Monday, July 05, 2021

Century-hopping again

If it has pedals and still rolls, sooner or later we get asked to fix it. I'm waiting for someone to bring in a stone wheel with a wooden crankset mounted through the center of it. At the same time, we're expected to keep up enthusiastically with the ever more costly and less durable offerings of the bike industry to its hostages customers.

One day recently, the leap was directly from about 2011 to the late 1940s.

This beast has had maddeningly imprecise shifting since it was new. Its owner was told several years ago by another shop that the only chain it should ever have was a particular Shimano model that had just been discontinued. They didn't tell him it had been discontinued, only that our shop had put on "the wrong chain," and that he should only ever use the magical CN7900 or something. His bike had Dura Ace ten speed, from when ten speed was the top of the line. Now it's middle class. The magic chain has been gone for a long time, and his particular specimen is totally thrashed. The bike shifts sluggishly, severely handicapped by the internal cable routing and forced use of 4mm shift housing, due to the configuration of the cable stops. This bike was never going to shift well, and now it shifts worse. The customer told us to leave the worn out chain and cassette on there, because he is emotionally unready to let the talismans go, even though they clearly do not work anymore. Maybe he'll score some artifacts on eBay or someplace, to eke out a few more years of acceptable mediocrity. We'll install whatever he asks us to.

Immediately following this 21st Century marvel of engineering was this BSA Streamlight in pretty rough shape:

The customer wanted to restore it to rideable condition. It hardly seemed possible for less than several hundred dollars, but when she described her intended use I agreed to the most basic repairs as long as she understood that the bike would not be very safe for extended riding or steep hills. It's nice to bring it back from complete oblivion to limited use.

Bikes can be hard to date accurately because records are often lost or incomplete. This is true of even a seminal brand like BSA. It's "just a bicycle." Starting at the back of the bike, I saw the Sturmey Archer hub, blackened by a coat of greasy dirt, and wondered if the bike was a latter-day knockoff. They're still made in India. It seems like a strange bit of nostalgia for the British Empire. However, the obvious age of the bike overall favored its authenticity as an original. But did it predate the TI buyout in 1957? The Sturmey Archer hub would say no. But when I scraped away the grime I found a date code of 1979. That indicated that this was a replacement wheel. The trigger control on the handlebar was also much later than the rest of the bike, having a plastic lever. This rear wheel and control had been added later.

Everything forward of the rear hub moved back in time.

The fully enclosed chain case has access ports at the rear dropout and around the crank itself to provide sufficient access for routine work like fixing a flat tire or replacing a chain.

Rod brakes are weird. I guess they're a step forward from a spoon brake that presses on the tread face of the tire (tyre?), but it still seems like a heavy, cumbersome rig compared to cable-actuated brakes. The way they meet the rim is interesting, too. They're less affected by a wheel knocked out of true, but they're less powerful overall. Then again, compared to early caliper brakes on steel rims, the difference in braking power isn't that large. Brakes were something you used to slow yourself down before the inevitable impact with something solid, especially in wet weather.

The rear brake is in really rough shape, but it not only still worked, it was still adjustable. I would not have thought that penetrating oil would recover the rust-encased lumps that vaguely resembled threaded connections, but it not only did so, it did it quickly and easily.

The trim on this bike would have been very pretty when the chrome was new.

The dynamo hub really set the date range for the bike. 


This style appears to have been made from the late 1940s to about 1950. The lights are gone from the bike, but the hub came in handy for research.

You can even find brake pads for the rod brakes, though not from any of our usual suppliers. The sun truly never sets on the British Empire. Some, but not all, parts seem to be available for the linkages, too. Meanwhile, the pads that the bike has are adequate for the kind of short-hop, mild terrain riding the owner wants to do around the village and the campus of a private school.

The bike was actually much easier to work on than any modern marvels from the 21st Century. It was from back when people were so stupid that they built things to last, and to be maintained. I guess that's why the old companies either went out of business altogether or sold their names to modern managers who would milk the image of tradition and slap the label on modern dispos-a-bikes at all price levels. Durability does not help cash flow. Stuff that lasts and is repairable satisfies demand too thoroughly. 

Remember: the business model for modern consumer goods is cocaine. It's expensive, addictive, and creates a compulsion to replace it even when you know it is ultimately destroying you. That's true of just about anything sold in the last 40 years. Sometimes there's an evolutionary excuse for it, as when personal computers and mobile phones went through their early development. Even that technology has reached a point where it can't drive forward as aggressively, because too many users are lagging behind, and the industry can't afford to burn them off. But still it tries. In the bike world, a slowing effect accompanied the near stagnation that had settled over the general industry before COVID, while specialty areas catering to addicts continued to dangle enticing offerings before them. And smokeless mopeds have continued to grow based on the dreams and illusions of a large susceptible population.


Orang Basikal said...

As you know I've owned a few of these. I rode one very much like this one (it was a Phillips) in England on one of my visits there in the 1990s. Essentially it is the lighter and smaller "sports" frame with 26" wheels, but rod brakes instead of calipers. The rims are a type designed to work with either kind of brake.

The rear carrier is the same kind that I bought from the Touring Cyclist Shop to put on my touring bike in 1976. I've seen a few of them since (I have two in the parts collection), though it's unusual to see one on a bike of this type. This bike may have been originally a single-speed. The change to a 3 speed hub and the addition of the rack may have happened at the same time.

I can vouch for the brakes not working well when wet. Once the rims dried off they did work, unless you had already hit something. I once narrowly avoided taking a header off a six-foot embankment at the end of a street on a slushy winter day.

They like oil. Often just oiling the bejeesus out of them fixes many ills. An amount of oil that would seem excessive on anything newer is just what they like.

I still have a great liking for these. The rod brakes take me back to my Model A days.

Steve A said...

The advent of aluminum rims was notable because the brakes worked better on them when wet compared to steel rims. Reduced weight is a minor advantage when you are attempting to stop while going down a steep hill. Thank God for aluminum rims!

cafiend said...

Amen to that!