Vintage Mopeds and Scooters: the Precursor to e-bikes?

1962 VeloSolex moped

A lot of DNA is shared among vintage bicycles, motorcycles, scooters and mopeds.  Pneumatic tires, Bowden cables, chain drive, frame and fork geometry, as well as components including stems, seatposts, handlebars, grips and brake levers were utilized in common across these vintage machines.

I had an early introduction to scooters when my parents trucked home a Honda CT 90 to our rural farm back in the late ’60’s.  Once the little motorbike was off the flatbed, I was stricken with intrigue.  My parents made the mistake of “allowing” me to ride this little machine on the rural roads around our hay farm in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon.  At age 12, I propped my 9 year old sister on the back, and proceeded to ride far afield of my parent’s requirements, even crashing the bike into a ditch in a particularly unpleasant and embarrassing experience.  But most of the time, my spirits soared whenever I threw a leg over.  Even though I had my internal hub 3 speed bike to explore logging roads and irrigation canals, this gas powered machine allowed me to venture much further beyond the limitations of my little kid muscles and my clunky 3 speed Sears-Puch diamond-framed bicycle.

1897 Millet motorized bicycle

Motor-assist bicycles were first introduced over 120 years ago, back in the late 1890’s.  By this time in history bicycles were widely accepted and utilized for transportation, leisure and sport, but with the advent of the internal combustion engine (first developed in 1794) inventors made headway with adapting an engine to a bicycle frame. The above pictured bike utilized an air-cooled radial 5 cylinder engine incorporated into the rear wheel.  The rear fender doubled as the fuel tank.  It used a twist grip throttle, and could be started with pedals, much like modern mopeds.  The bike reached a maximum speed of 21 mph at 180 rpms.  The pedals served not only to start the bike up, but to provide for an alternative option should the engine fail.

Another fascinating approach to power assist on a bicycle was developed by Wall Auto-Wheel. First patented in 1908, this device could be added to any bicycle.  The 118 cc air-cooled single cylinder engine was mounted in a sub-frame which attached to the bicycle at three points.  There was a lever control at the handlebars which operated the throttle.  The whole unit was “lightweight” at 45 lbs.

1947 Whizzer Luxembourg

In the U.S, Los Angeles based Breen-Taylor Engineering developed the Whizzer bicycle engine in 1939.  This was a motor kit which could be added to any bicycle.  As you can see from the above photo, this was no small feat, and required many modifications and enhancements to allow this 150cc engine to perform with relative safety.  Whizzers were often added to the very robust American steel frames offered by Schwinn and others during this era.

After WW2, many different kinds of motor-assist bicycles entered the marketplace.  One of the most common was the “moped” which used pedals to start the bike and assist it on steep inclines when the engine was stressed.  While VeloSolex dominated the market in Europe, many other manufacturers stepped in to provide competition, such as this VAP model depicted above.

The above photo depicts Motobecane’s offerings from 1962.  French bicycle builders embraced the idea of motor-assist and many manufacturers offered mopeds and motor-assist bicycles.

Wall Auto Wheel added to a BSA bicycle. Photo courtesy of http://www.oldbike.eu

But are these historic innovations really comparable to today’s e-bikes?  In some ways they are:  they attempted to take existing bicycle engineering to add motor-assist to the bike, thus extending the bike’s range and reducing fatigue for the cyclist.  Not all vintage motor assist bicycles incorporated the concept of rider pedal assist.  And, as is obvious now, gas powered engines, especially 2 strokes engines, are not environmentally friendly.  Are e-bikes environmentally friendly?  That’s an issue worth exploring, given that the batteries needed to power these bikes require harvesting materials that may have a negative effect on the planet.  That may be outweighed by a cyclist leaving their car at home and commuting on their e-bike.  And, the health benefits of riding an e-bike have been documented in numerous studies.  The behavior of e-bike cyclists was a concern for me initially, but I have noticed that here in Pdx, e-bike riders behave no differently than the rest of us, for the most part.  So, I say, if it has two wheels, get on it and ride!

A Portland Sunday on a Bridgestone MB3

My winter/errand bike has been a well used 1987 Panasonic MC 7500. I bought that bike as a frame and fork many years ago, and then built it into a Portland workhorse. Rigid lugged steel vintage “mountain bikes” serve as excellent platforms for conversion to a sturdy errand/winter/commuter bike.

The Bridgestone MB3 frame sat in my shop for a few months, as I had purchased it only for its lavender Nitto stem to use on my newly built up Rivendell Appaloosa.  Well, sort of but not really.  The Bridgestone frame was in great shape, and it kept staring at me every time I loaded another bike into the work stand.  Finally, I gave in, transferring many of the Panasonic components, which I disassembled, over to the MB3.  The build was pretty straightforward, and would have been completed much sooner had I not decided to use Suntour cantilevers, whose set up required more time.  Finally, the bike was ready for a few assignments.

