Book Review – The Hub of the Universe

by | Jan 23, 2024

A Century and More of Sturmey-Archer – by Tony Hadland and Alan Clarke

There can be few cyclists over the age of 50 reading this who did not grow up having some acquaintance with the Sturmey-Archer hub gears that were fitted so widely to bicycles throughout the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Certainly, all my early club riding and cycle touring was done with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed AW hub, which I later converted to 6-speed by the addition of a Benelux 2-speed derailleur. It seemed in those golden days that Raleigh (who had an extremely close relationship with Sturmey-Archer for more than seven decades) ruled the world of British cycling. In fact, for a period the Raleigh works in Nottingham was the largest manufacturing facility of any kind in the world. So successful was the design of the original S-A 3-speed that it has remained in production, with only minor changes, from 1902 until the present day. And probably, like me, you wondered just what was going on inside that ‘tin can’, maybe even finding out when you plucked up the courage to pull it apart and investigate.

In 1987, well-known author, broadcaster and cycling historian Tony Hadland published The Sturmey-Archer Story, a comprehensive history of the company and its products up to that time. This book quickly became a classic, rightly so in view of Tony’s gift for explaining technical matters in understandable fashion and for writing about them in a way that is a joy to read. Over the years, the book fell out of print and became a collector’s item, sometimes fetching extraordinary prices on online auction and used-book sites. Meanwhile, Sturmey-Archer underwent changes of ownership from TI/Raleigh, first of all becoming part of Derby International, until acquired by Sun-Race of Taiwan in 2000. In this post-1987 period, the company continued to bring out new products, including 7 and 8-speed hubs, a 3-watt dynohub and the SX3 3-speed fixed hub, a modern resurrection of the legendary ASC hub of 1946. So by 2019, the time was ripe for a new history of Sturmey-Archer, bringing the story up to date in a new publication that people could actually buy.

And at last! This is that book. Tony Hadland has joined forces with Sturmey-Archer’s Alan Clarke, Manager of S-A Europe and curator of the company’s Heritage Site, to produce The Hub of the Universe, a thoroughly revised and updated rewrite of Tony’s 1987 classic. Starting with the earliest ideas of epicyclic gearing for cycles in 1868, Tony and Alan trace development of hub gears via the landmark founding of the company in Nottingham in 1902 (originally as the Three Speed Gear Syndicate) right through to the present day. As you would expect of such a comprehensive and authoritative book of 368  pages, full details are given of all the company’s hub gears, but other products (such as dynohubs and lighting systems) are not neglected. Lavishly illustrated and produced to the highest standard, this is a book to be proud of. It is published by the Veteran-Cycle Publications: https://v-cc.org.uk/about/club-sales/the-hub-of-the-universe/.

This book should appeal greatly to those (like me) who harbour deep nostalgia for carefree days of youth spent pedalling Sturmey-Archer equipped machines. However much or little you know about the workings of epicyclic gears, I guarantee that you will know a great deal more after reading The Hub of the Universe. As a bonus, you will also learn about the characters and personalities, like William Riley, Henry Sturmey, Frank Bowden, James Archer and Israel Cohen, who shaped the company and its products in its formative years, laying the foundations for the products that we came to know and love. (Well, some of us did.) You will also get bang up to date with the current offerings of Sun-Race Sturmey Archer. It has to be admitted that the book is not especially cheap, but it is a quality publication and well worth the price. Tony Hadland has pointed out to me that the 1987 book cost £18, equating to £50 at today’s prices, which puts things nicely in perspective.

Bob Damper

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