Long Johns – Modern Interpretations of a Classic Design

The largest cities in the UK have seen a massive increase in the use of cargo bikes in the last few years. From my observations, the cargo bikes that appear to be the most popular for commercial use, are those based on the ‘Long John’ design.

This is a stretched or long bike that incorporates a load carrying platform between the rider and the front wheel. If you want to find out more about the different types of cargo bike, my blog about ‘London’s Cavalcade of Cargo Cycles’ has a graphic that illustrates them.

Some of these are purely pedal powered. The growth in the use of cargo bikes within the logistics mix, for local and last mile delivery solutions has, however, coincided with the availability of efficient electric-assist equipment. The increase in dedicated cycling infrastructure and local distribution hubs, has increased the speed and ease of making deliveries in this way.

This last point was given as one of the reasons for London based civil engineering contractor F M Conway recently acquiring three cargo bikes.

The Traditional Long John

The original Long John bicycle was designed by the Danish mechanic Morten Rasmussen Mortensen in 1929. This was recognised in 2015 through the release, by Post Danmark, of a Jakob Monefeldt designed commemorative stamp. It was one of four stamps produced as a tribute to Danish inventions that had; “…changed the everyday lives of people around the world.”

Long Johns quickly became popular because they could carry a significant load, typically in excess of a 100kg. They had the agility to cope with narrow streets and passage ways, and the wheels and tyres to cope with the uneven road surfaces of the time. Beneath the load platform there was a substantial stand to support the bike whilst it was being loaded or deliveries made.

The Long John was designed to be easily maintained and repaired. Contemporary photos suggest that these bikes were usually painted black, with legends on the side of the load platforms showing the maximum recommended weight and height of the load. Most look as if they took a bit of a battering in use.

One of the main producers of traditional Long Johns was SCO (Smith & Co Odense), who have manufactured bikes since 1905. They introduced their first Long John model in 1943 (I am aware that there is a survivor stamped for 1942). In the 1960′s SCO took over another Danish Long John maker called Urania and used that as branding for some of their own Long Johns.

Today the SCO website offer an interpretation of the traditional style Long John as shown in the picture above. Other Danish manufacturers such as Acrobat also maintain that tradition.

The history given above differs from that in Wikipedia. It is, however, based on research conducted by Post Danmark and the official history of Smith & Co Odense.

The Work Horses.

Bullitt

The success of the classic Danish Long John is reflected in the fact that the design was unchanged for more than 80 years. Then Larry vs Harry came along. Lars Malmborg (Larry) and Hans Bullitt Fogh (Harry) decided to, “…build the perfect cargo bike.” According to their website, at that time Harry was using a 60-year-old Danish Long John cargo bike as his business run-about. It was proving to be faster and more versatile than the state-of-the-art cargo tricycles being worked on by Larry.

The result of their collaboration was a strong, fast and reliable evolution of the classic Long John – the Bullitt. To produce and market it they formed the company ‘Larry vs Harry’. I took the picture above at London Green Cycles as I liked the way the shadow revealed how the Bullitt frame is constructed. As can be seen below; when not fitted with a body, it can have a flat load platform. This one was tucked away in corner of the yard at London Recumbents and, in the past, had been used for delivering bread.

Larry vs Harry maintain a range of interestingly named liveries, some of which have been developed in conjunction with other designers. The two pictures at the start of this blog are of Bullitts, and reveal a couple of the body options. Like most cargo bikes, there are a range of bodies available for the carriage of goods and people – particularly children.

One Bullitt that is regularly seen on the streets of Copenhagen belongs to Nordisk Cryobank (European Sperm Bank). and is used to make deliveries to the city’s fertility clinics.

Logistics and making deliveries are not the only function for Long Johns. Cyclehoop use a Bullitt as a tool-carrier and transport for staff who service and maintain Bikehangars that they have installed.  As they put it, in a tweet, “Be the change you want to see.”

Besides the Bullitt, the majority of the Long Johns I see around town are based on the Hercules Cargo 500/1000 or the Urban Arrow bikes.

Hercules

In my Blog, ‘Cycles that Change Cities’, I refer to Ferdinand Porshe designing and producing electric cars in the 19th Century. He was not the only one though: – in 1898 Carl Marschütz launched the Hercules Electric Chaise.

He formed the company “Velozipedfabrik Carl Marschütz & Co.” in 1886, but the next year renamed it “Nuremberg Velozipedfabrik Hercules”. By 1894 it was producing almost 5000 bicycles a year.

