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A penny-farthing for your thoughts; THESE BIKES ARE WHEELS OF FORTUNE.


WITH the rider perched precariously above its huge front wheel, the penny-farthing wasn't the most efficient - or comfortable - form of transport ever invented.

But as an instantly recognisable symbol of the Victorian era it is second to none.

And now a surge in the popularity of antique bikes has seen prices soar, with some models fetching three times as much as they did 10 years ago.

This Saturday a nice selection of penny-farthings will go under the hammer at Phillips auction house in London (Details: 020 7313 2700).

One of the most sought-after models was produced in John Keen's London workshop around 1875.

With a 53in front wheel and 20in rear wheel, this classic penny-farthing - named after the largest and smallest copper coins of the time - is valued between pounds 3,000 and pounds 5,000.

And the fact that this particular bike carries a manufacturer's stamp adds at least 25 per cent to its price.

Like many early manufacturers, Keen, a prominent racer, was an avid enthusiast working in a small shop.

But countless penny-farthings were produced by anonymous craftsmen and these machines haven't held their value as well as those with named manufacturers.

The penny-farthing was born in 1870, replacing the "boneshaker", so named because of the punishing effect it had on the rider's body. The new cycle had three advantages over its cruder predecessor.

Both bikes' pedals were attached directly to the front wheel but because the penny-farthing's wheel was so large, the ratio was increased allowing the bike to travel faster.

And the wire spokes were much lighter than the boneshaker's wooden wheels, with solid rubber tyres a distinct improvement over the previous metal rims.

But despite its lasting appeal, the penny-farthing's reign as the bike to buy in Victorian times was rather brief. Sales were dipping by 1885 and the last one rolled out in 1892.

During that time British manufacturers sold thousands for pounds 10 to pounds 20 - the equivalent of around pounds 1,000 to pounds 2,000 today.

"They may look dangerous but there's no problem riding them," says Nicholas Oddy, co-ordinator of the Phillips auction. "You're sitting so high up, the important thing is that you conquer your fear. Once you're on board, the raised centre of gravity makes them easy to balance."

And they're also easy to collect. When they were replaced by more sophisticated bicycles, penny-farthings had no re-sale value so owners leaned them against barn or garage walls and forgot about them.

But over the past 100 years they have gradually come out of hiding.

One of the stars of the Phillips sale is a model built around 1885. Its hollow frame makes it lighter and faster than earlier, heavier penny-farthings.

The extra speed is countered with a rounded piece of metal that can be pushed against the front tyre to act as a brake.

This feature should add about 10 per cent to the value of the bike, which is about pounds 2,000.

Ten years ago this pioneer would have been lucky to fetch pounds 600.


STOP: This 1885 model pioneered brakes; START: John Keen's 1875 design is sought after
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 15, 2001
Previous Article:SAVERS SUFFER AS SALES SOAR; Your eight-page guide to personal finance Edited by JOHN HUSBAND.

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