Jan Kohout and Registration of the brand

Around about 1996, a small group of enthusiasts in the Czech Velocipedist Club 1880 (the re-established Czech Velocipedist Club 1880 after enforced interruption of its activities) decided to search for the history of the manufacture of Kohout bicycles.

They obtained their information from period Czech, Austrian and German material. For two years, they intensively visited all the museums and private collections in Bohemia and, with the help of a great many friends at home and abroad, finally managed to discover 47 Kohout bicycles. Through comparing them, they arrived at basic information, which was presented at the 10th annual International Cycling History Conference in Nijmegen in Holland in August of 1999.

We continue to carefully maintain a register of bicycles of this brand name and, after another decade, are able to say that we are acquainted with 57 machines. These documented 57 bicycles correspond to approximately 5% of probable total production. About 900 Kohout bicycles were manufactured between 1880 to possibly 1891. The highest known production number is 872.

Jan Kohout and Registration of the brand

A visit from England

In 1879, Jan Kohout had 30 years of successful business operation and experience in machine production behind him.He was well off: he was the chief shareholder of the Smíchov brewery, had become an esteemed citizen and was a good father to his three daughters and five sons.  In 1879, the two oldest, František and Josef were 19 and 16 years old, respectively.

It is not known why the English clergyman James Piricho came to Catholic Bohemia that year and why he lived in the house of Jan Kohout in Smíchov in Prague. He travelled with his closest family and also with his nephew, William Crowl, who brought his Excelsior bicycle with him from England; this was a bicycle that was unknown in all the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. In the preserved photograph, William looks like a young man of about 20.His Excelsior was a type with an open head and sliding bearings. When Crowl first rode it around the courtyard of the factory, Kohout’s sons were enthusiastic. They called their father and their slightly older friend Karel Schulz to have a look. Schulz was a known rider and promoter of riding a boneshaker, on which he regularly performed circus stunts.

As soon as Schulz tried the Excelsior, which he borrowed from Crowl, he immediately ordered a similar high-wheel bicycle in Kohout’s factory. He had to be satisfied with the fact that the machine had wooden front and rear wheels with iron bands. Either they were not sufficiently sure of themselves in the factory to try to make an all-metal wheel with spokes, or they probably just utilized the skills and speed of the local wheel-makers making wheels for carriages and wagons. Thus, the first three high-wheel Kohouts were made at the end of 1879. Three, because both František and Josef also wanted to have a bicycle, in addition to Schulz. I am of the opinion that one of these bicycles is preserved in the Technical Museum in Prague, unfortunately without the rear wheel. The weight, the workmanship and the hard seat explain why the three cyclists only rode a little way beyond the gate on these bicycles. Nonetheless, the experience of riding it was so strong that the youths didn’t let themselves be discouraged by the first prototype. In the spring or beginning of the summer of 1880, three completely new high-wheel bicycles stood in the courtyard of the Kohout factory, this time all-metal versions. We can consider these to be functional prototypes for the Kohout brand. They already had wheels with wire spokes, a V-shaped wheel rim, very simple sliding bearings, an open head and straight handlebars. One of these bicycles has also been preserved in the National Technical Museum in Prague. This is a complete fifty-two, with apparent influence of the Excelsior, and tends to reflect blacksmith rather than machine workmanship. Nonetheless, it has the characteristic features of all its successors, i.e. mounting the spokes in the axles with hollow nipples, sliding mounting of the seat spring in a metal casing and the characteristic shape of the rear fork. In addition, the open hub, solid front fork and straight handlebars were initially typical features. In contrast to all the later Kohout bicycles, the preserved bicycle does not have any production number on any of its parts or components. The complete machine weighed 25 kilograms.It is also the only known Kohout with sliding bearings. Eleven years later, Josef Kohout said of its manufacture: “The making of each detail required extensive meetings and practical tests. Then, when everything was ready, it was extremely difficult to put all those parts together in a perfect whole. For example, you can’t imagine the difficulties involved in fixing the rubber in the steel wheel rim. In addition, various tests had to be carried out, until an adhesive was found that would hold the rubber firmly in the rim.”

         In the summer of 1880, the four riders – the two Kohouts, Karel Schulz and William Crowl – were already making longer trips. At that time, a happy event occurred. At the beginning of August, another Englishman, Theodor Bock, passed through Prague. He was riding on a British Challenge high-wheel bicycle from London through Germany and Austro-Hungary to France. By luck, he rode under the windows of Schulz. When Schulz saw him, he jumped on his bike and caught up with Bock. Let’s have a closer look at the situation: Apparently, until that moment, Bock had not encountered a single rider on a high-wheel bicycle on the European continent. Schulz invited Bock home to the Kohout’s house, where everyone carefully examined the technical details of his machine with great interest, especially the needle bearings on the front wheel. This was a feature that very soon appeared on the next Kohout bicycles.

