The first MTB wasn't American: it was bodged in a shed in Staffordshire.
The first mountain bike wasn’t American: it was bodged in a shed in Staffordshire, says Rob Houghton.
My father invented the mountain bike. Sort of. While I suppose many people can lay claim to that honour, my father may well have been one of the first to create a purpose-built, front-suspension hardtail.
It was 1960 — more than a decade before the boys in Marin County began throwing themselves down fire trails — in a small Midlands village on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent. My father was 15 and he had just begun his first job at Hulse’s furniture shop. On his breaks, he would go out to the yard round the back and chat up the girls from the hairdressers next door. On one of these occasions he spied something thrown in a skip that would, in time, fail to have any impact whatsoever on the future of cycling in Britain. What he had discovered was a discarded 1954 BSA Winged Wheel.
The BSA Winged Wheel was a failed attempt to combine the convenience of cycling with the added power of an engine. Effectively it was a heavy-duty bicycle frame with a motor fixed to the rear wheel and a fuel tank where a pannier rack might go. It was not a roaring success. Crucially, however, the BSA had one advantage over other bicycle frames: it had Webb spring suspension forks.
After getting the machine home in Hulse’s van, my father began work on his new invention. He stripped out the back wheel with its heavy motor and he took away the fuel tank. He kept the hub brakes (not featured in the photos) because he thought they were cool and he fitted four-speed Sturmey Archer gears. The finishing touches were some well-treaded tyres, a set of “racing” handlebars and a fancy, new chequered paint job. It weighed a huge amount, but there it was, he had invented the hardtail.
World’s first pump track
Despite its enormous weight, I’m reliably informed that he rode it well. His group of friends built what they called trails — what we would call a pump track — in the local woods and they would race their bikes around them. The bike was purpose built and led the way, though I imagine jumps were limited by the mass.
He had the bike for less than a year. As soon as he was sixteen, he bought a Garelli 98cc motorbike on which to pass his test. Sadly, no one knows what happened to the BSA.
A machine like that, a peerless one-off deserves recognition. I wish we still had it; I’d love to try riding it today on some modern trails. But that is the way of my father’s inventions: he never once stuck his name on them and he never once tried to make money out of them. It’s a shame really, had he done so, who knows, perhaps today we’d remember Staffordshire as the home of mountain biking and Alan Houghton as its inventor.
– Written by Rob Houghton