Visit to Japan – Part 2 – Toei

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It’s been some time now since our last visit to Japan and its time to catch up a bit with unwritten experiences. One of the most enjoyable and enlightening was a visit to frame builders Toei.

Tucked away down a back street in a suburb of Tokyo is a very unprepossessing metal framed building clad largely in corrugated iron. We arrived while the three gentlemen who work there were taking a break, two of them snoozing gently, which probably accounted for a slight frostiness in the welcome. My Wife Tomoko is Japanese and she is well acquainted with bicycle terminology, so she was a wonderful translator. After a while they seemed to warm to us, perhaps when they realised that we did know our chain stays from our down tubes, and a healthy discussion ensued. Founded in the 1950′s Toei were clearly influenced by the recently imported designs of René Herse and Alex Singer, and soon they were building beautiful machines with fully integrated components. But Toei have not stood still, and have come up with their own design improvements, for instance their front derailleur, and subtle and intelligent refinements of the constructeurs specialities such as the gear changer and brakes.

We soon realised that we had arrived at a unique point, as they were in the process of making THREE tandem frames, something which had not happened for a number of years. They don’t often get orders for tandems and one of the customers had been waiting for 8 years! Obviously it is easier to work on a group of similar machines, although as you can see from the pictures, the specification, lug work etc.. differs between the three. Tandems cost over double the price of a bicycle frame as the lugs have to be fabricated specially, since there are no suitable tandem lug blanks available. You can see this in the detailed photographs below. All their frames are built to order and their highly detailed order sheet requires every component to be specified, down to the last screw and nut. Many Japanese customers like to use vintage components ( very often NOS ) on their bicycles, so Toei are equally at home building a touring bike with a Cyclo gear and Stronglight 49D cranks as they are incorporating a new Shimano group set. Kaisei tubing is used largely but some customers provide Reynolds 531 tubesets for their build.

Above all we were struck by the quality and precision of their workmanship. These three great craftsmen are continuing the tradition of the constructeur to the very highest standard, producing machines of beauty, functionality, sophistication and taste.

For further information on Toei see the book here.

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Vintage Bicycle Restoration 3 – René Herse Tandem – Work in progress

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Recently I’ve been working on this Herse tandem number 109 99. It probably dates from the early 1940′s and was most likely upgraded and re-painted by Herse around 1947/8. It has posed a number of questions in how to deal with certain condition problems. In particular, the front derailleur has been cut off and the question is how to replace it without causing damage to the original finish of the bike. The front and rear racks are very rusty and pitted and are not suitable for re-chroming, and the rear drum brake is in a poor state.

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The front hub is an FB – ITALIAN no less! Herse turned the flanges off and riveted on his own very large duralumin flanges. There are 18 rivets each side, corresponding to the spoke holes of the original 36 hole hub, but the new flanges were provided with 40 holes to make for a stronger wheel for the tandem. The spokes are Trois Étoiles non-butted tandem spokes and the rims Mavic. The papillons are Bell bronze, a stronger option for the tandem than the usual alloy version. Spokes and the steel centre part of the hub were cleaned with a brass brush and then various grades of wire wool. The aluminium parts were polished by hand using 00 wire wool, followed by 0000 wire wool and polish together – either Solvol Autosol or Simichrome. I prefer not to disassemble where possible, and this makes for a lengthy and sometimes awkward process, but with results that respect the originality of the bike. I also dislike using a polishing wheel because I prefer a slightly satin-like finish, rather than highly polished. Also, the wheel can destroy detail and leave an uneven surface. Final polishing is done with Solvol Autosol.

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Similarly the chainsets were all polished by hand using the same 2 grades of wire wool, and polish, after initial cleaning and de-greasing with cellulose thinners. I always use thinners outside, and take the usual precautions considering its volatility and other dangers.
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The same techniques of hand polishing were used for the Lefol brake levers and Cyclo 5 speed Derailleur. Note the Herse modifications of the right hand brake lever, beautifully crafted, to apply both front and rear rim brakes together, whilst the left lever operates the rear drum brake. The Derailleur has also been modified by drilling the shafts and providing oilers to properly lubricate the moving parts.

