War. It sadly seems to define history.
Our history texts in school literally outline the past by what war was fought at the time. This fact is not lost upon those
of us in the vintage and antique bicycle hobby. The terms; “pre-war” and “post war” are used to define
what type of bicycle we are talking about. This war specifically was World War II, the largest war geographically
ever waged. It was also the largest in terms of both human casualties and the amount of impact to civilian populations. I
will go into this subject further later on. Although WWII would be the last war that Columbia would be
directly involved with it certainly was not the first.
The idea of the bicycle being useful as a fighting machine
was not lost on Albert Pope. As early as 1893 a patent was filed for by Pope Mfg. for a bicycle gun clip. This can be found
in Google Patents at the following link.
This clip as outlined in the patent
was to hold a military rifle to be used by infantry. The 1893 Columbia catalog showed the Columbia Light
Roadster Safety Model 27 fitted with this clip and outlined its use in the United States Army for both currier and personnel
Col Albert A. Pope was familiar
with war because he was a participant in one of the big ones, the American Civil War. At the age of 19 he had joined the 35th
Massachusetts Volunteers as a Junior Second Lieutenant. He fought in at least eight major battles and was
decorated for gallantry. He emerged from the war as a Lieutenant Colonel at the age of 22.
WWI was known as “The Great War” when it was being waged and
the “War to End All Wars” soon afterwards. Though the war started in 1914 the US was a late
entry in 1917. Col Albert Poe had died in 1909 at the age of 66 but that did not stop the company he founded from profiting
from the war. Although the US military did not have a standardization of bikes like they would in WWII they still purchased
as much as 67,000 bicycles from 3 major manufacturers including 36,000 Columbia Military Models by December of 1918.
Although the US military
never adopted a “Bicycle Corps” for direct fighting the bikes were used by the signal corps and for quick dispatch
within platoons and companies.
Bicycles were not the only contribution to the war effort by Westfield Mfg. The official program from the 1919 250th
Anniversary of Westfield stated that “most of the famous “75” gas shells, which by many have been considered
the most important factor in the winning of the war, were turned out at the Westfield plant.”
After the war Westfield Manufacturing
wasted no time in showcasing their involvement in the great conflict. The 1919 Columbia catalog cover depicts American troupes
with Columbia bikes in France.
Oddly enough a Columbia
Archbar model is in the forefront though two military models are depicted in the background. Just as odd
is how happy everyone seems to be after such a horrible war. Happy it was over no doubt. In the following
two years, 1920 and 1921 the “Military Model” would be sold to the civilians back home. After
that the entire county was tired of war and the Military Models were discontinued.
The 1920 seen above was simply called the
“Military Model”. The 1921 seen below was designated model “MB”.
This brings us back
to World War II. Although the war really started with Japan invading Manchuria in September of 1931 the
United States did not officially enter it until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. The US military
took very little time in standardizing ordinance and vehicles for the war effort and by March of 1942 they had done so with
bicycles choosing only Huffman Corp (Huffy) and Westfield Mfg. Co. (Columbia) as their only official suppliers.
more detailed information on the WWII Military issue bikes please follow this link to the LIBERATOR web site.
other WWII era Columbia bike is worth bringing up at this point, the COMPAX PARATROOPER. Compax was a take-apart bike that
came out in 1938 and was acquired by Westfield Mfg. the next year. The first year they were sold by Westfield was 1940 as
the “Compax Sports Traveler”. According to Westfield Mfg. these were sold to the Army for Paratrooper
use during the war. After the war the company advertised their use by the airborne troops. There is some speculation and even
doubt by some that this ever happened but the fact is the US military did purchase many of these bikes. They may never have
been used in combat drops but they were certainly used on bases. After the war these bikes were called the “Compax Paratrooper”
and even had parachutes in the logo on the frame.
|1940 Columbia Compax Sports Traveler
|1943 Restricted Paratrooper Bike
|Found in the Columbia Archives
Much of the
belief that these take-apart bikes were used for actual combat resulted from this advertisement put out by Westfield Mfg in
December of 1941. The Marines had tested the feasibility of using the Compax for this purpose before the war and the makers
of Columbia bikes capitalized on this. There are pictures I have seen of Compax bikes being used on military bases during
the war but they are always in civilian colors. Further, we know there was a Compax being made during the war with a unique
frame design not seen before or after the war. Likely Columbia hoped these would be used for the purpose intended in this
ad but ended up selling them in civilian colors to both the military and non-military customers.