In the mid-1980s the company started producing the first commercial e-assist bike – the Electra. With a rack mounted battery, it has a surprisingly contemporary look to its layout.

In 1995 Hercules was acquired by the Accell Group who sold it to ZEG in 2014. ZEG is a co-operative of a 1000 cycle shops.

Like several other brands, the Hercules can be fitted with two batteries for longer work cycles between charges. Actually, you can swap the batteries in less than a minute so, with a supply of recharged batteries and riders, these bikes can be kept going for extended periods.

The numbers of these I see about may be due to their use by e-cargobikes. As well as their own courier company, e-cargobikes can also provide a liveried bike-based delivery service to other businesses. For companies looking to achieve one of the recognised sustainability standards, a wander around e-cargobikes website could be of interest.

The demise of the traditional delivery bike service is often put down to one person with a van being able to achieve the equivalent work of several using bikes. The modern cargo bike can reverse that especially when operating costs are fully taken into account.

Watching the courier on the Hercules below, sail past a long line of stationary taxis and vans, it was clear to see why this type of operation can be so productive. I was bemused to see the same type of kerb-scrapes on platform corners of this bike, as are seen in early photographs of the original Danish Long Johns.

Urban Arrow

The first Urban Arrow was launched in 2010 in Holland with the claim to have reinvented the cargo bike. They set out to achieve the urban utility vehicle of the future combining the capacity of a van with the agility of an e-bike.

Furthermore, they claim to be, “…defining a brand-new transport category: Smart Urban Mobility.”  This is an antidote to traffic congestion and the, “…need to reduce air pollution – quickly. By combining the carrying capacity of your car and the agility of an e-bike, we’re creating the ultimate vehicle to take all that’s dear to you from A to B – and beyond. Clean, safe, stylish, fast.”

This ambition is well illustrated by the Pedal Me bikes which I seem to see every time I go into London. Not only are they to be seen moving commercial goods, building supplies and industrial freezers; but also, people and their entire household contents including wardrobes and the settee

The design of the bikes incorporates seats that can carry one or two adults, which allows them to be used to provide a taxi service as well as carry goods. Some of the tweets I have seen recently are from ‘vulnerable people’ who have chosen to do this, rather than use a cab or public transport, to minimise their potential exposure to the Covid virus.

They are also suited to use by Storm Troopers; something I mention merely as an excuse to include the picture below.

Urban Arrow also produced cargo bikes designed for the family market, to move children and shopping.

The Urban Arrow below photographed in the back yard of London Green Cycles shows, other than the motor, remarkable similarity in terms of general arrangement, to the original Long John of Morten Rasmussen Mortensen.

Urban Arrow also make a Short John, sometimes known as a cycle truck. Its inclusion here is for no better reason than it bemuses me.

Increasing Capacity

With trailers added, the versatility and capacity of these bikes are greatly extended. The picture below shows a 200kg load of flowers that would fill a Transit, being moved by cargo bike and trailer.

I’m grateful for permission to use this picture. If you look at the original tweet, the comments below it give further information

The development of trailers that incorporate their own e-assist batteries and motors have increased the load moving capability of cargo bike-based solutions even further. There are even examples of cargo bikes towing multiple trailers and forming the cycling equivalent of a road-train. If you click on the picture below, it will take you to twitter and a video of such a cycletrain in action.

The cycle-train is operated by ‘Sikle – The Composters of Strasbourg’. Sikle provide an organic waste collection service to businesses in Strasbourg, That waste is then composted for use in the city – this is summed up perfectly by their straplines: ‘Urban composting for a fertile city’, and, ‘Yesterday the garbage, tomorrow the greenery’.

The picture below from Hereford Pedicabs and Cargo is included mainly because it appeals to me, although it does show how ingenuity and innovation is being brought to bicycle-based logistics.

Alongside the pedicab business and their delivery and collection operation, Pedicargo also provide a trade waste solution. Like Sikle the collections are by bicycle and trailer. They collect paper, cardboard and plastic waste; which they then sort and recycle.

The bikes above cover most of the long johns I see in commercial use. Others include the Douze from France, Riese & Müller from Germany, and Centaur from Holland.

Douze

I see a few of these on the streets but its inclusion here may have more to do with the power of association of ideas. It comes from a part of France that I associate with wine and mustard. It’s worth noting that the Sikle roadtrain in the video above is being hauled by a Douze Long John.

