This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 95.
There was rather a strong tradition in the last century that the masters of the Cambridge colleges would send their newly matriculated students off to the police cycle auction to pick up a recovered cycle at a bargain price. That was in the days when bicycles were built to be ridden daily and to last a lifetime.
The police cycle auction was then held quarterly in the city. The busiest event in October would have hundreds of bikes for sale and attract hundreds of buyers, very many of them students, but also townsfolk, collectors and dealers. Although there were undoubted bargains to be had, far too often students took away bicycles that would be dangerous and illegal to ride or which were beyond economic repair. I was not sorry when the auction was banished to the remote Cambridgeshire town of Ramsey where it has been held for many years, well beyond the reach of most students.
Museum of Technology
So it was with renewed interest that I went along to the new cycle auction in early February that was being held at the Museum of Technology, down by Riverside. The auction was held over a weekend, with viewing on the Saturday and the auction on Sunday, giving ample opportunity to inspect the bikes before the sale. There were 37 lots in this first event, the majority consisting of bikes from the built-to-last era – well before the 1980s – and aroused fond memories among the older browsers. Only a few bikes were in a ready to ride state, and none carried guarantees of roadworthiness. I was pleased that the auctioneer made this clear at the beginning of the sale.
Some of the bikes were from the auctioneer’s own collection, some from private collectors and some unclaimed bikes from the police.
However there were very few bidders and only about ten of the bikes were sold. The bargains included a fully equipped commuting-quality bike that went for £60 and a gents Dutch bike for only £50, both subject to the 15% commission and £1 bidding registration fee.
The auctioneer runs a bike business himself and comes from a family with a passion for cycle and motorcycle engineering. Although the turnout was disappointing, I do think that with time the event could be successful. There should be more bikes for sale, and each lot needs to be presented individually to the bidders, giving an opportunity for the auctioneer to describe the bike and its history and to add to the theatre of auction.
The cost of labour and parts makes it hard for restored bikes to compete with the cost of a new one. Working out which ones are worth fixing up immediately and which should be sold as projects is probably the key to making it a success. If there is a clear indication on each lot indicating which bikes are road-ready, and which bikes are restoration projects, then I think this is an event that the Campaign should support.