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As far as the frame was concerned, it was quite a challenge due to the presence of many scratches and small rusty areas. The frame is never going to look immaculate, the aim being simply to make it presentable. I chose to do a minimal amount of touching in of paintwork. After initial cleaning of the oily bits with paraffin, I rubbed the rusty areas lightly with 0000 wire wool, treated the rust with a neutraliser, then cleaned the rest of the paintwork with Renaissance Pre-Lim, a very lightly abrasive compound. This removes any remaining dirt and grime, preparing the surface for the final polish. It is very important to keep away from the lining and lettering, which can be done by carefully working up to the lines with a single finger inside the cleaning rag. Pre-Lim can leave a white residue in the rusty bits, so I clean this off with car brake cleaner, a quickly evaporating solvent. Some touching in was done, but I tend to wipe off much of the paint before it dries, only leaving small amounts in the scratches or damaged areas. This darkens the area without leaving a too obvious patch of new paint. After that the final finish is two or three coats of Renaissance Wax, which brings back the shine very much to its original look. The original finish is nowhere near as glossy as modern finishes, which is why refinishing never looks quite right.

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Wanted Urgently – Maxi Tandem rear drum brake (tambour) Super Grand Tourisme 115mm, alloy flanges and 40 holes

I am in need of a Maxi Tandem rear drum brake (tambour) Super Grand Tourisme, 115mm, duralumin flanges and 40 holes, in good usable condition, for the René Herse tandem featured in the next post. The steel version is not suitable, and it has 36 holes. Please do let me know if there is one available to purchase.

My wife has recently undergone major surgery for a tumour in her head and she will be unable to ride a bicycle for many months.

I am trying to get the tandem finished so that she can enjoy some gentle short rides on the back of it as she is recovering.

I would really appreciate any help or advice on where to find one of these.

Thank you!

It looks like this….

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Photo’s courtesy Alexander March

Early Pneumatic Tyres and W. & A.Bates Ltd. of Leicester

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In the early days of Pneumatic tyres there were numerous manufacturers. Often the tyres were made to fit a specific rim, which no other product would fit. For example, the tyres originally fitted to my Starley Brothers ‘Psycho’ Road Racer c.1893/4 were Starley patent tyres, and the rims were Starley rims specific to those tyres. Stiff wires which ran through the beaded edge exited through holes in the rim and a locking device held them securely in place at four positions around the circumference. Other manufacturers tyres did not fit these rims, and it was only by chance that I was able to find a modern cover to fit.

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Similarly, the rims fitted to my very early pneumatic tyred safety bicycle c.1890/91 were Bartlett Clincher rims, the tyres being Bartlett patent tyres. Despite the invention of the pneumatic tyre in 1888, it was not until 1891/2 that pneumatics became really practical, as methods for easy fitting, removal and repair became more sophisticated. The Bartlett tyre, patented in 1890/1, is thought to be the very first practical detachable tyre ever made.

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The tyre, as in the exceedingly rare original survivor pictured here, was of ‘beaded edge’ construction without a wire through the bead. The inner tube was of rubber impregnated canvas. When the tyre was inflated the bead was pushed securely into the edge of the rim and it was not possible for the tyre to expand beyond the size of the canvas tube. Thus the tyre was not forced off the rim as it assumed its correct shape. The large valve was one-way only, deflation not being possible except by puncture!

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Tyres like this soon became obsolete, as tyre and rim manufacture improved and became standardized, and probably led to the scrapping of most very early pneumatic bicycles, which were worthless unless the rims were changed. It is a fact that very early pneumatic tyred bicycles are MUCH more rare than solid tyred safeties, for which tyres have always been available.

Similarly, many 1890′s pneumatic safeties had 30 inch front wheels, and 28 inch rears. 30 inch became largely obsolete by around 1900 leading to the demise of many of these machines too, such as those pictured below at the start of a road race in the mid nineties. Since no 30 inch covers are available, these machines are sadly no longer usable, or alternatively people have fitted a 28 inch wheel, leaving an unsightly gap below the fork crown and altered geometry.

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A friend kindly gave me this publication from the Bates Tyre Company ( W. & A. Bates Ltd. ) of Leicester, dating from around 1910, which prompted this posting. Established in 1863 as manufacturers of rubber thread, they later turned to tyres around 1882, being one of the earliest makers of solid tyring for Ordinaries and later Safeties. They became quite a large company, exporting internationally, as evidenced by the copy of their poster for Japan seen below. Later they were swallowed up by Dunlop who dominated the market in the early decades of the twentieth century. I particularly like the photo demonstrating how flexible their rubber inner tubes are, being ‘..made from a mixing of the finest Brazilian Para Rubber’.

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Anjou Velo Vintage 2013 – Team Alex Singer to the rescue!