Riese & Müller

Recently I discovered that a neighbour had upgraded the family transport to a rather funky looking blue-liveried Riese & Müller. I asked why? The answer was build quality, low maintenance requirement and low overall lifetime costs.

Centaur

The Centaur has become part of the Babboe range and is being rebranded as the Babboe Pro. At Christmas 2019, this one was being used to provide free local delivery of shopping purchased on the local high street. All you had to do was drop the shopping off in the bike shop and agree a delivery time.

Don’t Forget the Brits

I’ve included examples of the Crawford, manufactured in Edinburgh, and Ridgeback Long Johns as they are British brands.

Crawford

The Crawford is a brand from the frame-builders C3Cycles. If you want a Long John with customised frame fittings; they may be worth calling.

Ridgeback

I know little of this bike, but suspect that it owes something to Ridgeback’s association with the Danish company Promovec.

Bakfietsen – Dutch Box Bikes

Bakfiets

As well as being a brand of bike, “bakfiets” has become a generic term, to represent this style of Long John and, sometimes, all Long Johns. This reflects that in the Dutch language ‘bakfiets’ means ‘box bike’, and the claim of its designer that it was the “…first two wheeled family cargo bike.”

Said designer, Maartin van Andel, built the first Bakfiet specifically for children in 1999. It had a wooden cargo/passenger box mounted on a rigid monotube and was used for taking his children to school.

If you click on the image below, it should play a 6 minute video in which Maartin tells the story of why and how he developed the Bakfiets.

Backfiets also produce a Long John for commercial use

Babboe

The Babboe below is used by a street entertainer to transport his props. Most of those I see are being used for school runs or shopping, and appear to be typical Dutch box bikes.

Workcycles

Workcycles are another Dutch maker. I mention them merely to include a picture of one their Long Johns transformed into the bike world equivalent of the stretched limo. Sadly, Workcycles have stated they prefer that I do not use that picture. Whilst I do not think they own the rights, as there could be safety issues should a non-engineer try making such a conversion, I have complied with that request.

Gazelle
Royal Dutch Gazelle are yet another maker from Holland. I photographed the bike below in the workshop of Blue Door Bikes (whilst in previous ownership). I thought it was worth including as, with the load carrier closed up, the steering mechanism can be clearly seen.

The bike in the background is an old Waller Kingsland hill climb bike. There’s no frame number on it, but likely to be circa 1948.

I should perhaps mention that it currently hangs from the picture rail above my mantlepiece. The beautifully patinated original paint makes great decorative art. It also keeps the frame clean and dry, and acts as a reminder that I need to restore and conserve it.

Dolly-Bakfiets

The owner of this Dolly told me that the ruggedness and practicality of the fun-coloured moulded plastic box had influenced the purchasing decision.

Normal Everyday Bikes

Two of the routes I cycle to access the chalk country of the Icknield Way / Ridgeway, are along the Grand Union Canal and the River Lea Navigation. I am always struck not by the number of bikes on the barges and narrow boats; but the proportion of those bikes that are cargo bikes.

Even more telling is that these are not considered novel or special bikes – they are just practical, ordinary everyday rides.

Where Next for the Long John

It seems to me that the Long John has, in its latest incarnations, probably evolved, as far as is likely for urban inner-city logistics use. That is, however, a relatively limited use of a versatile vehicle.

Anywhere.berlin rose to the challenge in 2015/16 by developing a ‘supersized’ electric cargo bicycle that goes across most terrain carrying 160kgs or more.

To achieve this they use fat tires and ‘all wheel drive’ with a front hub motor in adition to the one providing drive to the back wheel.

Once the control system to manage dual motors had been fettled, and a steering system to give the necessary agility resolved, they had their ‘go anywhere’ Long John.

Their website makes interesting reading, especially the section on their initiative in South Africa. Rather like the philosophy of Worldbike or Portal Bike Nepal, identified in my blog Long Tails – How Idealism and a Desire for Social Justice gave birth to New Type of Bicycle, the opportunities offered goes far beyond the raw value of the basic bicycle. I’ve exchanged emails with anywhere.berlin and hope to have an update and pictures soon.

If you have enjoyed this blog please click the ‘Like’ button.  Better still, why not click on the ‘Follow’ button so that you receive an email notification when I post the next blog article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s