Below is the US Marine Photograph this advertisement was based on. Notice the bike in the picture
is a pre-war civilian model Compax.
Below is a 1945 Compax that has the "Military Style" frame. Note the extra frame braces
on the rear from the seat mast to the lower rear fork. It is still unclear if these were meant to give extra strength to the
frame or to be used for some other purpose. Possibly they were a place to strap the two halves of the frame together when
I acquired this bike from the nephew of the original owner who was stationed at the Navel Airship
base in Lakehurst NJ during WWII. His Uncle purchased this bike from the base after the war. It was originally sold
to the base in Civilian wartime colors of maroon with normally chrome parts such as hubs, handle bars and crank/sprocket blacked
out and rims painted ivory.
Most of the original paint was gone so I decided to restore it in a WWII scheme
in honer of it's wartime service.
I have seen several of these Compax bikes with this frame and all have serial
numbers from 1945 and all were in civilian wartime blackout colors.
One other part of the mystery of these bikes
is a picture I was sent of what is supposed to be an un-restored original paint (O.D. Green) Military Balloon tire model.
I cannot confirm its authenticity but it would be interesting to see if it is real.
Update; I have recently re-restored this bike in honor of it's navy heritage. Here it is
in it's new Navy Gray. I think it is a more fitting tribute to the service it was in.
As an added note, the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst was an Airship (blimp) base before and during WWII.
during the war their mission was to spot and destroy Germaine U-Boats to protect the Allied shipping in the Atlantic. By
all my research they were very successful in this mission killing many enemy subs. Bicycles may have played a relatively small
part but none the less an important one back on the base. Air bases cover large areas and getting from one place to another
without using precious gasoline or more expensive motor vehicles was the primary goal for bicycles.
1943 sales flyer shown below featuring the
COMPAX MILITARY MODELS. Lightweight Model F-92L and Balloon Tire Model F-92H. This
document clearly shows the military style grips as standard equipment along with the “special frame brace at rear,
giving extra strength for hard military use” as is stated in the flyer.
There is no doubt these
were marketed directly to the military. Whether the United States ever used them in combat will always be debated but this
shows they were made specifically for military use.
|1947 Compax "Paratrooper" Sports Traveler
by Columbia was not limited to military use. There were many civilian “Victory” models. The most common was both
Men’s and Ladies lightweight models.
These civilian bikes were stripped
down lacking chrome plating and chainguards. In place of the chrome, handle bars and hubs would be painted black. Most used
wood pedal blocks and even wood hand grips, all to save important steel and rubber for the war effort. These
were not the only civilian models by Columbia, there would also be some balloon tire models. These like their lightweight
brothers and sisters would be “blacked out” pre-war models. There were far less of these balloon tire models made
and are therefore more difficult to come by.
This is the best example of one
I have ever seen. It has more chrome than the typical wartime bike and was either made before some of the ration restrictions went
into effect or used leftover pre-war parts. Sent in by a reader this bike is completely un-restored and original
1942. Notice the “V” on both the front and rear fender which stood for “Victory”.
Readers Bikes WWII Victory Bikes
and Civilian bicycle production was only a part of the Westfield Mfg. story during WWII. The company was a major supplier
of many types of armaments and other parts for the war effort. The now famous Bazooka was made at the Columbia plant. In
1946 the city of Westfield held a welcome home celebration for the returning troops. According to the official program Westfield
manufacturing had supplied over one and a half million bazookas, over a million 37 Millimeter Shells, over a million two hundred
thousand Incendiary Bomb Bodies, over eight million five hundred thousand complete Aircraft and Tank Bearings, nine hundred
thousand Scabbards for the British Endfield Rifles, nearly eight hundred thousand Smoke and Riffle Grenades, nearly a million
and a half Fuses for Army, Navy Shells and Chemical Bombs.
