the 1970s import restrictions had resulted in 90% of all bicycles being sold in New Zealand being locally produced – though most of the componentry was imported.

Many – like the Raleigh 20 – were made under license to overseas brands. Others like Healing’s BMX – the HMX 500 – achieved icon status. Kennet says for Kiwis of a certain vintage it ranks up there with L&P and the Buzzy Bee

The end of import licensing in the 1980s decimated the local bicycle industry. The Healing workforce went from 200 in the early 80s to just 26 in 1989, to zero the following year when it closed altogether. And it was a similar story at Morrison the other major manufacturer of Kiwi bikes.

But it was far from the end of Kiwi made bicycles. My local postie still rides a Reiker.

The Reiker Postie Bike was commissioned by NZ Post in 1996 in response to the fact that the imported bikes it was issuing its workers were breaking at an alarming rate.

The postie bike was manufactured in Washdyke Timaru up until 2010 when production of the frame shifted to Taiwan.

IMG_20211119_150411

In 2012 Reika introduced an e-bike version but in 2017 NZ Post, in its wisdom, decided to transition to a Norwegian electric four-wheeler that cost $27,000 compared to just $2500 for the Reiker.

The following year, Reiker, the last major bicycle factory in New Zealand, closed its doors.

My local postie- who was happy for his photo to be taken but less keen on his name being used – says he’ll be sticking with the old Reiker for as long as it’s rideable.

Bikes frames continue to be made in New Zealand, but they’re bespoke, hand-built ones for enthusiasts.

There’s far more to the story of NZ bikes than I’ve touched on in this review and there’s no better place to read it than Jonathan Kennett’s book.