Inside The Pro’s Closet: Bob Jackson Trike

By Bruce Lin
Photos: Jarrad Lokes/The Pro’s Closet

The Bob Jackson Racing Tricycle is probably not what you were expecting here. Some might think that it’s got one too many wheels to be featured in the pages of RBA. However, at The Pro’s Closet, we’re all bike nerds, and more than anything, we love finding unique bikes with unique stories. Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make any bike extraordinary, and to us, the story behind this bike is indeed a unique one.

SOMETHING OR NOTHING SPECIAL? 

The Bob Jackson Racing Tricycle came to us without much pomp or circumstance. It was in fact just an oddity that one of our shop buyers stumbled upon while browsing the classifieds. I remember him showing it to me on the computer and I was unimpressed. It was a dim photo that did little to flatter the trike’s odd shape and mustard paint. It looked like something cobbled together in some guy’s garage.

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“I’m thinking of buying it,” he said. I just laughed and shrugged, but a week later the bike appeared on display in the front office. I have to admit that up close the trike possessed more appeal than its classified photo, and I couldn’t help but be drawn to it for a closer examination. It doesn’t have the raw beauty of some of the fine Italian road bikes in our collection, nor the pedigree or history of some of our classic mountain bikes (e.g., Julie Furtado’s Yeti C-26 and an original Breezer). It isn’t worth anywhere near what any of those bikes are worth. But, it did have something else.

“The unique aspect of riding a trike is unlike a two-wheeled bike; the three-wheeler doesn’t lean. It’s a strange sensation.”

For some reason the Bob Jackson reminded me of a vintage British sports car that one of my friends used to own. It was a beat-up and rundown Triumph—rusty and goofy-looking. None of the electronics worked (of course), it constantly smelled like gas, and the body panels all rattled and looked ready to fall off, but everyone we knew loved it. Despite its flaws and quirks, the car attracted your curiosity and made your head turn. It had something few cars have. It had character, and everyone wanted a ride in it.

To me, that’s what the Bob Jackson is—British and full of little quirks. It has 700c wheels, drop bars and a five-speed drivetrain. It’s far beyond any trike you may have known growing up, and I had certainly never seen anything like it before. The rider position—low and forward like a normal road bike—is meant for racing. Everybody at TPC had to have a go with it, and the giggles and smiles on everyone’s faces told the whole story. It didn’t matter where the bike came from or how well it rode. It’s something most bike riders will never experience, and this unique character is what makes it brilliant.

WHO WAS BOB?
The man behind Bob Jackson, J.R. (John Robert) Jackson, first opened shop in Leeds in 1935 as J.R.J. Cycles using money borrowed from his mother. He built bikes until WWII when all production had to be put on hold while Jackson served in the Royal Air Force. After the war, he restarted his bike-building business in full force, and in 1955 was able to purchase the historic British Merlin brand to begin producing Merlin frames in parallel with his J.R.J. frames.

By the 1960s the company’s reputation as a quality builder of lightweight road and track frames had grown both in Britain and the U.S., and Jackson was handling production for multiple other bicycle brands as well. Eventually, a name change took place, and J.R.J. was dropped in favor of the more colloquial Bob Jackson moniker, and they continued to build frames under that name even after Jackson passed away in 1999.

THE BRITISH BUILD
The frame for this racing trike was built to order in 1975 and shipped to D.J. Cycles in Belmer, New Jersey. At the time it was built with a mix of Campagnolo and SunTour components, and it was ultimately left up to the buyer how to build up the frame. The frame’s shape is what would be considered standard for a classic English or European racing tricycle, essentially a double-diamond frame with the stays supporting a wide rear axle.

The axle has bottom bracket cups threaded into each end, and each cup supports a unique extra-long spindle that the rear wheels are designed to fit onto. The spindles are keyed on the ends and have an expanding wedge at the base to hold the wheels in place. The rear hubs have no bearings; instead, they spin on the bearings in the bottom bracket cups, similar to a car axle.

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Interestingly, the rear axle is also split at the cassette so that it only drives the left (non-drive side) wheel. This is necessary, because the wheels have to spin at different speeds during turns. If they were joined by a solid rear axle, the outside wheel would be unable to spin faster, and thus the bike would plow into turns and become difficult to handle. Cars have solved this problem with differentials, which allow the wheels to turn at different speeds. Now small, lightweight differentials are available for those seeking to build a two-wheel-drive trike, but in the Bob Jackson’s time, such options didn’t exist. The issue could also be potentially remedied by always cornering hard enough to lift the inside wheel off the ground, but it’s perhaps more practical to simply drive one wheel.

