With today’s breakneck pace of development, the idea of keeping a bike for a decade – let alone an entire lifetime – can seem beyond comprehension. But that’s exactly the story behind a remarkable bike that is tucked away safely in a glass case, in a corner of the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.
The Evans Oval was bought at the tail-end of the 1920s by a certain William Wagstaff when he was just 20 years old. While he may well have had great plans for his life on two wheels, it’s unlikely he would have dreamed that he would be donating it – still fully functioning – after riding it into his 90s and right into the 21st Century, having covered an estimated 50,000 miles over seven-plus decades.
In the course of a lifetime pounding along the roads, the Evans was witness to the rise of the automobile – which marginalised two-wheeled transport – followed by the growing trend back towards bikes in recent years. Now, in retirement, it’s perhaps fitting that the bike is resting on just the other side of the wall from Tavistock Street’s docking station and its glittering row of Boris bikes.
My young apprentice…
Back in the 1920s, the company which is now known as Evans Cycles was a slightly different proposition. Frederick William Evans had set himself up with a shop in London’s Kennington Road in 1921 and began designing bicycles for UK tourers. His work was well received and he swiftly won a Cyclists’ Touring Club Silver Plaque award for his innovative approach to the humble dropout. Towards the end of the decade, he patented a special version of his frame that was then produced in small numbers.
The Evans Oval – as the name suggests – featured ovalised tubing for the main triangle, something that Evans claimed increased the lateral rigidity. And Wagstaff must have been among earliest customers for this particular model. On 14 May 1929 he entered the Kennington Road shop and handed over his £13 life savings for the bike – which the apprentice telephone engineer then used to commute to Bermondsey from Clapham. Following a move to Croydon, he was then putting in some 24 miles each day. The bike even accompanied him when he was courting his wife-to-be in the 1930s.
Of course, the London Wagstaff first cycled in was changing rapidly. In 1901, when most of the traffic was horse-drawn, there were just 186 fatal road accidents in the London area. But in the year the Evans Oval was sold (1929) – when increasing numbers of cars were joining the roads – there were 1,362.
And there were dark days ahead. One of the most striking components is the Lucas Silver King headlamp. Powered by oil, this unwieldy light, which probably wasn’t very powerful at the best of times, still had the top half of its glass obscured by black covering – a reminder of the Blitz, when any rays projected skyward were a bad idea.
Any old iron?
It wasn’t all slogging to work and dodging the Luftwaffe, mind. Wagstaff was a long-time member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, and used the Evans Oval on trips throughout the British Isles, including jaunts around Cornwall and the Isle of Man.
To this day, the bike wouldn’t need much more than a quick pump-up of the tyres to set it on the road once more. Standing proudly from the dark paint of the frame – which itself has fared incredibly well – is the Evans logo, featuring the address of the original shop. Meanwhile, the parts list shows the incredible durability of some classic British marques.
Inevitably, it features the trusty Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub gearing – one of the few parts that can trace its roots back to an earlier period than the Evans Oval itself. Another classic name from British cycling is the Carradice saddle pack – which still contains servicing receipts from the bike’s long life. This venerable bike bag maker, which is still going strong today, dates from the 1930s, and has long been a respected piece of tourers’ kit. Then there’s the Bluemels Popular rear mudguard, a name which is sadly gone from the modern cycling scene.
In fact, one of the main parts that Wagstaff changed was the handlebar – swapping the drop model to a more comfortable backswept one as he got older. Then there’s the classic Brooks saddle – a sprung B66 model in this case. While Wagstaff was understandably on his third perch by the time the bike came to the museum, the B66 itself is a direct contemporary of the Oval, easing onto the market in 1927. But despite FW Evans being renowned for pushing the lightweight angle of touring cycling, the Brooks was hardly the epitome of this – the current model tips the scales at just over 1kg.
In fact, the whole bike is listed in the museum’s book as weighing in at a hefty 20kg. Curator Tim Shields explained that in the pre-War era, weight was not foremost in the cyclist’s mind – whereas longevity very much was. And this incredible durability was clearly something that Wagstaff held dear as well.
Tim said: “These bicycles were built to last – a bit like tanks in a sense. Today technology has moved on a great deal, but we live in a disposable culture. He bought this bike when he was young and it stayed with him throughout the vast majority of his life – it has stood the test of time. It’s like he had a personal attachment to it; it was significant beyond the nuts and bolts.”
Nowhere is the attitude of ‘make do and mend’ more apparent than in the grips. Tim explained that the originals from 1929 are still in place – but Wagstaff had cut up old innertubes over the years and continually laid them over the top as successive layers of rubber wore out.
“Things today have a shelf life; washing machines, vacuum cleaners and bicycles,” he added. “Obviously this bike has been through the war, so it has seen austerity measures – it’s sweet really.”