Supplementary manufacture

         The trips of the Kohouts around Prague and especially their trip to Vienna in 1880 attracted great interest in their bicycles. On November 16, 1880, a meeting of enthusiasts was held in the Kohout factory, where they decided to establish the first cycling club in all of Austro-Hungary, the Czech Velocipedist Club. It had 23 founding members, who set out for their first outing in April of 1881. They were most probably already riding on Kohout bicycles. In July of 1881, the press carried information about another outing of 18 members of the club.  Apparently, they all rode on Czech machines, i.e. Kohouts. It is thus confirmed with certainty that the Kohout factory manufactured at least 18 bicycles between the autumn of 1880 and July 1881, although we think that there were more, probably somewhere between 30 and 40. In 1880, sportsmen outside of Prague were also already buying bicycles. The customers Max Buchar of Příbram and František Říha of Čelákovice are known as they sent a letter of praise to the Kohout factory about their experiences.

         These first bicycles, manufactured at the end of 1880 and beginning of 1881, were already numbered and differed from the prototype basically in that the axle of the front wheel was mounted in needle bearings. The machines also bore the characteristics of good smithy work, as reflected in the four oldest preserved bicycles (numbers 19 to 39).

         The production numbers of Kohout bicycles were most frequently on the axle of the front wheel, on the fork, the flat part of the backbone at the site of connection to the fork, the seat post spring, the pivot point on which the spring is placed, or on the casing, in which the lower end of the spring was mounted in older types. In addition, the number could be on both cranks, on the brake lever and on the brake. Some of the bicycles have a production number on only one or two parts, while other bicycles have numbers everywhere. Each component was manufactured singly and was frequently not the same as any other one. Before completing assembly, each bicycle had to be put together and the components had to be modified to fit exactly together. More components were apparently numbered when a larger series of bicycles was manufactured together.

         The numbers 1 and 2 were also stamped on the cranks and handlebars to differentiate between the left-hand (1) and right-hand (2) thread. The size of the front wheel in inches was frequently stamped on the axle of the back wheel and on the flat part of the frame at the head of the fork.

It should be borne in mind that, even at the time of the greatest interest in Kohout bicycles, they were not their main production program of the machine works, but rather a supplementary program. At that time, the company specialized in mill parts and other economic facilities.

The only one in the monarchy

         Kohout first put advertisements in the Austrian Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung on November 16,1882.In the advertisement of March 1, 1883, Kohout bicycles were already being offered by the trade representative for Vienna and Lower Austria, Otto Passolt at Floriangasse No. 4,  On the other hand, in March 1884, Kohout bicycles were being advertised without Passolt and, in June, it was explicitly stated that Kohout did not have any trade representative in Vienna. The reason is indicated in the advertisement of August 28, 1884, placed by Passolt himself: “Factory for bicycles and tricycles of the newest and best design”. The sly fox!

         It is thought that about 100 Kohout bicycles were manufactured in 1882 and there was great interest in them even far from Prague. Young men on high-wheel bicycles were no exception in Prague, quite to the contrary. This can be concluded from the fact that riding bicycles was prohibited in the city that year.

         There is a report from 1883 stating that the new bicycle room of the Czech Velocipedist Club could hold the bicycles of 80 members, mostly of the Kohout brand. Together with the bicycles of the members of another club and the bicycles of cyclists from outside Prague, it could be considered probable that a total of 200 bicycles were manufactured in Smichov between 1880 and 1883. Of these, 12 bicycles are now known with numbers between 19 and 109. They all have a solid front fork with an open head and a frame tube with a circular cross-section, pivotal mounting of the leaf spring in a casing, sliding bearings in the rear wheel and the pedals and, of course, spokes mounted in the wheel axles by hollow nipples, fixed with a nut.  There is a predominance of straight handlebars and V-shaped wheel rims. Above number 69, with a single exception, a U-rim with a half-moon shape is used.

         The first bicycle with ball bearings, Aeolus, has number 103. It is a beautiful fifty-six, i.e. with a 56-inch front wheel, i.e. 140 cm. Only a small number of the 57 preserved Kohouts, all with high production numbers, have ball bearings – all Aeolus. We mention these differences in the oldest preserved Kohout bicycles up to production number 109 because they tell a great deal about the character of production. It certainly tended to be piece production, at the best the production of a small series at a time. It is apparent that the factory attempted to react to the design of European bicycles, about which information was gradually beginning to be received, soon followed by the bicycles themselves, especially from England. Consequently, U-wheel rims and Aeolus bearings soon began to appear in Kohouts (apparently on special order and for a surcharge, rather than needle bearings) and various types of handlebars were being offered. The head, handlebars, spring, brake, axles, cranks and spokes were always polished; nickel plating was not used. We know that master Adolf Patočka was responsible for manufacture of bicycles at the Kohout factory; he was an enormous man, said to have measured 206 cm. He was an enthusiastic cyclist and was also amongst the first who began to ride high-wheel bicycles in this country.

