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In his large ‘man cave’ under the house James goes to work on the bikes he carts home. The best ones, he says, are often “filthy, absolutely covered in grease”. The greasier the better. The most pristine examples tend to shine through once they’re wiped clean. “We’ve lost the knack of oiling our bikes these days,” says James. According to the collector protecting your bike is worth the greasy pant leg he often sports, although he knows not everyone would agree.
As we talk, 60-year-old bicycle collector James MacDonald briefly touches on his wild 20s, consumed by 50 vintage motorbikes. Bouncing off a group of friends he learned to ride around a crippled leg, the legacy of an accident that put him permanently out of full-time work. But aged 35, a single parent with two children to support, James converted to pedal power.
James bought “the cheapest house on the block”. A four room Queenslander now chock-a-block full of bikes. “We’ve tried to count them a number of times, but we tend to lose track at around 120-130,” says James. “I estimate that there must be 180 to 200 bikes here, and that’s of roughly 2000 I’ve brought home and 20,000 I’ve gone to see.”
“Most guys just want to read about the bikes they have. Not me, I wanted to know about all of them.” James’s conclusion after reading the 4m worth of bike books behind him is that bicycle history is often “fairly inaccurate”. “It was before all the special interest magazines started being published, and so everything we know is from a few personal accounts.”
If pushed, James narrows his favourite riding bike down to a canary yellow Spaceframe Moulten made eight years ago. It’s an English bike designed by Dr Alex Moulten, the man responsible for the original suspension of the Morris Mini car and a cult figure among design enthusiasts. The Moulten is undoubtedly a quirky ride. Its small wheels measure less than the diameter of netball and the frame is made up of lots of small tubes that are architecturally arranged into a complex structure that’s more like an aircraft than what we now call a bike. Its heyday was the 1960s, but a sizeable a cult following holds on to the concept. The expense of manufacturing and repairing the design, and rules that exclude it from big races like the Tour de France has meant the diamond frame continues to dominate.
“I’ve got quite a thing about internet collectors,” says James, guesstimating that he’s been to see between 20,000-30,000 at swap meets, tender centres and markets. “The internet collector just types up what he wants and pays his money, and it’s there three days later,” he says. “I come from an era when you came home disappointed nine times out of 10, but then when you did find something it was really special, and it made a mark.”
James got into the habit of picking up any old helmets from op shops when his kids were young, when “they would leave their helmets everywhere”. Now riding helmets, construction helmets and firemen’s helmets are on display on the wall.
The first balance bicycle (without peddles) was invented by Karl Drais and he was reported riding it from Mannheim to Rheinau on 12 June, 1817. These types of machines were later called the velocipedea, draisine or dandy horses. James’ oldest piece is a 1868 blacksmith-made ‘boneshaker’ with wooden wheels.
Worth maybe $10,000 plus, an ergonomically designed 1902 Pedersen leans against his pantry and there’s a 1869 Michaux in the lounge, both Rolls-Royces of their day.
Old carbide lamps are attached to a few of James’s bicycles. Used around the turn of the century, carbide lamps use a flammable gas created by a reaction between water dripping into calcium carbide in the chambers behind the lamp to power a flame. This process was used to light many things, including bike lights and car headlamps.
He’s always been handy in the shed and once started a mechanic apprenticeship. “I started reading about motorbikes,” says James. But the bicycle industry became the motorbike industry, and then the car industry he points out. “The further back I got the more they came back to the bicycle. That’s where it all started.”
Ornate lugwork (the larger joinery on a bike) is one of the many lovely things about older bikes, when functionality was not the only concern. This lugwork on a tandem bike from the 1930s is a prime example.
A fondness for simple machinery is evident in many of James’s possessions – a favoured chair for example is a many-levered optometrist’s chair he picked up second hand.
James’s is one of the country’s few big bicycle collections. Paul and Charlie Farren, Melbourne-based collectors, also claim one of the world’s top 10 pre-1900 bicycle collections. Interestingly, bicycle sales have exponentially increased over the last decade – and the cycling world crowed at a spike in high-end bike sales in the months after racer Cadel Evans, from Barwon Heads in Victoria, won the Tour de France two years ago – but the percentage of people simply riding to work has been declining since 1985.
China, “as in China plate or ‘mate'” is James’s Border Collie and Shar Pei cross. Her Border Collie work ethic stands her in good stead as she’s often a running alongside James on a bike.
More than half of James’s collection is pre-1915, a boom era when shearers and outback mailmen cycled their seasonal routes. This bit of history has often been outshone by Australia’s enviable historical racing record, and it’s a little known fact that at one stage virtually all shearers rode a bike.
The internet doesn’t fit into James’ collecting aesthetic – it’s too easy, too expensive, and he doesn’t have access regardless. This Pederson however would be very collectable online today, and features a lovely old carbine lamp on the front.
“Bicycles are perfect, bicycles do everything and they don’t cost you anything: you pump up the tyres, there’s no petrol, no rego, no pistons, no machining, no having to live up to somebody else’s expectations, no traffic fines – it was, from an economical point of view, the perfect idea.” – James MacDonald, bicycle collector
Home Topics History & Culture Gallery: Vintage bicycle enthusiast James MacDonald
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