Organisation / History of Puch till 1899

History of Puch till 1899

Janez Puh was born as the son of a small farmer on 27 June 1862 in Sakušak, which is in the present-day municipality of Juršinci, near Ptuj in Slovenia. At the time, Slovenia belonged to Austria; the German name for Ptuj is Pettau and of course Puh became famous under the German version of his name: Johannes Puch. He was apprenticed to a locksmith in the nearby village of Rotman, and then moved as a journeyman first to Maribor (German: Marburg) and then in 1878 to the Schlossermeister (master locksmith/machine fitter) Anton Gerschack. 

Following his three-year military service in Graz, Puch became the head craftsman in the bicycle section of the sewing-machine business of Luchscheider. The next year, 1888, he went to work for Benedict Albl, who made him the foreman of his factory on Lendplatz. But only one year later he branched out on his own: he rented or bought a greenhouse with a gardener’s cottage in Strauchergasse 18a, and converted the buildings into a workshop and warehouse. The same year, Puch – probably encouraged by his friend and patron Victor Kalmann – visited the first big bicycle exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Leipzig. At that time the trend towards safety bicycles was already well under way. Puch collected important ideas and made deals. He became the official agent of the English company Humber & Co. and of Winklhofer and Jänicke in Chemnitz.

In June 1889, Puch obtained permission to use the converted greenhouse for his business. A book of “machine sales” contains information on the first bicycles sold. Puch’s own “Styria” bicycles were all sold between mid-March and mid-May of 1890; before that there are only entries for imported models. 

1889 also saw changes in Puch’s family life. On 18 September in Graz cathedral, he married Maria Anna Reinitzhuber, the twenty-year-old daughter of his landlord. Puch’s best man was Victor Kalmann; and it was a double wedding along with Puch’s friend from Maribor, Franz Neger. Neger was originally from Eibiswald in western Styria, and had moved to Maribor, where he had been active as a “Bicycle Instructor” since 1886. He met his future wife through Puch; she was a foster daughter of the Reinitzhuber family. Because of this, Neger is often referred to as Puch’s brother-in-law. Neger was the agent of Styria bicycles in Maribor and began manufacturing bicycles himself in 1892. 

A full description of the first Styria Safety Bicycles can be found in a trade magazine from 20 March 1890. Here we can read that the bicycle has the “popular five-cornered frame shape” and is made out of English weldless steel tubing. Two models, No. 1 and No. 2, are mentioned; presumably there were also a high wheel bicycle, a tricycle and a tandem in the range.

In May 1891, Puch opened a second factory in Karlauerstraße in the district of Gries. In July, the company was converted from the sole proprietorship into ‘Johann Puch & Comp.’, an OHG (registered partnership) in which Puch and Kalmann were equal partners. A July 1891 description of the current range reveals that the company has expanded its repertoire to eight models. We know that around this time Puch was experimenting with aluminium brazing. Some racing bicycles were fitted with aluminium parts, but these developments never went beyond the experimental stage. The new factory grew in size. It had access to water power, and special tools and enamelling stoves were imported from England – and with them, Puch also hired experienced British workers to operate them properly. 

An important factor in sales was the sporting success of the bicycles, and as well as running his business, Puch himself was an active racer. This led to a crisis in 1892: riding as a pacemaker, he contracted a serious case of pneumonia and was critically ill. The episode left him with a heart problem that troubled him for the rest of his life. After recovering, he resumed his hectic work schedule. However, he also recruited his friend Victor Rumpf as a new partner and works manager. Rumpf had been working up till then as a mechanical engineer at the Andritz Machine Factory. The Puch brand was now very popular with racing cyclists: in 1892 alone, 136 prizes were won on Puch bicycles, including 10 championships. Riding on this wave of success, Puch expanded, bringing in the Styrian Escompte-Bank as an investor and limited partner in 1894, and opening branches for sales and repairs in Vienna, Berlin and Budapest in 1895. Puch’s older brother Martin, also an experienced racing cyclist, became head of the Budapest branch. The company became the main sponsor of the second Trieste–Graz–Vienna race, with the sum of 1000 Kronen. The winner, on a Styria, was Josef Fischer, who also came first in the Vienna–Salzburg race. Styria racing bicycles were also victorious in Berlin with Arthur Heimann, and in Parma with Gabrielli, while in Paris, a German tandem team set a world record. Probably the crowning achievement of Puch in the racing arena was the triumph of Franz Gerger in the 1895 Bordeaux-Paris. 

