Two-Speed Internal Gear Hubs, Designed in the Sixties, Now Appearing on a Bicycle Near You

By Bulent Yusuf on at

Lo, another year has dawned on us, and thoughts naturally turn to self-improvement. Cut out the middle-men (fat cats putting your train fares up yet again, not to mention those always-disapproving gym instructors) and get fit while cycling to work. The new-best way to do so? Using '60s ingenuity, refreshed for the modern-day man. Or woman.

Do you see that marvel of mechanical engineering below? That belongs on the back wheel of a bicycle. It's an internally-geared hub, with just two speeds, and the shifting is entirely cable-free. The beauty of these hubs is that they're revivals of classic designs originating in the 1960s, now built with modern components for modern bikes. Perfect for a leisurely ride around the city (when it's not raining buckets).

The model pictured is the SRAM Automatix, which uses centrifugal force to shift automatically between two gears. One is a direct drive, used for pedalling on the flats, and the other is a slightly lower gear for tackling a hill. And oh yes, did we mention it was automatic? That means no cables, triggers or extra cogs to mess up the clean lines of the bike (if you care about that sort of thing), and an eminently more practical ride than a single-speed steed.

But what about the brake? There's a coaster-brake version, which is integrated into the hub and requires you to push back on the pedal to slow down, or a freewheel version, which requires using separate braking mechanisms like a disc or rim brake.


German Ingenuity

The first bike to be sold in Britain with this new hub is the Tern Verge Duo (shown folded above), which will be available from Evans Bicycles on 14th January, retailing for £775. The Verge Duo is a folding bike, which is an eminently logical application for the hub because of the pressing need to balance features with practicality on most folders. But that in itself isn't the only reason for the re-emergence of this old tech.

The Automatix is also a reaction by SRAM to Sunrace Sturmey Archer, an industry rival, who brought out their own two-speed hub, the Duomatic, early last year. The key difference is that cyclists have to manually shift between speeds by kicking back on their pedals (but not too far if you have one with a coaster brake). It takes a bit of getting used to initially, but after a couple of hours in the saddle it quickly becomes second nature.

Thus far, the Duomatic has appeared on models like the Pashley Guv'nor, the Marin Ignacio, and the Moulton TSR-2. But because they're cheap to buy as individual components, they're also appealing for custom wheel-build projects to bolt on to your existing bike. If you have a single-speed bike already, it's as simple as swapping out one rear wheel for another.

Both the Automatix and the Duomatic are based on 1960s designs, however, pioneered by German manufacturer Fichtel & Sachs (whose cycling division was acquired by SRAM in 2001). The production of the Torpedo Duomatic first began in 1964, followed soon after by the Torpedo Automatic in 1966, designed to meet the booming demand for folding bicycles that weekenders could fold up and stash away in the boot of their Volkswagen Beetle. Removing the need for a gear shifting cable and a brake cable, but maintaining at least the use of an extra gear, made the bikes that much more portable and usable.


British Eccentricity

The height of their usage was the sixties and seventies, primarily found on folding bikes, but occasionally surfacing on full-size rides and even a tandem. But they fell out of fashion in the eighties, as did most internal hub gears when compared to the more sprightly cassette hub, and the last Duomatic rolled off the production line in 1989.

Fortunately, recent years have seen them re-emerge into use. Perhaps because of the popularity of the single-speed and fixed-gear bikes, the idea of going back to basics and stripping back unnecessary components on the bike, enthusiasts began discussing the F&S Duomatic and Automatic on internet messageboards, and traded new old-stock (NOS) components -- overstocked parts which had never been sold in shops and neglected in workshops and warehouses -- amongst themselves.

The tipping point came when two esteemed British bike-makers, Pashley and Moulton, bought a large batch of these NOS components and built them into limited edition models of their Guv'nor and Moulton 50 bikes, respectively. They even went so far as to combine the Duomatic hub with a Schlumpf Speed Drive, which added two more gears (again, cable free) housed in the front chainwheel. These babies made switching between gears a little too complicated for everyday riding, but it was a brilliant experiment.

Today, both types of hub are back in circulation, albeit from different manufacturers, and they make for an exhilarating ride. If you decide to build an Automatix or a Duomatic into your bike, you should be aware that they're not going to be of much use for rattling down the side of a mountain. But if you're after a stress-free experience when weaving through traffic, these two-speed hub gears are second to none.