         Throughout their manufacture, Kohout bicycles were characterized by robust construction and thus also high weight. The brochures stated that this is an advantage considering the poor state of the roads in Bohemia and its surroundings. This was certainly be true, but only partially. A further reason was the fact that the machine works manufactured mainly heavy gearing and large machines, i.e. nothing very light. If someone wanted a Kohout from Smíchov, then he had to accept the fact that it would not be a racing machine.However, they exercised the greatest care with the production, which they decided to undertake more or less by accident. Kohout bicycles are characteristic and distinctive; they have their style and undoubtedly also a certain elegance.

Onto the seats!

         June 11, 1882 is an important date, when races were held in Vienna by the editor of the above-mentioned Viennese Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung. Josef Kohout won the race for the Champion of Austria over 1 mile, with a time of 3 minutes, 41.4 seconds, ahead of his brother and the Champion of Germany T.H.S. Walker. Then František Kohout won the races over 2 and 10 miles. These events are mentioned because the triumphal victory of the Kohout brothers on machines from Smíchov greatly promoted the reputation of these machines. The catalogue of 1883 already speaks of Kohout bicycles as Champion Bicycles. They were manufactured in five sizes, 48, 50, 52, 54 and 56 inches, at prices from 130 to 145 gold pieces, which was the average wage of a manual worker for approximately 5 to 6 months. The annual subscription fee for the biweekly “Cyklista” magazine cost 2.4 gold pieces and a telephone – the technical sensation of the age – cost 30 gold pieces. The catalogue for 1883 – apparently the first issued by the factory, contained various accessories, like lamps, bells, bags and stands.

         There were around 1000 cyclists in Bohemia in 1884. A considerable number of them rode Kohout bicycles. The founder of the company, Jan Kohout, died at the end of that year, on December 30. The oldest son, František, assumed to the position of head of the company and successfully managed and developed it. He was, of course, also interested in the construction of bicycles, although they apparently did not constitute an important part of the production program even in 1884 and 1885, when the factory probably had the greatest success. Cycling was already sufficiently well known and had a great many supporters, while the import of foreign bicycles was still not very great.  It is thought that a total of 500 to 600 Kohout bicycles could have been manufactured up to 1885. Advertisements frequently offered used Champion Bicycles at a price of 75 to 110 gold pieces. The first company advertisement in the newly established Cyklista magazine (the first number was issued on October 15, 1884) also offered various kinds of tricycles for one, two or four people. These were imported machines, on which Kohout only put his brand name and fitted them with his wheels, which facilitated transport from England and made the product cheaper. This is concluded according to the preserved “sociable” tricycle in the depositary of the National technical Museum. With the exception of the brand-name plate and the wheels, it has no similar, and certainly no identical feature with the Champion Bicycles. This “sociable” tricycle was manufactured by the Hillman, Herbert & Cooper company, i.e. the Premier brand, whose machines were offered by Kohout in its advertisements from May 1885. In June of that year, it presented itself as the general representative of the Rudge brand. In June 1886, it also offered the Rover Safety in an advertisement and, in addition to the Rudge brand, also undertook to represent other British manufacturers, Singer and Starley & Sutton. It did not even mention its own Champion Bicycles after June 1886.

         What did the Champion Bicycle look like in the mid 1880’s?  Of the known machines, number 331 is the first to have a closed head. This is a key moment for our study. No more exact determination is possible because no other Kohout bicycle is available in the number range from 109 to 331. As the highest known number of a Kohout bicycle is number 872, it could be assumed, as mentioned above, that about 900 bicycles were manufactured. However, one question arises here. The almost 60 machines we have discovered have production numbers divided across numbers 19 to 109 and numbers 331 to 872. There is nothing special about these two series of numbers and we know that all the bicycles are unusually regularly spread out across these numbers on a theoretical numerical straight line. If they were really numbered one at a time in a regular series , then there are 221 bicycles between numbers 109 and 331, about which we know nothing at all. These 221 machines are of quite key importance for more detailed determination of developments. The model with number 109 is the last with an open-headed design and, on the other hand, number 331 is a Kohout machine of its own design with a modern appearance. A certain business-advertising trick could be relevant here, where certain production numbers could be left out, jumped over. The motivation is quite obvious.Numbering of bicycles was normal practice; a higher production number meant more manufactured specimens, greater experience and thus greater reliability of the manufacturer advertising its own products. We are well aware that Kohout was an experienced businessman, who advertised frequently and was acquainted with business practice in both the good and the bad sense of the word. At a time when he felt the increasing pressure of importers, he could quite easily have decided for this tactical manoeuvre. It would make the bicycles and the brand name no less interesting; it is just necessary to admit the possibility that perhaps only something over 700 machines were manufactured in Prague. Only the discovery of machines from this period could overturn this theory. So far this has not been possible.