THE TRIKE RIDE
Riding the trike gives a strange feeling at first, as the left-wheel drive makes the bike want to trend towards the right as you pedal. Supposedly this favors British roads, as the Brits ride and drive on the left side of the road. On the left side the bike will want to push itself upslope towards the crown of the road rather than off the shoulder. On American roads, or any roads where you ride on the right side, however, this means that you must constantly apply steering input towards the center of the road to keep the bike from veering off into the weeds.

The unique aspect of riding a trike is unlike a two-wheeled bike; the three-wheeler doesn’t lean. It’s a strange sensation. To corner, you actually have to turn the handlebars, which can be disconcerting at speed. The classic “delta” tricycle design (one wheel in front and two behind) makes it quite prone to rolling over in aggressive turns if you aren’t careful. In fact, it’s best to hang your body off to the inside like a motorcycle racer.

“He built bikes until WWII when all production had to be put on hold while Jackson served in the Royal Air Force.”

Keen observers will have noticed that the trike has two brakes, but they are both mounted to the front fork. This was done as a clever way to satisfy UCI regulations, which require racing bikes to have two brakes. Before the advent of modern hub-mounted disc brakes, putting a brake on either of the rear wheels would have required additional tubing just to support the caliper, adding complexity and weight, so dual front brakes were a common solution for early-racing trikes.

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The right brake lever controls a standard cantilever brake, while the left lever controls a center-pull caliper bolted to a special extended mount. The cables are routed through a pair of holes that were hand-drilled into the stem, and the two brakes are close enough together that the pads for the cantilever brake are actually chopped to fit.

THE TRIKE TRIBE
Racing tricycles like this Bob Jackson never got much of a foothold in the U.S. In England, though, there is a national Tricycle Association specifically for enthusiasts of exactly this type of machine. I discovered footage on YouTube of a World Tricycle Championship that occurred as recently as 2008 in Asse, Belgium. As amusing and comical-looking as it is, the riders participating take it seriously. They lean into corners like a line of MotoGP riders tiptoeing through, a few unlucky souls pushing just a bit too far and rolling over. In the end, one of them becomes the world champion and the loser pounds his fist into his bars in utter disgust. The Europeans definitely understood something—put everyone on a trike, and although the racing will be slow, it will definitely be entertaining.

I’d say I’ve grown fond of the Bob Jackson Racing Tricycle. It’s spent the last couple of weeks by my desk. I’ve ridden it a couple more times, searched for the limit around some corners and come back alive. To me, it’s a bike that doesn’t need any romantic origin story, because if someone ever asks me what the craziest or weirdest bike I’ve ridden is, the answer will be easy. I can whip out a photo of this old, mustard yellow, left-wheel-drive racing trike with two front brakes that I once lost control of and rode into a parked car. It really is one of my better stories.

SPECS
BOB JACKSON RACING TRICYCLE

  • Estimated value: $1500
  • Frame: Bob Jackson Racing Tricycle
  • Fork: Bob Jackson steel Unicrown with cantilever posts and extended caliper mount
  • Headset: Tange Levin
  • Stem: 3ttt Record, Drilled
  • Handlebars: Kusuki Win
  • Brakes: Zues Super Alfa 71 center-pull caliper/Dia-Compe Gran Compe cantilever
  • Brake levers: Weinmann AG
  • Front derailleur: Campagnolo Nuovo Record
  • Rear derailleur: Campagnolo Nuovo Record
  • Shift levers: SunTour 3090 Bar-Con
  • Freewheel: SunTour Pro Compe, 5-Speed, 14-23t
  • Chain: SRAM PC 830
  • Crankset: Sugino Mighty Competition, 50/42t, 171mm
  • Bottom bracket: Campagnolo Record
  • Wheels: Super Champion Competition (front)/Fiamme (rear)
  • Tires: Continental Giro Tubular, 22mm
  • Saddle: Selle Italia Turbo
  • Seatpost: Campagnolo Nuovo Record
  • Top tube: 57cm
  • Seat tube: 61.5cm (C-T), 60cm (C-C)
  • Head tube: 15.8cm
  • Weight: 28 pounds, 3 ounce (with pedals)

Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series from The Pro’s Closet featuring bikes from the past and present that deserve a spotlight, either for their place in history, their technical merits or simply because we think they’re special. Besides creating a museum of vintage race bikes, The Pro’s Closet is the top shop for the resale of quality pre-owned bikes, parts and valuations. 

www.theproscloset.com

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