Classic bike restoration - some thoughts

by Stuart Collins

Restoring a bicycle is a fascinating business. Bringing to life a 1909 Mercedes Benz or a 1945 computer might be beyond most but restoring a classic bicycle poses problems that are solvable. Overcoming the pitfalls should involve a deal of enjoyment leading all the way to immense pride upon completion.

The first stage has to be the acquisition of a decrepit old machine. Commonly this starts with a conversation on the high street or the pub with a preface, "You're into bikes, aren't you? I have this old crate / boneshaker / heap of rusting ****" in my garage / cellar / attic. Would you like it?" Especially if it is a pub conversation you will say "yes". Having been recognised as a soft and / or inebriated target you will probably find it on your doorstep next day. If your CCTV has sound you will probably pick up the words "Good riddance to that bloody heap".

Of course you might actually have sought out a machine and possibly one of a particular maker. It might be also that you know a lot about the maker and a lot about renovation. If so the remainder of this might not be for you. You might read it and disagree with it.

What follows is not hardnosed, but it is well worthwhile deciding both what you want to achieve and the philosophy you wish to adopt towards the renovation. The ideal result would always be a restored, rideable and hopefully ridden machine and a conversation piece. Too much of the latter might cause more heaps to appear on your doorstep. Pretty soon they will be making a television program about you and the local council might be querying the planning permission status of those sheds in your garden.

I am now going to be serious. There are no "union" rules regarding bike restoration but I believe your work can have greater focus and the finished article give the greatest satisfaction, if you set out your own rules. This list covers some broad aims 1. To get the bike working and use any parts readily to hand or in stock at, say, Halfords. A stilson, hammer and a can of WD40 will be helpful. 2. To have an absolutely new-looking machine as if it had just come out of Doctor Who's Tardis. 3. To have a machine where as much of the original fabric is worked on, cleaned up and minutely serviced. If parts are acquired they should be of the age of the original machine, the same make, size and style. If you choose 1., you will not need advice (and good luck at Halfords, I won't be there). Choices 2. and 3. might suggest either purism and pragmatism.

The purist would find a rusty bolt and buff it or re-plate it. The pitted chain set would be re-plated after an exhaustive cleaning up. The purist will just need a workshop (or access to one) and a few pictures of the original machine. And a great deal of skill and patience.

The pragmatist would pound off down to see one of the dwindling number of "real" bike shops who eschew blister packs, and bid the owner to conduct a forensic search of his wooden drawers. If you are lucky, he might loan you some overalls and point you to his "inner sanctum" to have a rummage. The pragmatist would visit a Bike Jumble for parts. The more IT skilled but heavy walleted would resort to using Ebay to pay large amounts of money for that grunge-bolt to the gentleman who spotted it before you at that Bike Jumble.

The purist will probably have skills to match his attitude He needs no advice from me or anyone else. You only have to look at some vintage cars to see the fantastic faith and adherence to principles - and beauty even beyond how the original would have been.

So, we are down to the pragmatist. At the end of this article are some links to get loads of tips and advice written by experts. Before you go there please read on.

Make your mind up.

I would suggest that you try to establish this before you start, and then be prepared to adjust it. You would be advised to look around for catalogues, old cycling books, Veterans Cycling Club sources and ask for help with your renovation plans.

The frame is a big consideration. If the frame is in original livery and in fair nick there is no case to re-paint it. It could be touched up and if you don't do this you could prevent bare metal from rusting by use of that cunning device called an oily rag. If you feel re-painting is required then the choices are few but worth a deal of thought.

Firstly you could see if the maker still exists or if anyone else still makes your frame (e.g. Hetchins are still made). They should be able to help you. You could take it to expert frame builders e.g. Mercian, George Longstaff or Bob Jackson. They are good at finishing it as it was originally, i.e. stove enamelled. They could research the colour, transfers/decals and style for you and could add braze-ons. Expect to pay a large amount of money. You are getting a dwindling craft of high order. And how much did you pay for that boiler to be fitted?

If your bike is one coloured, or you want it to be one colour, there is a simpler and modern solution. It is called dry powder coating, a polymer curing process that produces a very thick protective layer that is, frankly, far more durable than stove enamel. Another virtue is that it smoothes out minor defects on the frame surface. The frame should be clean and devoid of paint before the coating. Sandblasting is strongly advised. Any pitting should be filled. This is eased by the fact that the frame is not greatly heated during the coating. Yellow pages or the internet will probably reveal places where they will do the painting and they would advise on preparation or do it for you. It would help if they do bikes on a regular basis. The paint gets in the holes i.e. head tube and bottom bracket unless you block them up. You should expect to pay from 25 to 50 pounds for the prep and coating. Transfers or decals can be obtained from Lloyds who have an exhaustive range. After apllying the decals ensure they are fixed, clear lacquer is one possibilty.

Then consider the other bits. Do you want to restore your machine to be as near to how (you think) it was? If you follow this course there are snags. British Lightweight makers did not have specifications set in stone. They might have acquired some exotic Nervex lugs and so a sequence of machines might have been adorned with these. A certain style of GB stems may have changed and so newer-style ones would be used instead. So, if you target on certain componentry, "as fitted", your aim might be like a pig with a musket? If your starting point is a mouse-nibbled, rusty and cobweb-covered wreck and you wish to restore it to how it was, is there a point in doing this? "Yes" if you want to perform the ultimate in re-cycling (sorry). But maybe "no" if your aim is "showroom 1954" / as it would have been sold. Many lightweights were made bespoke (sorry again). Often this would be to within the buyer's budget. Some others e.g. Falcon and Claud Butler, had ranges of set componentry (which might, in turn, have been altered by availability). NB this situation is now more regularised by the advent of the groupset.

Also if you look at what you have got, many of the parts would have been changed due to wear, fashion, up-grading or a reflection of the previous owner's move towards millionaire status. Finally, some of the parts used were not all good. Campagnolo built a reputation for benchmark quality, albeit at a price I could never afford. However those who, while ascending have had a gear slip due to the traditional Campag lever slipping or descending steep hills using 60's Campag brakes would not be convinced that all the output from Vicenza was perfect. Discerning riders often used a mixture of makes prior to the groupset era. Mafac brakes were inelegant but stopped you, Suntour made gear-changers of perfection, a GB bar with the map of UK was elegant, Stronglight and TA made stylish and hardy chain sets etc. So if the discriminating rider of yore chose whatever he wanted, why should you pursue a standard that never existed?

So, what do I really think? The main rule I feel should probably to have parts "of an era", nicely polished and functional. Bike Jumbles and their helpful stallholders are a great source of information regarding obtaining, suitability and dating of your bits and bobs. There is no point in having defective or poor components. The pleasure you have in riding your steed should last far beyond that of completing your restoration. And that is the main thing!


Veterans Cycling Club Note it is the bikes which are meant to be old!
Lloyds who produce replica transfers / decals
Harris Cyclery. Bonkers Anglo-phile American - amusing and a mine of information.