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.
One of the things I enjoy about working on vintage bicycles is the sleuthing necessary to determine a bike’s provenance, and the thrill of discovery when all the clues come together.
While disassembling and cleaning the components of the 1920’s Griffon I am restoring, I kept finding the number 9 (or could it be a 6?) on various components – the steerer tube, front and rear axles, and bottom bracket cups. I also noted that the Dunlop Le Pneu tires had small numeric codes on each tire – 290 and 295.
Meanwhile, I have been researching the history of the Griffon Bicycle Company, and found references to their absorption into Peugeot in 1928.
When I removed the rear wheel I was elated to see this astoundingly pristine Peugeot freewheel, and its fixed cog counterpart for the fixed/free gearing on this beautiful old Griffon. The freewheel has a small oil port with hinged cover, and with some cleaning and lubrication, the freewheel spins smoothly and sounds great.
Based on this evidence, I suspected that this was a 1929 machine. But, I wasn’t completely convinced of my conclusion, so I continued with my research.
The bike’s Henri Gauthier Glorieuse Model 76 saddle was in such great condition that I questioned whether it was original to the bike. However, I discovered this 1920’s catalog on the French Ancien Velos Lyonnais website. This doesn’t mean that this saddle wasn’t manufactured for years hence, but, it does help to build my case that this is a 1929 bicycle.
The steel seatpost is well machined and is closed at the top. The steel seatpost clamp is labeled “CCS”. Both are of higher quality than similar seatposts and clamps of later eras.
The size of the bottom bracket shell provides more clues. It is 70 mm wide, with a 46.6 diameter. French shells are typically 68 mm wide, even those from the 1940’s on.
Also, you can see the pin in one of the tubes – showing the method of brazing. In the early days of frame brazing, bicycle tubes were pinned, rather than tacking the lugs with brazing material, before heating and brazing. This technique is actually still used by Mercian and possibly some other frame builders who use brick hearths to heat the frames before brazing. This technique helps to eliminate the possibility of overheating the main tubes. It was nice to see the bottom bracket looking free of rust, with all the threads in good shape. For a bike that is almost 90 years old, that is amazing.
So, most of my evidence indicates this is a 1929 Griffon. But, I’ll keep an open mind as I continue the restoration work on this great old bicycle.