Head down and shoulders hunched, the lead cyclist pedals furiously through the streets of Paris. He is barely a cycle’s length ahead of his closest pursuers. Anxious onlookers line the streets. We are not witnessing the final moments of the Tour de France: these are tricycles racing through the streets of Paris in 1940.
This astounding photo from the Roger-Viollet Collection captures the energy, speed and grim determination one expects in bicycle races. On the image below, from the same collection, look at the expression of joy and agony combined on the face of the tricyclist crossing the finish line.
Now look more closely at the two photos. Those racing in the first photo look like everyday working delivery cycles. Whereas the cycle in the second photo (taken in 1939) looks built for speed, with its streamlined fairing and fenders. It does not take too much imagination to link this streamlining with that of some ultra-powerful prewar racing cars.
The furiously racing tricycles seem far from the more relaxed image below.
The word tri-porteur translates as a “delivery tricycle” and is usually spelled as one word. The triporteurs made by the Paris firm of Alexandre & Juéry appeared to be particularly sturdy, as did the cyclist who is dressed in traditional work garb. The company sold, rented, and repaired triporteurs in addition to manufacturing them. They also issued a catalogue – one I would love to see. Trade catalogues from this era and earlier are generally both colourful and informative. This one shows a splendid image of an important commercial vehicle.
If we regard triporteurs as pedal-powered workhorses, then the one I photographed in April 2006 in front of an antique store is a bit knackered, maybe only a few steps from the glue factory. But let us hope it has found a good owner who has restored it to former glory. It and the advertisement from Alexandre & Juéry show some of the essential features of delivery tricycles.
Both have a long, low-slung frame. The weight of the driver and the distance from the front wheels help stop the tricycle from pitching forward and upending if it hits a bump or if the box is unevenly loaded. Each tricycle has a box mounted on two wheels. While driving, the cyclist holds onto the handle attached to the box and for steering the carrying box and front wheels pivot as a unit.
In both triporteurs the box is mounted on leaf springs to which the axles are attached. This simple suspension system is an important feature that reduced the severity of bumping, bouncing and generally being jarred on cobblestoned streets or other rough surfaces. This made for a smoother, more comfortable, and safer ride. But what about stopping?
In the Alexandre & Juéry ad we see no evidence of a front brake nor do we on the triporteur I photographed. A front brake would be suicidal: with a heavy weight on the front if the front brake were applied the least bit hard the rear wheel would lift and the rest needs no explanation. Nor is there any evidence of an external rear brake in the ad; we must assume that it is a coaster brake and that one simply pushed back on the pedal to stop. It could be quite a task with a heavy load. Perhaps that is why the triporteur I photographed had the mechanically operated brake we see above on the back wheel. At the time it was a tad rusty but this was meant for heavy-duty work.
Recall that Alexandre & Juéry had their shop at 18, Rue Rambuteau. Not far away, number 79 housed the fishmonger shown in this wonderfully rich street photograph. The wealth of period detail gives us good reason to linger over this photograph. The two-wheeled handcart is a reminder of the hard physical work of getting things from place to place. But the triporteur used by the fish delivery boy remind us that triporteurs are work vehicles.
At the time, there were also pedal-powered wheeled vehicles called tricycles – the word is the same in French and English – but they were pleasure vehicles.
Where are the worthy successors to these Parisian delivery tricycles? Must they be pedal-powered? The 1912 photo shown below demonstrates there were early electric models as well.
Philippa and I were quite surprised this past December when we saw this BHV triporteur outside the store, but do not know how widely it travels. We have also seen other triporteurs in various parts of the city.
Perhaps the crown for continuing the early Parisian triporteur lineage goes to La Petite Reine.
When Philippa and I first saw it on a November day in 2007, just outside Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle on rue de la Lune, we wondered if it was simply a rolling billboard or a working vehicle. It was the latter and I am delighted to say the company is still in business and has grown since then. La Petite Reine was founded in 2001 with the aim of offering an alternative to using large polluting vehicles for urban deliveries.
The company has a variety of tricycle types ranging from strictly pedal to electric assist and operates in Paris, Bordeaux, Rouen, Dijon, and Geneva. With both electric and pedal powered triporteurs, La Petite Reine continues the tradition of tricycle deliveries in Paris and other cities.
Perhaps the final word on the fate and future of triporteurs might be from Mark Twain who, upon hearing that he had been reported dead, replied, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Text and original photographs by Norman Ball; historic photographs from Paris en Images, courtesy Roger Viollet Agency.