In 1895 the Puch factory in Graz employed 330 workers, who manufactured 6000-6500 bicycles. Following a period of industrial unrest related to the Badeni riots, shiftwork was introduced at the beginning of 1896. The price list for that year records 19 models.

Puch continued his expansion strategy and in 1896, he bought the Köstenbaum Mill in Baumgasse (now Köstenbaumgasse), adjacent to his existing factory in Karlauerstraße. However, he overstretched himself financially with the investment, and he had to look around for a strategic partner. He found one in the Bielefeld Machine Factory, previously known as Dürkopp, in Germany. The company already had a branch in Vienna, which they had expanded into an assembly plant in 1891 to avoid the Austrian import tariff. 

The new catalogue issued in March gave the impression of continuity. The most striking feature of the 1897 Styria models is that all the men’s bicycles now have a horizontal top tube; in 1896, only the racing models had had one. The new Ladies’ Model V is presented as the “lightest ladies’ bicycle for reform dress” – this also had a horizontal top tube and demonstrates that the new ladies” fashions including bloomers was now acceptable. 

Another new item in the 1897 catalogue is a folding military bicycle. The Model 1a, still ‘with the panther’, is now called the ‘precision machine’, has an eccentric chain tensioner and etched decorations on the front fork blades. At this time, Puch used a large variety of tyres. 

In the course of the year, rumours arose that the company was to be taken over completely by the Germans. These were officially denied as late as October; but in reality, the acquisition was already being prepared. The companies’ register records that on 15 January 1897 the Escompte Bank sold its interest to the Bielefeld Machine Factory, which brought the company 600,000 gulden in fresh capital. What followed over the next year was the removal of the entire top management around Johann Puch. Puch himself ceased to be a partner in July; the power of representation (Prokura) of Kalmann and Koneczny was revoked in October. Of Puch’s old guard, only Victor Rumpf, who had taken the side of the new owners” representative, Richard Kaselowsky, remained. Koneczny joined the Graziosa Bicycle Works as an authorized representative (Prokurist), but the company went out of business not long after, in 1901. The others stayed with Puch. On his departure from the old company, he had signed a two years’ competition clause. However, his close associates Anton Werner and Martin Nöthig founded the Bicycle Works Anton Werner & Comp. in Laubgasse 8 – and at the end of November 1898 they began producing bicycles in a factory building belonging to Johann Puch in Laubgasse, around the corner from the old site. The new company made no secret of the connection to Puch and also sold its bicycles under the name ‘Styria Original’. 

As it was bound to, the choice of name caused confusion – two separate companies producing bicycles called Styria and Styria Original – and a fight over the trademark rights. The legal tussle over the use of the names Puch and Styria went on for over a year, until an agreement was reached in 1899. But as soon as that was done, Johann Puch announced that he had bought Anton Werner & Comp.; and now he was back in the ring with the company renamed as “Johann Puch – Erste Steiermärkische Fahrrad-Fabriks AG” (Johann Puch – First Styrian Bicycle Factory AG). For the next ten years, the two competing companies would exist side by side, both with “Puch” in their names.

Johann Puch – Erste Steiermärkische Fahrrad-Fabriks AG was entered into the companies’ register on 27 September 1899. In the company’s advertising, the brand Puch-Rad, i.e. Puch Bicycle, was emphasized.

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