When Si Paton reached out to us with, "the greatest barn find of all time," it's safe to say our interest was piqued. Si followed it up with this message, "Last week my email pinged, nothing unusual about that, I get a lot of emails each day as you can imagine. This one started to stand out halfway through the second line and then I looked at the pictures, surely this is too good to be true? This bike had been kept out of direct sunlight, hanging up in someone's living room, out of reach and sight of the public eye, in the same condition as it left the factory. Was this the 'Holy Grail' of MTB retro? Read on and decide for yourself..."
That Holy Grail is the above Lawwill Knight Pro Cruiser that could be one of the most important bikes in European MTB history. Here's the full story.
So the story goes, mountain biking truly began in the hills surrounding Farifax, Marin County in the early '70s. Those Repack Races
birthed the legends of our sport and laid the groundwork for the bikes we all know and enjoy today.
Those races may have been raced on converted beach cruisers but it wasn't long until the riders started looking for something a bit more specialized for the task at hand. Joe Breeze
, for example, was building his Breezer 1
, often credited as the first mountain bike, from 1977 to 1978 but only 10 of these were apparently ever made. The first production mountain bike instead came from Mert Lawwill with 1978's Lawwill Knight Pro Cruiser.
Lawwill was predominantly a motorbike racer
and worked with Terry Knight of Knight frames to make flat-track Harley Davidsons. Aiming to capitalize on the booming BMX trend, the pair decided to make some bicycles but were convinced by a local shop to make a production run of mountain bikes instead of their smaller wheeled cousins.
Unfortunately, they immediately struck upon an issue. Mountain biking was such a young sport that nobody really knew what it was, including the dealers they were hoping to sell the frames to. To solve this problem, the bike was marketed as a cruiser, got named the Pro Cruiser and all of a sudden dealers were queuing up to put in an order.
As this article from the Radavist notes
, the bike borrowed heavily from the worlds of BMX and motorbike racing and therefore a lot of the features on this bike were well ahead of their time including the 1x drivetrain, hub-mounted brakes, four-bolt handlebar stem, and extra-wide bars. In total, 12 batches of 50 frames were made before Mert pulled the plug in 1982 to return to motorcycle racing.
It's not clear how many of those original 600 bikes remain but very few of them will be as pristine as this one recently uncovered by Bernard Blackwell from the UK. He thinks this could be the only Lawwill Knight Pro Cruiser in the UK and it has been kept in his living room for 40 years out of the public eye and in the same condition as it left the factory.
This is more than a time capsule though and Bernard believes this bike played a pivotal role in bringing mountain biking to Europe. He explains the full story in his own words below:
Words: Bernard Blackwell
I recently read an article on the internet about the development of mountain biking in Europe. It led me to reflect on my own contribution and to put pen to paper to fill in some of the gaps.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s I was a Product Manager at TI Sturmey Archer [A subsidiary of Raleigh and manufacturer of hubs, gears and brakes] in Nottingham, having responsibility for hub gears and brakes. With the exception of the Dutch market, we were finding business increasingly difficult, and TI Raleigh (our biggest customer) was reducing the purchase of our components in favour of more exotic and cheaper goods from the Far East. The Grifter, Chopper and Shopper were eclipsed by the BMX craze, which unlike the former was not unique to Raleigh, and didn’t use hub gears.
Over in America however, the new sport of “mountain cruising” was taking shape. It caught the attention of John Temple our US Sales Manager, who recognised that these guys needed reliable braking, and, as weight wasn’t such a critical factor (when racing downhill), they started fitting Sturmey Archer hub brakes. John could see the possibility for a new style of bike back in the UK, so in mid-1980 he air-freighted over a top-of-the-range Lawwill Knight Pro-Cruiser for us to examine and show to Raleigh. When we saw it, we were astounded – here was a really eye-catching new concept and an opportunity for us to develop some new products to match. But Raleigh dismissed the idea as too niche and declined to take any interest in the project.
At Sturmey Archer, we were convinced that Raleigh was making a big mistake, and fortunately, we had a Plan B. Our Head of Marketing, Ray Bakewell, was a close friend of Gerald O’Donovan, formerly the owner of Carlton Cycles in Ilkeston and the man in charge of designing and building the cycles for Raleigh’s racing team. Gerald agreed with us and offered to create some prototype mountain bikes which would feature our new components. There were to be three models: basic, mid-range and competition. My colleague David Williams created the basic model specification, I spec’d the mid-range and Gerald prepared the competition bike. We each chose a name (mine was Maverick, which is still used by Raleigh today) and hatched a plan to display them on our stand at the upcoming RAI cycle exhibition in Amsterdam. The time schedule was very tight, but Gerald was a man of action and had the frames designed, built, painted and assembled (all with new Raleigh graphics) in a matter of weeks. Our development team at Sturmey Archer worked overtime to produce prototype hubs and components, and it all came together in top-secret just in time for the show.
The theme for our exhibition stand was “Sturmey Archer Around the World”, featuring bicycles from several continents, including the Lawwill Knight Pro-Cruiser and even a rickshaw! We kept the three mountain bikes covered over until the show opened. When we pulled back the covers, the reaction was overwhelming and people went straight to the Raleigh stand asking when the mountain bikes would be available, and could they place orders now! As this was the first Raleigh had heard of it, they were not amused but had little option other than to go along with the initiative. Here was a significant market opportunity, and if it hadn’t been for our dogged determination, they could have missed out on the next big trend in cycling. Needless to say, having set the cat amongst the pigeons, Gerald O’Donovan was highly delighted at the turn of events.
The three prototype mountain bikes were handed over to Raleigh at the end of the show, and that was the last I saw of them. Chances are they were broken up and scrapped once Raleigh had developed their own designs, although it would be nice to know if any of them survived.
Alas, company fortunes continued to decline and so in 1984 I decided to leave the cycle industry to become a marketing consultant. When I left Sturmey Archer, I asked if I could have the Lawwill Knight Pro-Cruiser as a leaving present. It had been gathering dust in a store room for a couple of years, and nobody else seemed particularly interested in its pedigree. For nearly forty years it has had pride of place on display in our living room, as a fitting reminder of an initiative that helped to fuel a whole new branch of European cycle sport.
Bernard is open to offers on this extremely rare piece of mountain bike history and could be looking to sell it in the near future. As for Mert Lawwill, that wasn't the last the mountain bike world would hear from him. He went on to design the Gary Fisher RS-1, the Lawwill Leader fork and suspension systems for Yeti
and Schwinn before being inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 1997.