We were down in the depths of the museum’s vaults, where cars once parked and hoodlums once lurked, now a storeroom for an eclectic collection of artifacts and odds and ends. For example, there is a prop from River Queen, a genuine Hamilton jet…complete with boat, a couple of horse-drawn gigs (minus horses) among other things. But the thing we came to look at was parked against a big, wooden box. It was a bike!
But no ordinary bike, as the photos show. Instead of a tyre in the normal sense, either pneumatic or solid rubber, there is a series of short springs spaced around the outside of the wheel rim, covered with a metal strip to which is screwed a leather belt. The question is…why?
The museum doesn’t know anything about this machine and its interesting wheels except that it was found to be in the collection in 1992. That’s it. No other documentation. But that’s why Neil chose it as his contribution to From The Vaults. It’s a riddle.
The general theory as to why it exists at all goes back to the days after The Great War (1914-18). The Germans loved their bicycles but the huge rubber shortage at the time meant there were no materials to make traditional tyres. So some bright spark came up with the spring idea. I have seen photos of similar bicycles so they must have been manufactured in some numbers. This particular model, and how it ended up here, is a mystery. There are a couple of decals on the frame; one says ‘Gordon Udy’ and the other says ‘Royal Model Deluxe’. There is a headlight, an early Lucas model fitted to the frame on a sprung bracket. The sprung saddle is canvas covered and bears the name of its manufacturer – Wittkop. The Wittkop factory of Germany still exists and is, to this day, making bicycle saddles. Neil says his research tells him these bikes were ‘not much good on asphalt but okay on gravel’.
Finding the bicycle and musing over its origins is just another day on the job for Neil Phillips. He is an import, having been born in Sheffield and raised in Dundee. His dad is a surgeon, who brought his family out to Hawke’s Bay when Neil was nine. Neil has a degree in history from Otago University and got into exhibition work through a voluntary stint at Otago Museum. That turned into a job and a few years later, in 2001, he ended up in Wanganui at the Whanganui Regional Museum. He is married to Margie and they have two children, Maisy and Barnaby.
He loves his job. “It’s one of those jobs where you’re constantly confronted by new problems,” he says. He does a lot of design work, “working with people who treat material creatively”, pulling objects together to tell a story. Like the story that a certain bicycle has to tell.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2010. Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.
Neil Phillips is no longer working at the Whanganui Regional Museum but has moved on to other institutions.