On this Friday evening, with the gentle cool breeze blowing across my summer garden, I thought it would be nice to share some of my favorite photos of my bicycle restorations from the 1920’s through the 1950’s:
I discovered Fred Delong’s publications much too late in my life. DeLong’s Guide to Bicycles and Bicycling, first published in 1974 (the year I graduated from high school), is a treasure trove of both technical and non-geeky information, and includes photos and material I have never seen elsewhere.
Fred was a lifelong cyclist, author, and bike guru, and was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2001, six years after he passed away in 1995.
His book is unusual for its time in American cycle publishing. It features French, Italian, and British built bicycles, and includes discussions of 650b tires with supple sidewalls mounted on low trail camping bikes, avoidance of toe overlap on touring bikes, and the importance of clearance in frame builds to allow for wider tires, as well as eyelets and baze-ons for fenders and racks. Sound familiar?
The above photos are close up crops of the original photo shown as figure 2.11 in DeLong’s 1974 guide. While most of the other photos in the book contain credits or are otherwise referenced, this image was not referenced or credited anywhere in the book. That means we don’t know who built this bike.
So, let’s start with what we do know about this bike. According to DeLong, this bike’s features are as follows:
“Wide tubular platform carrier with pannier bags mounted…
Hollow aluminum alloy rims on Phil Wood sealed precision bearing hubs…
Alloy mudguards, front with sliding fender flap in raised position and built-generator lighting…
Mafac Cantilever tandem brakes, rear brake cable direct routing (200 degree cable arc) with hooded levers
Aluminum alloy Randonneur handlebars
531 chrome-molybdenum braze-welded frame – 71 degree head and seat tube angles
15-speed wide-range gearing (23-116) on TA alloy crank and chainwheel set.”
Remember, this book was published in 1974. The photos in the book are all probably from at least one or two years earlier. Phil Wood founded his hub manufacturing company back in 1971 when, as a racer he became frustrated with hubs developing play and needing an overhaul after each competition. That led him to explore sealed bearing designs for hubs and bottom brackets. By the time of the 1976 BikeCentennial, Phil Wood’s hubs were all the rave, with touring cyclists ordering up Phil Wood hubs for their wheel builds, in preparation for a cross-country journey.
The above photo depicts an extremely unusual (for the time) sloping top tube. The builder’s logos are not clear enough to make out, but the down tube seems to indicate “XP SR”. The seat tube reflects some circular and elliptical logos, presumably also indicating the builder/manufacturer and/or frame tubing transfers. Is this a custom frame? I think not. A custom frame wouldn’t ordinarily have what appear to be model monikers on the down tube. As DeLong indicates in the text, the frame is made of 531 steel and is fillet brazed. The rear brake features through the frame routing for the “200 degree” cable arc. While not necessarily a custom feature, it is also certainly unusual for a non-custom frame built in the early 1970’s.
The other intriguing elements of this bike include:
An extension (presumably) on the Mafac levers
A cover (or something similar) on the rear derailleur
A front tire which appears to be wider than the rear tire
A very long reach stem – possibly to accommodate a shorter than desired top tube length
Generous fork rake combined with slack angles
Half step gearing with a tiny third ring
Who made this bike? Ideas and speculations are welcome. In the meantime, I discovered a bicycle ridden by DeLong which went up for sale a while back. The photo below shows the bike, a French JB Louvet built with Reynolds 531 tubing, in disrepair. But, it may give some clues about DeLong’s interests and preferences.
Today I ventured out for a test ride on this Mid-Century Mercier Meca Dural – a bike which had been incorrectly modified when I acquired it last fall. I spent the winter restoring it and replacing many of the incorrect and missing components. But, I hadn’t had time in my schedule to get the bike out on the road for a test ride until now.
Unfortunately, I chose a bad moment to take the bike out to Sauvie Island – one of my favorite low key cycling jaunts. It’s the weekend before Halloween, which I realized only too late upon arriving at the Sauvie Island parking lot where cyclists normally unload their bikes for a journey around the bucolic beauty of this little island treasure near Portland. That meant hordes of cars heading to the Pumpkin Patch – a place where kids can enjoy all kinds of thrilling Halloween activities. There are no shoulders on the flat roads of Sauvie Island, so cyclists who venture there rely upon the good will of the Island’s drivers, which is usually just fine. Today, however, was not the right day to take an untested bike into this environment, and that realization dawned on me after just a few minutes of cycling on the Meca Dural’s duralumin frame.
The ride I cut short to avoid the stress of a steady stream of vans and SUVs passing too close provided some valuable information. One thing I learned was that these original guidonnet aluminum alloy levers have an unusually long reach, so if you need to brake suddenly and don’t have gigantic hands, you may not stop as quickly as you would like.
The C.M. long reach brake calipers have quite a bit of flex under hard braking. This caused the front brake to jump a bit when I attempted to stop suddenly. That may simply mean that the brake mounting bolts need a bit more torque – so that’s an issue to sort out.
I also discovered that the lovely vintage Rigid chain guard which I had installed using a combination of new and vintage mounting hardware needed adjustment, as the chain rubbed against the guard in the lowest gear. Fortunately, this mounting hardware makes it very easy to adjust the position of the chain guard by turning the nuts on the long connecting bolts.
The 3 speed freewheel is mated to a 46 tooth Louis Verot chainring on Stronglight 49d crank arms. The small cogs make for high gearing, which was almost too high even on the totally flat roads of Sauvie Island. One solution will be to locate a vintage french threaded freewheel with larger cogs. The bell crank actuated Simplex derailleur worked perfectly and can definitely handle larger-toothed cogs. Shifting was straightforward, with no noticeable over-shifting required. Since I didn’t have the original chain, I had guessed at the chain length.
The ride quality overall was comfortable. I attribute this primarily to these wonderfully preserved vintage Mavic 650b rims and the new Panasonic tires, inflated to fairly low pressures, as well as to the flex characteristics of the duralumin frame. This bicycle’s frame design doesn’t include an extra set of mixte stays extending to the rear drop out. Initially, I experienced a bit of a wobbly feel at the front end, which would likely become a non-issue once a rider gets this bike underway for a few miles.
After this brief ride I know what is needed to make the bike more useful and reliable. And, I didn’t worry about the Meca Dural aluminum tubes – they performed no differently than any steel framed bike I have ridden. The bike as pictured weighs 24 lbs – very impressive considering the full fenders, chain guard, and dynamo lighting system. The next time I ride this bike, I hope to have a bit longer and more enjoyable ride.