It would be right to describe the bikes created by the four cyclemotorist in the previous blog as ‘works of art’. However, in truth they are examples of design. Their forms follow the dictates of their function. The subject of this blog, Colin King, has, in my opinion created five genuine works of art because their form is first and foremost the product of an aesthetic impulse.
The bicycle (and later the motorcycle) has always been an object invested with a strong cultural significance. Its ‘meaning’ has changed radically over time but from its first invention as the ordinary or high bicycle it not only symbolised certain ideas itself but it was seen as characterising those who rode it. The early bicycles beginning in the 1860s presaged a coming era of personal mechanisation and were regarded with suspicion. Their riders were often seen as skilled but disdainful, daring and dangerous, much as the riders of powerful motorcycles were later viewed. With the invention of the safety bicycle in 1885 (a bike with two similarly sized wheels) the bicycle’s significance began to change. Its early popularity was as a passing fad for the wealthy but as they lost interest the bicycle became a symbol of freedom. It played a part in the emancipation of women and gave first the lower middle class and then the working class the chance to enjoy travel and recreations that had been the province of the upper classes. The naturalistic novels of H. G. Wells convey the modernity and excitement of the bicycle and it is the subject of ‘The Wheels of Chance’ (1895). Wells wrote: ‘Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.’ In my own lifetime the bicycle has sunk to symbolising the alienation of the eccentric, the indigent and the enthusiast only to be rescued by a group of Californians whose invention of the ‘mountain bike’ or ‘atb’ made the cycle once again challenging, modern and dynamic. The mania for personal fitness and the success of british racing cyclists has seen the ‘meaning’ of the bicycle evolve again. The use of ultra modern materials to cut the weight of a bicycle and its putative role in reducing emissions to alleviate the climate crisis have made it, once more, cutting-edge culturally.
For me, Colin’s vision of the ‘meaning’ of the bicycle is central to the aesthetic that informs the five Rex Hake Specials. I don’t know Colin personally so this judgement is made on the basis of my view of the bikes and Colin’s writing about them. That we might look in this direction as a means of understanding the creation of this ersatz ‘marque’ is reinforced by the fact that Colin has published a book of poems entitled ’41 Broken Spokes’ with the bicycle as the central image in each of poems.
As far as I can understand it, for Colin the bicycle, and by implication the cyclemotor, symbolises a slower more tranquil way of life, warmer human relations, values more rooted in a shared feeling of place. It is imbued with a strong sense of the past, certainly pre-1960 but with echoes of the interwar period and even the Edwardian hey-day of the bicycle as freedom. He writes in the introduction to his book: ‘A firm believer in low tech heaven he suggests the bicycle, wheelbarrow and wellington boot as the triptych of humble design greats.’ The flavour of this heaven is savoured in an excerpt from the first poem in the collection, ‘Mr and Mrs’:
‘Two happy hearts on bicycles/ Up hill/ Down hill/ Flask and sandwiches in saddlebag/ Not just in sunshine/ Mr and Mrs dressed for the weather/ The cafe without door or window/ In damp, cape or style/ In rain under a tree/ In sunshine, lush grass felled tree or heather/ Mr and Mrs explored lanes, bridleways and towpaths/ Peered over hedgerows/ Rested bikes against trees/ Bathed feet in cool streams/ Watched England from hilltops…’
There is a nostalgia here which could be mistaken for the rhetoric of the dominant historical view shared by a particular demographic which emphasizes a national decline encompassing everything from moral standards to the quality of goods. The individualisation of this vision through the focus of the bicycle, however, creates a persona distinct from that dominant historical vision and it’s interesting to note that after what might be described as the yearning tone of this section of the poem and the inevitable: ‘Mr and Mrs both passed away’ the poem finishes ‘At the bottom of the garden in a dull green wooden shed/ Lean two rusty bicycles/ Quiet now/ Waiting.’ Is this more yearning for the owners who will never come? Or, given what Colin and his fellow enthuiasts create out of ‘rusty bicycles’ are they waiting in anticipation, even expectation, of their ressurection?
The name of Colin’s bikes originates in the suggestion of Andrew Pattle, that he translate ‘King’ into Latin and the French ‘Colin’ into English. Colin has written that he’s not sure about the translation from the French but my dictionary agrees with Andrew. It’s not unusual to put your name on a special but Colin’s use of the name Rex Hake and the fact that he has built five models creates a mystery around the identity of the persona of the builder. Are we to accept this as a straightforward psuedonym or are we asked to imagine that these emanate from a long forgotten factory?
