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:
This 1929 Griffon is the oldest bike I have restored. It is in fantastic condition for its age, but even so, there are some elements of older technology on this bike that kind of gave me the willies today as I set out to take the bike on its first test ride.
The bike has Westwood style steel rims, color matched to the frame along the spoke bed area, and with chrome for the braking surface. Let’s talk a bit about that surface. Westwood rims are usually found on bikes which use rod brakes. Those brakes pull up on the brake pads to strike the rim on the surface near the spoke bed area, rather than on the narrow, rounder sidewall area. This Griffon, however, has caliper brakes which push the pads horizontally toward the rim. The original pads, shown above, feature a “pillow top” design which sort of grips the rounded edge of the chrome rim surface. Sort of. Even after sanding the pads using a small round file, I knew from testing the brakes on the stand that they would not be effective at stopping the bike, at least not very quickly. I thought of installing some orange Kool Stop pads for today’s adventure, but the ear piercing squeals emitted from the front rim on the set I tried out brought to mind a thousand hungry infants wailing all at once. So, I put the old pads back on and developed a plan.
Motorcyclists (of which I am one) have some skills that many non-riders don’t know about: the ability to ferret out non-disgusting bathrooms while riding at speed and peering through a helmet visor is one of them. Another skill is knowing in the back of your mind where every single flat, empty parking lot can be found on a Sunday afternoon – these are lures for practicing slow speed maneuvers, which is a must for motorcyclists who take safety seriously.
The latter skill came in handy today. I first drove the bike to my nearby huge empty parking lot. The bike’s wheels barely fit into the wheel wells of my car’s bike rack. Its wheelbase is 113 cm, one of the many oversize features of this great old machine. After getting the bike off the rack and strapping on an old Carradice saddlebag, I leaned the tall bike over and hopped up on the long, leather Glorieuse saddle.
Then I sailed around the parking lot, gingerly at first, and began accelerating and then attempting to stop. After a while I found just the right combination of body english and leverage and was able to bring the bike to a halt after several wheel revolutions at speed. Not bad! The front brake had a bit of chatter, and did not perform as well as the rear brake, so there are probably some minor adjustments to be made to the position of the clamps which house the springs and which have a groove along which the caliper arms travel. Each clamp needs to be positioned just right so that both brake arms move evenly and in tandem – see below.
To make it possible for me to ride this bike, with its 59 cm top tube, I reversed the saddle clamp and also shoved the saddle forward on its rails, to bring the saddle as close to the handlebars as possible. The 66 degree head tube kind of counteracts the effect of the long top tube, but because the stem is very short, this didn’t help as much as I expected. The ginormous bars are 78 cm across – the widest bars I have seen on a bike.
Even the bar diameter is oversized – 25 mm on the grip area. So, no grips of any kind, modern or vintage, can be installed. Probably, the bike originally had wood grips. But, finding the right size vintage wood grips now will be a challenge. In the meantime, I hastily added some cork tape to make my ride more comfortable today – which doesn’t look too bad from afar, but not so great close up.
I ended up resting my hands on the curved section of the bars, which was enormously more comfortable than having my hands on the grips. The bike seems to have been designed for a long-armed broad shouldered giant! Seriously though, probably the wide bars were useful in providing leverage over the cobblestones and rough roads of the time.
Once I felt fairly confident about riding amongst the masses, I headed over to Springwater Trail and took a short jaunt to my favorite tiny getaway – Tadpole Pond.
I enjoyed getting the bike up to speed, and was greeted with smiles, and some astonishment, by other cyclists I encountered today. The weather was perfect for riding, and I stopped to enjoy the birds and wildflowers. The Griffon fit right in, looking a bit like a hobo bike. Given all the homeless tents I encountered along the trail (camping a la Portland-style), the Griffon was a natural.
The lighting was just right for taking some close-ups of the bike’s features. The 1940’s Tank pedals are from another project – the bike didn’t have pedals when I acquired it – but they look just right on this bike and worked fine for today’s ride.
The Griffon head badge is one of my favorites, featuring the mythological flying Griffon in blue and gold, encircled in red.
I had no mishaps riding the trail today, even when some pedestrians walked out in front of me – we all just laughed as I swerved and screeched to a halt, Griffon – style.
You can see how long, tall and wide the bike is by comparing it to my Meral, which has 650b wheels and a 49×51 cm frame. Not only did the bike comport itself quite well, with the old Peugeot freewheel ticking sweetly while coasting, this ride reminded me that perhaps we are all too consumed with finding a bike that is just the right size, instead of riding the bike we have. Lots can be done with saddle, stem and handlebar adjustments to overcome a bike that is a bit too large or too small. Today’s ride proves that some bikes can be adapted to a wide range of rider height.
Here is an unrestored Griffon bicycle. I don’t know the date of manufacture, but judging by its components, it appears to have been built in the 1920’s or 1930’s.
Although Griffon Bicycle Company was one of the earliest bicycle manufacturers, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of historical information available. The company was founded in the late 1800’s in Paris, and became well known for their motorcycles, which were first built around 1901. The company is also known for its iconic vintage bicycle advertisements, which are now sold all over the web in poster form. However, as to the bicycles themselves, it is hard to find catalogs or details about specific models and years when built. It appears that Griffon was absorbed into Peugeot some time in the late 1920’s. Fortunately, these old machines do turn up with some frequency on French eBay.
I was drawn to this bike because the condition of this machine was extraordinary, given its age. I have no insight into the serial number, except to wonder if the 11 at the front of the sequence is the year of manufacture (which I doubt). The head badge is hidden under a bit of rust and corrosion, but even so, the vibrant blue, red and gold colors can be seen, along with the image of the mythological flying Griffon – a creature with a lion’s hind end and a raptor’s front end, yielding a fierce looking winged beast.
It has Westwood style rims, branded S – AEP, which are color matched to the frame, and really look beautiful. The old Dunlop Le Pneu tires are completely corroded. Dunlop was the first to introduce pneumatic tires for bicycles in 1887. When I measured the rim diameter as 650 mm, I had a slight panic attack – what the heck size is this? As it turns out, these wheels are 700A or 37-642 ETRTO or ISO 28″ x 1 3/8″. That is not a size that is even listed on Sheldon Brown’s rim size chart. Yikes! Thankfully, there are several sellers around the world (although not in the U.S.) where these tires can be purchased.
The condition of the frame is striking. Virtually all of the box style lining is still visible, and the two tone color scheme is still very evident – being “army” green and very lime green, with long, pointed transitions on the top tube and down tube. Even the logos are in good condition. It is quite a large machine, measuring out at a 59 cm top tube and a 55 cm seat tube, with 66 degree angles for the head tube and seat tube, giving it that laid back look.
The bike looks quite sturdy, and will probably be very comfortable to ride, given the geometry and the large wheels. It features a fixed/free flip flop rear hub with 21 teeth on the freewheel and 18 teeth on the fixed cog. The chainring has 46 teeth. With the large wheels, that yields some big gears – about 62 and 72 gear inches. Probably the bike would be dismounted for serious hills. The pretty hubs, each with an oil port, were made (or branded) by Griffon. Actually, I suspect that most of the components were probably made by the company itself.
Everything on this bike seems oversize. The Glorieuse saddle, also in amazing condition, is very long. The huge bars measure 76 cm end to end. I think these are the widest bars I have seen. The brake levers are very nicely made, with a surprising ergonomic curve in the lever. It will be fun to see what else I discover about this bicycle as I begin to overhaul it.