Denison Farms Organic Veggies at the Montavilla Farmers Market

A happy classical guitarist at the Montavilla Farmers Market

Veggies loaded into my Jandd grocery pannier.

First, I headed over to the Montavilla Farmers Market.  This weekly Sunday event features an extravaganza of luscious fruits and veggies, homemade honey, jams and jellies, along with flower bouquets, wines, breads and baked goods, and some mellow classical guitar to accompany your shopping experience.

“Fancy Cycling”

Up and over Mt. Tabor

After dropping the veggies off at my house to stay cool on this hot day, I pedaled over Mt. Tabor and headed down to my local Powell’s bookstore on Hawthorne.  While there, I discovered this 2013 reprint of a 1901 cycling manual by Isabel Marks.  Major score!  The book contains instructions and photos on how to do some “fancy cycling” by performing tricks on your bike.  It looks like I have lots of work to do, as my track stands are not done while seated backwards in the saddle, one of the many tricks illustrated in the book, with period photos as illustrations of each maneuver (more on this book in a subsequent post).

The Bridgestone frame is a bit different from the Panasonic MC 7500 in a few ways:  the Bridgestone has slacker angles, shorter chainstays, a shorter wheelbase, and a longer top tube.  The Panasonic is a classic diamond frame, whereas the Bridgestone has a slightly sloping top tube.  While the Bridgestone is made from triple butted Ishiwata tubing, the Panasonic’s Tange Prestige double butted tubing feels a bit more lively.  Even so, both bikes are comparable and nice to ride, never feeling bogged down while climbing.  Below are photos of the components I selected:

Vintage Suntour bar mount ratcheting friction shifters

Suntour XC low profile cantilevers.

I re-used the original Shimano Deore derailleurs and the 12-28 Shimano 7 speed cassette.

I discarded the Biopace crankset, and replaced it with this modified Stronglight 99 with drilled rings. The crankset was originally a triple 52/42/32, but I removed the big ring and converted it to a double 42/32. I used the original Deore bottom bracket and front derailleur, and it somehow all worked out well.

Original Ritchey Vantage wheels on Shimano Deore hubs.  The wheels needed re-tensioning and truing, and the hubs were rebuilt and now spin smoothly.

Northroad bars with Suntour levers and shifters. The Suntour levers offer easily adjustable brake reach – a nice feature for riders with smaller hands.  A Cardiff leather saddle is shown in the background.

The 1989 Bridgestone MB3 as converted to a Portland commuter

While I’m not sure yet whether I will replace my Panasonic MC 7500 with this bike, I have enjoyed my experience so far.  The bike received some nice comments today from passersby.  It’s a good looking bike, and as configured performs just as I would expect from a quality steel frame and excellent vintage components.

Buying a Bike for its Parts

Late 1980’s Deore thumb shifter with optional friction mode.

Vintage bicycle parts are often hard to come by.  While I have decided not to participate in the current trend of dismantling and re-selling vintage bikes and parts on eBay, sometimes buying a bike for parts is the only way you can acquire what you are looking for.

1989 Bridgestone MB3 – with non-garish 80’s color scheme

So, almost by accident, I purchased a 1989 Bridgestone MB3 in order to harvest the parts I wanted: Deore friction/SIS thumb shifters, Deore derailleurs, and a very unusual lavender anodized Nitto dirt drop style stem and Nitto bar (see below).  I also noted that the bike’s wheelset looked pretty good – Deore hubs, laced with Wheelsmith spokes to a Ritchey Vantage rim.

When the bike arrived, I was a little taken aback by the quality of this frameset:  triple butted Ishiwata oversize tubes, and forged drop outs with eyelets.  These features, combined with the two bottle cage mounts and rear seat stay rack mounts, make for a versatile frame.  The secret is out that lugged steel mountain bike frames make great Portland winter commuters.  I think my 1987 Panasonic MC-7500 is feeling a little threatened right now.  I had planned on selling or donating the MB3 frame, but now I am not so sure.

The Shimano Deore groupset dates to 1989, except for the shifters which have a 1987 date code.  The Nitto bar is not original to the bike, and is in as new condition.  The Ritchey wheelset turned out to be a real bonus.  With a simple hub overhaul and minor truing, this wheelset is as nice as any 26″ example out there.

Nitto lavender anodized stem

Appaloosa color scheme

The parts I wanted have exceeded my expectations, with the lavender anodized Nitto stem being the absolute gem in the group.  It is shown pictured above as an idea for the stem on my new Rivendell Appaloosa.  The stem color picks up the brown/purple accent colors in the paint scheme, which is just what I hoped for.