Wilbur and Orville began developing new plans to expand their business in the fall of 1895 by designing their own brand of bicycles. Each of the bicycles constructed by the Wrights would be a high quality machine constructed to order.
Initially the Wrights used pre-made bicycle frames and other materials for their bicycles. When the Wright bicycles were completed and ready for sale by May 16, 1896, they joined what would become in 1897 approximately 3,000 American businesses who were manufacturing bicycles, parts, or sundries. The Wrights’ line of bicycles included a “Wright Special” and a ladies model. At the beginning of the 1896 cycling season, in addition to the Wright Special, the Wrights issued a Van Cleve model that was named after their great-grandmother and in honor of the Dayton centennial. The Wright Special was cheaper than the higher-priced Van Cleve. The Van Cleve, the Wrights announced in a bicycle catalog, “will be a wheel of the highest grade, and will embrace several novel features of our own invention. We are confident it will be a credit to our city and ourselves.” The first Van Cleve bicycles sold for sixty to sixty-five dollars. By 1900, with the decreasing demand in bicycles, the price dropped to between thirty-two and forty-seven dollars depending upon the features incorporated into each specific bicycle.
One of the “novel features” of the Van Cleve was its wheel hub. Designed by the brothers, the wheel hubs were dust proof and retained oil to the extent that they only needed to be oiled once every two years. This was achieved by containing the oil inside the hub instead of outside where dust would stick to it and dirty the mechanism. In addition, the Wright brothers designed their own coaster brake.
Later in the 1896 season, the Wrights unveiled the St. Clair bicycle named after Arthur St. Clair, the first governor of the Northwest Territory and one of Dayton’s founders. The St. Clair was a lower priced line that sold for $42.50 when it premiered. By 1899, when production ceased, the price had fallen to $30. In 1900, with some St. Clair bicycles still in stock, The Wright Cycle Company promised to sell the few remaining models “very cheap.”
When Wilbur and Orville became interested in aeronautics, they also continued their bicycle business. They planned their trips to Kitty Hawk during the slow time of year for their business and arranged for someone else to oversee operations. They operated their bicycle business until 1908. Click here to see the Wright brothers' bicycle sales chart. (pdf format)