The origins of cycle production in Coventry lie in the manufacture of sewing machines at the Coventry Machinists Company established in 1861 by James Starley. The company produced several successful models of sewing machine, and in 1868, Starley and his company were persuaded to manufacture the French-designed bone-shaker bicycles. Starley developed the design which led to the "Penny farthing" type and more practical tricycle designs, but ultimately it was his nephew John Kemp Starley who was responsible for inventing the first modern bicycle, the "Starley Safety Bicycle". Produced by Rover in 1885, it was the first bicycle to include modern features such as a chain-driven rear wheel with equal-sized wheels on the front and rear.
By the 1890s the cycle trade was booming and Coventry had developed the largest bicycle industry in the world. The industry employed nearly 40,000 workers in the 248 cycle manufacturers that were based in Coventry. The peak year was 1896, but in 1906 for example, the Rudge Whitworth Company alone made 75,000 of the 300,000 plus cycles manufactured in the city that year.