High Nelly bicycles making a comeback on the roads again
Published 06/07/2014 | 00:00
Before the age of the motorcar, practically everyone in Ireland owned a High Nelly. As Irish as a thatched cottage, the High Nelly's novel three- speed gearbox revolutionised transport in Ireland, and was usually the top seller in every rural hardware store.
Whilst restoring a High Nelly bike, blacksmith, engineer and vintage cycling enthusiast, Martin Mannering, discovered that several ancient Edwardian-era firms which supplied parts for the original bike were still in business: firms such as Westwood Steel did the wheel rims and Brooks Leather hand-stitched the saddles.
After he finished the restoration job, Mannering was inundated with requests of where the classic model could be purchased.
There and then he decided to Trade Mark the name High Nelly - which up until that point had never been done - and start a business manufacturing the classic model. A huge success, he is inundated with orders and is now exporting to the USA and UK market.
For Mannering the bike is more than just a machine, it is part of his family's history: "The High Nelly bicycle in Ireland was more than a mode of transport up until the late 1950s - it was literally a lifeline.
"My very own grandmother rode 17 miles three times a week to the Smithfield Market in Dublin from Co Meath. She rode on a single speed High Nelly bicycle laden with heavy sacks on both sides which were full of the vegetables she grew behind her cottage. With the money she earned she bought essentials to feed her 13 children."
The technical name for a High Nelly is a Safety Bike. Invented by Irish inventor, Ernest Bowden in 1892, the Safety Bike - which is the precursor of all modern day bikes - had two identical-sized wheels and a pedal in the middle. Before Bowden's invention people rode around on Penny Farthing bikes which were a lethal contraption.
High Nelly Bikes Ltd, which is based in Cappamore, County Limerick, started life as a small workshop repairing and restoring vintage bikes.
However, in the last three years, the small family-run business has now evolved into a specialist bike manufacturing company.
The business is now riding the crest of the renaissance in cycling; a pastime which is fast becoming one of Europe and America's most popular recreational hobbies.
Mannering's bikes, which are a high-end craft product, cost €500 to build from scratch, and retail for €1,200. Each model comes with hand-stitched leather saddle, and touches such as original 9 carat gold leaf decals: "They are a beautiful hand-crafted item which are a once in a lifetime purchase.
"The bikes are made of vintage Reynolds 531 gun muzzle grade steel tubing, and have features such as Sturmey Archer three-speed gears, which were invented by the firm in 1901.
"When you buy a High Nelly you get a certificate of authentication and a hardback book which shows the whole manufacturing process from beginning to end," explains Mannering.
The company has now started selling a High Nelly vintage clothing range. The waistcoats, caps and scarves are made by Muckross Weavers and are now selling internationally: "My scoutmaster once told me: 'If you want to start a business, think of something no one has ever thought of before, and become the best at it.' That is what we do.
"Our order books are full and over 80pc of what we make is exported," adds Mannering.
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