DEFIANCE, OHIO — THERE are those who say that only the latest technology, the latest in materials, the most modern design, can keep a company afloat in today's computerized, technical world. Not Lowell Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy and his wife, Theresia, sell hand-built reproductions of 19th-century high-wheel bicycles from their shop just outside Defiance, Ohio.
``Most other [high-wheel] bikes are just replicas, put together with a lot of modern parts,'' Lowell says. ``I build them the way they did 100 years ago.''
That means buying flat steel strips that he carefully molds into tire rims, and steel tubes for frames that he cuts down to a taper, to copy exactly the style popular in the heyday of high-wheelers.
Like the 1880s craftsmen, he builds each bike piece by piece, starting with 48- to 52-inch wheelrims (depending on the height of the rider), to the spokes he cuts from large rolls of wire stock. The seats are carved from metal. Mrs. Kennedy hand-fits and stitches the leather covering. Each crankshaft and wheel hub is machined from ``scratch'' in the shop.
Although the original bikes had natural rubber wheels, Kennedy must use synthetic rubber - the type used for wheelchairs. A Michigan company runs special orders for him, putting red dye in the rubber to more closely match the colors used in the 1880s.
In many ways, his workplace resembles photos of 1800s-era bicycle shops. Kennedy weaves his way around equipment that seems to be placed in no particular order. He learned his trade as a machinist at this shop, which his father started as an auto-repair center, and later converted to a small machine shop.
Bits of metal and bike parts, some to be discarded, some flawed for one purpose but usable for another, are piled onto tables. It's the shop of a tinker, a man who enjoys creating with metal and wood and paint.
The different skills needed are part of the attraction of the work for Kennedy. ``I wouldn't like doing one part of the job all the time,'' he says, holding a tray of oak ``pear'' handles he recently finished. He uses oak, which is ``pretty,'' but prefers hard maple, because the wood has a tighter grain if dried properly.
Although he ships bikes all over the world, he never advertises. Most buyers learn of him from satisfied customers. He recently sent a shipment to Australia, and was completing an order for a special high-wheel rim for a British customer working on a racing high-wheeler. Kennedy also displays his work in museums.
He began restoring high-wheelers in 1968 after Defiance College asked him to restore one. Kennedy had previously restored an old automobile.
He began doing other bike restorations, but turned to reproductions in the 1970s after a customer requested a smaller high-wheeler for his daughter. Other orders soon followed, and he gradually switched to the reproduction ``ordinaries,'' as the old bicycles often were called. Those bikes, in the 1880s, sold for about $150, the equivalent of a year's wages for most people, Kennedy says. He charges from $1,400 to $2,800 per bike, depending on size and accessories.
He refuses to call his work ``replicas,'' insisting he is only building the bicycles in the old style, as reproductions that are ``very near to the originals'' in design. It takes from six to eight weeks to build a bike, and he builds to size for riding or display. He has a one-year backlog.
Marge Fuehrer, commander of the Wheelmen, an international association of high-wheel riders and collectors, says, ``For people who don't want to spend the time collecting, and those who are more interested in riding, reproductions don't come any better than Lowell Kennedy's. They can take a beating.''
Kennedy's were the only reproduction bikes to last when a group of Wheelmen pedaled from Greenfield Village, Mich., to Philadelphia in 1976 for the Bicentennial, Ms. Fuehrer says.
Kennedy says riding the bikes requires the same basic skills as riding modern bicycles, with some big differences. The giant wheel is driven directly by the crank, which means the rider must pedal constantly or lift his feet off the pedals if he wants to coast. ``The only problem [with the high-wheelers] is getting on and off,'' Kennedy says.
Today's riders, however, do have one advantage over the riders of yesteryear. Modern roads are much smoother, and riders do not have to cope with mud, gravel, and muck, which prompted many riders then to remove the brakes, because they constantly were being clogged by pebbles.
Today, says Fuehrer, gawkers in autos tend to be a bigger problem than mud or rough roads.