Bicycle of the Future

This amazing-looking machine is a 1960 Ben Bowden Spacelander

Benjamin Bowden was the car designer and engineer responsible for the Healey 2.4, the first post-WWII 100mph production car, but like Mini suspension designer Alex Moulton after him, he was fascinated by the idea of improving the bike. In 1946 he showed his Bicycle of the Future at the Britain Can Make It exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, to public acclaim and amazement.

His patent said he had just intended to “provide improvement of aesthetic and practical character” of the bike, but many features of the bike that became the Spacelander were radical departures for the time.

The frame was made from two steel clamshell halves welded together into a monocoque and the front fork and mudguard was all one piece. The prototype had a shaft drive, a suspension fork, and batteries inside the frame powered lights, a horn, and a built-in radio. It was far too radical for the deeply conservative British bike industry of the day. Bowden moved to the US to seek backing for the bike and over a decade later, in 1960, the production Spacelander was built in Michigan with a fibreglass frame and more conventional chain drive. By then its swoopy lines, harking back to the streamlining and tail fins of 1940s and ‘50s American cars looked distinctly dated, and only 522 were made before the company went bust.

Ben Bowden continued to work as a designer until he retired from coordinating designs for military tanks at General Dynamics in 1986 aged 79. He never really recovered from the failure of the Spacelander, even though he could take heart from the widespread use of pressed steel construction in scooters and mopeds that the Spacelander inspired. He died in 1998.