         The bicycle with number 637 is the first to have a hollow front fork and all these hollow forks are designed for mounting Aeolus ball bearings. Number 650 is the lowest known number on which an oval brand-name label appeared with a stamped cockerel (kohout = cockerel in Czech) and the stamped text "Champion Bicycle, J. Kohout Smíchov". This label is not present on all the following bicycles, only on 10 of the preserved machines.

         The bicycles were apparently frequently manufactured for a specific order. For example, number 637 – a beautiful fifty-six – has an Aeolus axle on the rear wheel and thus a rear wheel mounted in ball bearings. The hollow front fork has a groove along each side (the cross-section of the curved fork has the shape of an open number eight). The three highest known numbers – 864, 870 and 872 – also have rear wheels with ball bearings.

         It is also not clear how long Champion bicycles were manufactured. Let us listen to Josef Kohout.In 1891he wrote: “After 1885, Czech production was faced with substantial competition from abroad. Especially many English machines were imported into Bohemia. When great progress was again made in England in bicycle design in 1887 with the design of new low-wheel bicycles (safeties), Czech production unfortunately ceased to compete. At the present time, almost exclusively English and German machines are used in Bohemia, even though domestic work is protected against competition from abroad by high import duties.” Put simply, modern high-wheel bicycles and safeties, with their chains, were beyond the capacity of smaller Czech manufacturers and large machinery companies did not enter this field.Was this also the end of manufacture of Champion Bicycles?Let’s quote Josef Kohout in the book A Hundred years of Work, published in honour of the Jubilee Exhibition, held in Prague in 1891. Kohout said: “Of Czech companies concerned with the manufacture of velocipedes, the following were represented at the jubilee land exhibition in Prague: The J. Kohout company, factory for mill machinery in Smíchov (two high-wheel Champion Bicycles with accessories), Václav Zwetschke, mechanic in Kolín (low-wheel safety bicyce), Adolf Lewinter, manufacture of velocipedes in Prague (various bicycles) and Karel Hlavsa, machine worker at Kladno (children’s velocipedes, safeties and a Safety with cushion tyres)".

         Thus, as Kohout confirmed himself, they were still exhibiting their high-wheel bicycles in 1891. Of course, this does not mean that they were still manufactured at that time. It is possible that he only presented their work to promote their trade in imported goods. The patent of 1888 confirms that high-wheel bicycles were still a serious production item in Smíchov at the end of the 1880’s. Mr. Havlík and Mr. Kohout took out a patent for “an insurance instrument for velocipedes against forward falls, called InsurancePojistka“.  This was a small metal component fitted rotationally on the brake. When the velocipede ran into a hole or into a stone and began to fall forward over the axis of the front wheel, the metal component was supposed to press on the rubber tyre and prevent the fall. In this, the inventor was reacting to Fischer‘s functionally similar Non-cropper of 1887, published in Bicycling News No. 565 of August 13, 1887. With the greatest probability, it was a similarly ineffective and unnecessary invention as the Kohout-Havlík device. Nonetheless, it indicates that Smíchov was still seriously concerned with high-wheel bicycles in 1888. 

         We will probably never know how many bicycles were actually manufactured in Smíchov and when the last one was assembled. This was certainly somewhere between 700 and 900 bicycles and production gradually ended in 1888 to 1891.

Jan Králík, Robert Štěrba, Jaroslav Vožniak

The authors wish to thank Nick Clayton, Brian Kington, Arnošt Nezmeškal, Walter Ulreich and the members of the Czech Velocipedist Club 1880 for their helpful assistance


Cyklista, magazine, volumes for the years 1884 - 1890

Velocipedista, magazine, volumes for the years 1888 - 1890

Listy průmyslové (Industrial Journal), 1879

Jubilee exhibition of the Land Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague 1891, Prague 1894

A Hundred Years of Work, Prague

Václava Sedláčka, Dějiny Smíchova (History of Smíchov), part II, manuscript, undated

Company catalogue, 1883

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung 1882 – 1884

Bicycling News, 1887

H. W. Bartleet, Bicycle Book, reprint, 1931