The look of the Rex Hakes is deliberately anachronistic. The simple black enamel is redolent of the pre-war bicycle (at least in popular imagination) and the bicycle fittings have an antique feel, leather saddles with springs, leather or woven bags, bulb horns, fishtail exhausts and on the No1 Special, inverted levers. Adding to both a localism and the arts and crafts feel, Colin’s logo is hand-painted by ‘Brian the Banjo-playing signwriter from Woodcote’.
According to Colin’s write up in Buzzing (August 2011), he did not start out to make a series of specials. No 1 came about because he could not find further parts for a frame he had bought. Intriguingly the engine of the bike is a Rex – so is the frame ‘a Hake’? What he elsewhere describes as ‘the look’ was ‘influenced by a 1920s Big Bore AJS’. This one is driven by two chains, one for the engine and another for the pedals. He was advised by Mark Daniels to tune the engine a little by re-working the exhaust port, a modification he used on all three Rex-engined Hakes.
No2 also used a spare Rex engine. ‘This one’s look was to be influenced by machines seen on the Pioneer Run, the style would be of something from the first 20 years of motorcycles.’ Its handlebars are from a rotovator to give ‘the desired upright early motorcycle riding position’. It also has Webb suspension forks and on a practical note Colin rematrks that it is more comfortable to ride than No1. Unusually the bicycle chain and pedals have been omitted in favour of a push or paddle start (Buzzing October 2011).
No3, which appears in the same edition of Buzzing is constructed around a Ducati Cucciolo engine found at an autojumble. Colin says he would have like to reproduce a Britax Hurricane racer using the engine but realised the hand beaten aluminium bodywork was beyond his means. He does not explain ‘the look’ of this particular edition but the bicycle frame is from the 1920s. The filigree chain guard is quite simply gorgeous in my view and also germane to what I am assuming Colin is attempting to achieve in constructing these bikes, the handle on the gear lever is ‘a piece of an ancient Yew tree felled by a storm in my parents’ Yorkshire garden 20 years earlier’. Once again turning pedals have been dispensed with. The Cucciolo is the most powerful of the 1950s cyclemotors and the name ‘The Rocket’ is probably an allusion to that. Is it fanciful to wonder whether there is also a nod to one of the first successful attempts at locomotion?
No4 (Buzzing April 2015) uses the frame from Colin’s father’s old Hercules, bought by him new in 1940. Colin writes that after one last sentimental journey to visit his grandparents’ grave it had been rested against a shrub in his garden ‘to be consumed by nature… just dissolving into the landscape’. However, Colin decided upon another special, featuring once again a surplus Rex engine, and the Hercules, minus some already dissolved parts, ‘is Haked’. Once again Colin’s design was intended to emulate: ‘a pioneer shape from the early 1900s’. The article ends with Colin’s wish to hear the tyres swish on the wet Wiltshire lanes (a noisy exhaust he says remains to be quietened to allow this) as his father once delighted in that sound in the Yorkshire Wolds.
No5, the final Hake begins with a 1930s Rudge Whitworth Aero Special All Weather Roadster. Colin initially refused an offer on the rusted remains but claims ‘those lovely valanced mudguards appeared in my sleep’. The engine in this case was an industrial Mini Motor, started by a rope pull and driving a flywheel on the pedal axle by a belt. The engine is hinged so as to move upwards to tighten the belt and act as a clutch. Once again pedals have been dispensed with and after the engine has been started with a pull the bike is paddled forward as the belt is tightened.
For me the Rex Hakes present an attempt to present a wider aesthetic vision which attempts to convey a feeling for the past. Colin writes: ‘With these “specials” the most exciting bit is planning the look. If it looks good eventually it can be made to run good.’ There’s more to the Hakes, I think, than motorising old bikes. And if I’m right and they do attain the status of art objects, then what you read into them is as valid as any impression they make on me or indeed as any ‘meaning’ Colin intended.
So if I was offered to take any of the twelve bikes in these two blogs for a spin which would I choose? I am simply not mechanically talented enough to be sure I could fettle the Crowders’ creations if they faltered. I have always admired Derek’s Marflan but try and learn to ride a recumbent while being pushed along by a Mini Motor? Derek’s superb work on the three small roller drives is far too delicate to be entrusted to my ham-fistedness. Like John, I live near the Peak District so I think it would have to be one of his geared and lightened specials. But, if I lived on a leafy lane that led through several fields to a pub with a garden then I would take a Rex Hake model. I’d sit with my pint, face to the sun, and the cyclemotor would lean against an old stone wall at my back. I’d ask anyone who could spare the time what the ancient bike made them think of and when I’d exhausted the patience of the regulars I’d open my copy of ‘Three Men on the Bummel’ by Jerome K Jerome and imagine what it might have been like to pedal through Europe before the Great War spoiled everything.