Cars & Bikes

How America’s WWII Victory Bike Led To Beer Commercial By An Academy Award Winner

Leon Henderson, administrator of the wartime Office of Price Administration, pedals a Victory Bike in Washington, DC, 1942. Betty Barrett, an OPM stenographer, rides in the parcel basket.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Mountain bikes aren’t the sellers they used to be, and road racing bikes went off the boil even before Lance Armstrong lost $100m by telling all to Oprah in 2013. Electric bikes are filling some of the gaps, but one of the standout categories in today’s bike market – sometimes electrified – is the cargobike, the beefy bicycle that can schlepp more than you might think, and at least as much as a small car.

While the category is hot today (Ford and VW both have skin in the game), it’s more of a comeback than an all-new phenomomen. Cargobikes were first popular in the 1880s and 1890s, but when cycling fell out of favor from about 1897 (before the popularity of the automobile) these utilitarian bikes went the same way as the dodo. For most Americans throughout the early years of the 20th Century the bicycle was perceived to be a child’s toy, not an adult’s transportation device.

The Second World War flipped this status, with production of children’s bikes being halted for the priority manufacture of adult bicycles. The Office of Price Administration commissioned bicycle manufacturers Huffman and Westfield to make the Victory Bike. This was launched in January 1942 by OPA “price boss” Leon Henderson at a press shoot in Washington, DC. The Victory Bike was robust and had a large steel basket on the front. Henderson demonstrated its agility in front of the Capitol building, riding no-handed while chomping on an unlit cigar. Later in the shoot, he rode for some distance with his female stenographer in the basket, ahead of a “caravan of cycling [OPA] clerks.”

Press reports projected that 750,000 Victory Bikes would be sold each year to “help meet [the] auto shortage.” (During WWII, car use was restricted, and even deemed unpatriotic.) The actual number of Victory Bikes sold was far less than this, nevertheless, it was significant that a government department officially promoted bicycling as a more patriotic choice than motoring. Not all Americans were convinced it was their duty to scrimp on their driving, but such skepticism was called out by the New York Times. In an article sub-titled “Both for Business and Pleasure the Bike Is Replacing the Vanishing Motor Car,” the paper remarked:

To the skeptic who says “Bosh! The cycle will never replace the auto,” the cyclist can point to England where the cycle has always been an important factor in public transportation. Today at least 25 per cent of the British population, including some 7,000,000 war workers, pedal about.