The Raleigh Small Wheel (RSW) Bicycle

rswmainpic2Above are are two types of Raleigh RSWs, both found at Eastleigh Household Waste Recycling Centre and bought for the princely sum of a tenner. That was for both bikes, although found on different occasions.

The Raleigh RSW was an interesting creature. It was made from 1965 to 1974, as a response to the roller-coaster success of the Moulton Bicycle. In fact, the pre-production bike was shown to Alex Moulton as early as 1964.

Most Moulton fans despise the RSW and believe that it was responsible for the eventual demise of the classic Moulton bicycle. I once arrived late at the Moulton Bicycle Club annual gathering and saw a Raleigh RSW in the middle of the courtyard with the devoted few pointing out all it's flaws. It is seen as the inferior imitator, heavy, primitive and energy-sapping. The main objects of derision are the wheels, running fat tyres pumped up to an astonishing 35 psi. These are the RSW's suspension system; no rubber-cored springs or rising rate rubber sandwiches for the Raleigh monster. The received wisdom in the Moulton Club is virtually carved into stone tablets: Cyclist riding the RSW forms the view that small wheels mean hard pedalling work. Tells bicycling mates. The Moulton has small wheels, therefore the Moulton must also be hard to pedal. So, all customers return to big-wheelers.

Well, I think that this history is a load of tosh. I don't believe that technical dissatisfaction with inefficient small wheels happened at all, for several reasons. Firstly, despite all it's disadvantages, Raleigh still managed to sell 100,000 RSWs over nine years, a great success. They then went on to create the Chopper, with similar tyres, that sold 1.5 million bicycles. Secondly, we may well scorn fat tyres at low pressure, but the Moulton itself in those days was shod with Raleigh Records, blocky tyres running at only 50 psi fully pumped up. The RSWs original tyres were specially designed lightweight ones made from a synthetic very flexible white 'rubber'. And 35 psi is the same as you will find on motorbikes and cars.

Click on the first photo to start the slideshow.

It is certainly true that the RSW muscled in on the Moulton's success and pinched it's customers, as any rival product can. If you create a whole new market then your competitors are always going to have their beady eyes on it. Sales figures show that Moulton bicycles were selling well throughout the first half of 1965, then sales fell off a cliff as soon as the RSW appeared. The latter bike was cheaper- evil thing. Moulton countered with the 7/8ths scale version of their bike, the Mini, in 1966 and this was also successful for many years. The rival bikes had a relatively short product life-cycle, unfortunately, probably due to other new designs being launched. Shopper bicycles with 20" wheels, sometimes folding like the Dawes Kingpin, appeared in the late 1960's. Raleigh's own shopper took over from both the Moulton and the RSW and was also bought in large numbers into the 1980's. Clearly, there were more bikes than the market could cope with, and bikes tend to last a long time.

It seems a shame that the revolution started by Moulton did not permanently alter the common perception that bicycles must have large wheels. Nevertheless, we have also seen that the small-wheeled bicycle concept has survived quite nicely in niche products to the present day. Let us forgive and forget the sales war of the past.

I think that the RSW is a good bike, with a lot of character. It trundles around in a very comfortable, unhurried way and the open frame is nice to use. The weight really comes from the equipment, all steel and a heavy Dynohub, steel carrier and stand. But it is a town bike, not a tourer. If you find an RSW in reasonable condition you should save it, as there are not that many of them left.

RSW Compact

You couldn't fail to notice that one of the RSWs above folds in a very unusual way. The joke goes that the bike is larger folded than unfolded. Interestingly, the mechanism is like a shotgun barrel, and locks very securely into the folded state. I have often been tempted to try to ride the folded bike, just for fun. It is so reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy's Model T Ford after it was crushed between two trams.

laurelhardycarThe compact also has a unique way of folding up the handlebars. A robust knob screws down on them to lock both sides securely into place, and unscrews to allow them to pivot down close to the frame. It works very well. My plan is to have this bike powder-coated in a more modern colour and I'm thinking of metallic green for the frame and dark green for the chaincase and mudguards. These days there are a choice of good quality tyres for the RSW. You can either go the retro route and use Redline tyres, the kind that were made for the front wheel of the Raleigh Chopper, or the new Schwalbe Big Apples that have much higher performance. Neither tyre is expensive and I will choose the latter option.

The whole bike is a delight of over-engineering. It is almost as strong as a motorcycle. Funny I should say that, because that's exactly what Raleigh did with the RSW next.

Raleigh Wisp Moped

 Fitting petrol engines to bicycles was not a new idea in the late sixties. There had been a very well-known device in wartime called the Winged Wheel.twiggy raleigh moped

2404554492 27515b1af4 oRaleigh's durable RSW was ripe for motorisation, and in fact the resulting Raleigh Wisp looks so neat and tidy that you wonder whether the company had this in mind when designing the bike in 1964. The fitting of the cylindrical petrol tank under the rear stays for example, is beautifully arranged. All they needed to upgrade about the bike were the tyres, to slightly stiffer black versions and the handlebars, to a higher and probably stronger design. Front braking was by a large hub. Twiggy was certainly impressed.

A beautiful RSW Mk1

Here is a MkI RSW that I saw somewhere on the web. Thank you if it was your photo. It has had some light restoration, but I believe that it has been well cared for from new. Red was the popular colour, and in "The Prisoner" television series of 1967 the RSW's that are used in The Village are always red. Red RSW smallA very nice feature is the attachment of the chrome front light to the mudguard, giving a sleek look not unlike the early Douglas Vespa. I guess that there was a vibration problem as the light was moved to a bracket on the MkII.  Note also that the red MkI had a revolutionary rear brake that works in the same way as the mountain-bike rear "U" brake of two decades later. The MkII uses the neat, but feeble, Sturmey Archer SB3 hub brake specially designed for the RSW. Gears are changed by a twistgrip shifter, also an RSW innovation. Although the frame remained similar throughout production, the length of the headtube was increased for the Mk2 and handlebars modified. Colour matched outer cables are sometimes seen, particularly on the later olive green models.

All in all, I think you will agree that the Raleigh RSW was not just a panic response to the Moulton. It had a huge input of design effort and development and lived up to it's marketing name- "The Dolly One".