One of the most talked-about designs in the world of human-powered two-wheelers right now isn’t another e-bike or fat bike, surprisingly. Instead, it’s an innovative chainless drive system that Ceramicspeed had on display at the recent Eurobike 2018 show in Germany. The basic concept behind it, though, dates back nearly 120 years to one of America’s earliest automakers.
Swapping out the chain for a shaft-drive system and adding a bunch of roller bearings on either end makes for a bike that transmits 99 percent of the energy from the pedals to the rear wheel rather than the measly 97 percent or so available from conventional bikes, according to Ceramicspeed. The company took Eurobike’s top award for concepts with its Driven system, which, at this point, remains a proof-of-concept bike: The company hasn’t yet figured out how to get it to shift gears, and it sure as heck wouldn’t play nice with a full-suspension mountain bike (not to mention the noise). Needless to say, it won’t be hitting the market anytime soon.
Pierce Cycles (sometimes called Pierce Bicycles and apparently never called Pierce-Arrow Bicycles), however, figured out shaft drive way back around 1900. That’s not to say they were the first — other bicycle manufacturers implemented the technology as early as 1890, apparently — but Pierce perhaps best employed the technology in its premier bikes.
George Norman Pierce’s Buffalo-based manufacturing company dated back to the 1860s and jumped into the bicycle craze just as the safety bicycle became commonplace in 1890. As it does today, chain drive became the predominant means of transferring power to the rear wheel, largely for its ease of maintenance and its cost-effectiveness. And as they do today, chains became grimy and greasy, and could easily catch your clothing or shoelaces.
Pierce, as it would later do with its Pierce-Arrow automobiles, strove for a more luxurious and trouble-free ride, no matter the cost. In 1898, the company introduced the “cushion frame,” essentially a shock absorber between the seat stay and the seat tube, and, in 1902, it introduced a front spring fork, both of which — combined with newly introduced pneumatic tires — greatly reduced road vibration.
In between those two innovations came Pierce’s chainless system. Patented in 1899 and introduced the next year, it used fully shrouded bevel gears front and rear, a driveshaft incorporated into the chainstay, and roller bearings on either end of the driveshaft. Lorenzo Somerby, who designed the system for Pierce, even figured out how to make the whole system pivot at the center of the frame to accommodate Pierce’s cushion frame.
The system apparently worked well for Pierce. When the manufacturing company introduced its Motorette in 1901, it used a chainless drive system for its cars as well as its bicycles. Full propeller shafts followed in the company’s front-engined cars starting in 1904. Even the company’s motorcycles, which it put on the market in 1903, used shaft drive.
The bicycles — offered in multiple men’s and women’s sizes — were widely considered some of the best bicycles on the market. However, the bicycle craze had already started to die down before the turn of the century, and Pierce’s automobiles would soon take up all of the company’s time and resources. In 1906, Pierce spun off its automobile business from its bicycle business; the latter, with George Pierce’s son, Percy, at the helm, continued producing bikes until 1918, after which the Emblem Manufacturing Company kept the Pierce name in bicycles through about 1940 — two years after Pierce-Arrow built its last automobile.
In the years since Pierce introduced it, chain drive beat out shaft drive on bicycles for a number of reasons. Cost and ease of maintenance, as mentioned above, had a lot to do with it, and shaft drive — even coupled with hub gears — couldn’t keep up with customer demand for more and more gears in multi-speed bicycles. Meanwhile, chain drive only lasted a few more years in automobiles and was pretty much entirely supplanted by shaft drive by the close of the first decade of the century.
But with Ceramicspeed rethinking the driveshaft for bicycles, is it time automakers rethink chain drive for automobiles? Or will electric motors and drive-by-wire eliminate both chain and shaft drive?