The contribution to the war effort was so significant
that on May 24th 1944 Westfield Manufacturing was presented with the Army-Navy “E” award for product
Below is the one of the lapel pins mentioned above.
It was not just material,
Westfield Mfg had supplied men as well to the war effort and the “E” award recognized those from the company who
were serving their country.
In 1944 Columbia bikes were featured
in LIFE magazine. There was a multiple page centerfold advertisement showing the versatility of the Columbia bike in war service.
Later in 1944 restrictions on
bicycle production were lifted and a new line of bikes were offered for the 1945 Model year. This catalog for 1945 states
“no rationing certificates are required for the purchase of these Columbia Built Bicycles”.
WWII had impacts
beyond the theater of the war itself. It changed the world’s economy and the very demographics of the world.
In fact, it ultimately is the reason I am involved with antique bicycles at all.
This story begins in Pittsfield Massachusetts
in 1941. My father, John (Jack) Kowal was a 15 year old living with his family when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
He had an uncle that was just 6 years older than him in the Marines who he was very close to and Uncle Bob Callahan
went to war. Jack was anxious join his Uncle so 2 years later quits school and joined the Navy. During his time in the South
Pacific Theater of war my father’s family moved to Westfield Massachusetts as my Grandfather had been re-located in
his job. They found a small house to rent one block from the Westfield Mfg. Co. factory where Columbia bikes were made.
When Jack came home to his family two things put the entire story in motion. The first was my father needed a job and
got one at the nearby Columbia plant. The second was he needed transportation and purchased a Whizzer Motor to put on his
a Whizzer to work got the attention of the engineering and test departments at Columbia. A new spring fork was being developed
and would have to be tested. The company purchased a new Whizzer Motor and mounted it on a bike with the newly developed Springer.
Since Jack Kowal had plenty of experience with these machines he was given the job of riding this bike to evaluate
the new fork. At 19 years old it was a dream job and Dad rode for 9 hours a day all summer with plenty of great stories to
tell. All of this was part of a chain of events that lead up to my involvement in the bicycle hobby.
We now move on to 1979. Because of
the above series of events I grew up in the shadow of the Columbia Factory and after I graduated from high school went to
work there. Not long after that my father went back to work there after selling his music store. It had been many years since
he worked there but all of the “old timers” kept calling my father “Whizzer”. I
wanted to know what this meant as Dad had never spoken of the involvement he had with these old machines. Now
a search was on for the old Whizzer and it was found with extended family along with a slightly newer model. In the next few
months and years Dad and I would restore these bikes and bring them to shows. These whizzer meets are really what spawned
the Classic Balloon Tire Bicycle craze. After all, Whizzers were originally kits to motorize your balloon tire bike so to
restore a Whizzer you also had to restore a bike. This lead to bicycle only classes at the vintage Whizzer and Scooter meets.
The “Post-War” Balloon Tire bike craze was born. We now advance a couple of more
years and find Columbia Bicycles starting the RX-5 project.
They were looking
to the vintage bicycle community for 1950’s bikes to copy for this new replica. Jack Kowal was contacted along with
many others. Neither I nor my father had worked for Columbia for a couple of years. We went back there
anyway with a couple of bikes for the engineers to use. This would lead to my father being asked to work on the new factory
museum. He would become the companies’ unofficial historian and museum curator along with being a basic goodwill ambassador
for the Columbia brand. The name, now lost as far as who first bestowed it would stick….Mr. Columbia. I have continued the MrColumbia story by creating this website
based on my father’s research and my involvement with him at the factory and with the museum.
I bring all this personal history up
because it was all the result of a war and the wars impact both during and after its duration. Wars are terrible and I by
no means am trying to glorify them but as I began to say, the impact cannot be ignored, both negative and positive. Many lost
their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Say what you will but jobs were also created and lives transformed. I
wanted it to be known there was more to the story than just Army bicycles and Bazooka’s.
By Kenneth A. Kowal