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This year’s edition of Anjou Velo Vintage was an enjoyable affair, despite the weather trying its best to spoil it. Many hundreds of vintage bicycles gathered at Saumur, in the Loire Valley, for the weekend rides. There are many images of the event on the internet which capture the atmosphere far better than I could, but I’ve found no better than Romain’s fantastic photographs here. Tomoko was riding her Barra whilst I was on my 1948 Alex Singer. During the 87Km ride I glanced down at my Stronglight chain ring and saw that one of the bolts was coming undone. At the crest of the hill I stopped where a bunch of cyclists were congregated. By extraordinary chance they turned out to be Olivier Csuka ( the owner of the Alex Singer shop in Paris ) and ‘Team Singer’, all on beautiful Singer bikes, including a superb 1950 chrome tandem and Ernest Csuka’s personal bike, both illustrated in the ‘Golden Age’ book. An 8mm spanner was quickly produced and Olivier insisted on tightening the chain ring bolts for me. After many handshakes, the ‘Entente Cordiale’ was strengthened and I was on my way to complete the ride despite some vicious winds and heavy showers which necessitated hiding under a tree for a while.

Many thanks to Olivier Csuka and Team Singer!

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Visit to Japan part 1 – Guu Watanabe Bicycle Luggage

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On a recent visit to Japan Tomoko and I visited a number of bicycle related craftsmen and shops, including Toei and Grand Bois – posts coming later! First though, in a suburb of Tokyo, Shoichi Watanabe and his Wife Tomoko make the most beautiful bicycle luggage in traditional vintage style, largely based on the products of the French Sologne and Lafuma bags, but with some added detail and innovations. If you want to equip your randonneuse with the most elegant and beautifully finished handlebar bags and panniers, you won’t find any better than the products of Guu Watanabe. As well as their advertised range they will make pretty much anything to special order. At the time of our visit they were making a very complicated canvas and leather briefcase. The quality of Japanese manufactured canvas and vegetable tanned leather is first class.

As well as being great craftspeople, they were very welcoming and a pleasure to talk to. Shoichi San demonstrated to me how he does the leather binding on the edges of their bags…completely freehand, without an edge guide or feeder! Believe me, that is an incredible skill, gained from over 20 years experience. He explained to me how the supplier of his edge finishing leather strips has just closed down, so he is recommissioning an old machine in his workshop to make his own, 8 strips at a time – a very fiddly and time consuming job which he would rather not have to do!

We enjoyed seeing their neat and efficient workshop with lots of beautiful tools and machines, adapted to the purpose of making beautiful luggage. More pictures of their work can be seen on their Flickr pages here. Thank you to Shoichi San and Tomoko San for their time and for the warmth of their welcome, and for my new green canvas handlebar bag!

The word Guu (from the French ‘Goût’) means ‘in good taste’, and is fittingly applied to these fine craftspeople.

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The Spirax Derailleur

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Raymond Bon was one of René Herse’s team riders. In the late 1940′s he designed the Spirax derailleur, seemingly quite a revolutionary gear. The main principle of the design was to maintain even chain tension throughout the gears.

One of the disadvantages of the Cyclo gear, as used by most touring cyclists of the period, was that chain tension was uneven, being maintained only by the long spring attached between the derailleur and a lug on the chainstay. The Cyclo also had a ‘dual’ cable arrangement which is a little tricky to set up. Bon did away with both these disadvantages in his design. The gear still moved along a rod with a helical groove, like the Cyclo, but the visible flat coiled spring returned the gear along the rod using its tension. This meant that only a single cable was needed for actuation. There was a second coiled flat spring concealed inside the metal casing, which maintained the chain tension.

It could handle a wide range of gear and chain-wheel sizes, 12 teeth at the rear and 20 teeth at the front. The lever was ‘indexed’ by virtue of a captive ball bearing clicking into the holes in the drilled washer as illustrated in the drawing by Daniel Rebour below. It was also said that the gear could handle a six speed rear block, making it possibly the first six speed gear.

It appears that the gear was available from about 1950 to 1956. Despite the theoretically sophisticated and revolutionary design, it is rarely seen fitted to bicycles of the period. You can see one on a Herse dating from 1950 on pages 156/7 of Jan Heine’s book on René Herse, and also to my Goëland below. So why was it not a great success? I can only assume that in practice it perhaps didn’t live up to expectations. At present I am having difficulty getting enough chain tension on my one!

Do any readers have recollections of this gear and can they perhaps can shed some light on its shortcomings?

Photo’s of NOS Spirax gear reproduced with the kind permission of Chris Protopapas.

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