The car in this week’s Snapshot is a 1914 Darracq 12-44 Torpedo; so far, so normal. But our subject is rather more unusual: it is the Hirondelle Minima portable bicycle – designed by La Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Etienne.
This company was always state owned, starting life as early as 1764 under the supervision of the General Inspector of the Royal Arms Manufacture of Charleville and well known for its manufacture of pistols, rifles and machine guns. It was acquired by various state-owned companies and finally closed in 2001.
But on 9 May 1914, when this new invention was reported in Omnia magazine under the headline “A bicycle for motorists”, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was still a month away – and this arms manufacture was still looking for ‘practical solutions for the problems of tourism’, as the journalist put it.
The bicycle frame was not designed to be collapsed or broken into its component parts: instead, the handlebars, pedals, saddle and front forks all turned inwards or through 180 degrees, to make a much smaller package that could be mounted on the running board of a car or, for those with limited space at home, stored in the corner of a room. Once safely ensconced in its cover, the bicycle formed a compact package only 1.48 metres in length and 12 centimetres in width.
Unlike Hotchkiss in France or FN in Belgium, La Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Etienne did not make motor cars – but it continued under the name Hirondelle to manufacture bicycles until the 1960s, and motorcycles until the 1950s.
The bicycles could be seen in use by the Paris police up to 1984 – and an Hirondelle appeared in the film “The Last Emperor” in the hands of the young emperor himself.
This issue of Omnia was full of other innovations: a motorcycle with a rotary engine in the rear wheel, driving through a 4:1 epicyclic reduction gear (one disadvantage admitted was accessibility through the spokes!); aluminium diecasting (in contrast to conventional sandcasting); and adjustable-length spring shackles (to allow perfect adjustment of the horizontality of the car side to side) on a ‘Siddeley Daisy’ [sic]. Did the latter work well? Perhaps Daisy will tell us, if we ask her in song.