The frame of this Alex Singer was built around 1945/6. It has a very early frame number in the production of the Singer atelier. These early frames can be distinguished by having quite a different lug shape to the later type which became pretty much standardised from the late 40’s onward.
When I bought it, the frame had been modified by the Singer shop, probably in the 1970’s. It had some extra braze-on’s and the original Cyclo or Nivex gear mount had gone. As the frame wasn’t original I chose to make it into a porteur, inspired by Ernest Csuka’s own porteur which I photographed in the workshop many years ago, when Ernest was still alive and making frames. It is also an early 700c frame, modified over the years. Most porteurs of the period are single speed with a coaster brake but, like Ernest, I liked the idea of having some gears.
The rack for my bicycle was made by the Singer shop, and braze-on’s were added for the chain case. The finish is the Singer house ‘Bleu Foncé’.
Equipment includes MAFAC inverted brake levers on Philippe porteur bars, Singer stem, MAFAC brakes, Simplex gear, annular bearing BB, Stronglight chainset, Record 700c rims on MAXI small flange hubs, lightweight aluminium Porteur chain case (Thanks to Rob!) and Lefol mudguards. It has a Jos front lamp wired through the rack tubes, and an internally wired rear lamp on the chain stay.
The combination of the early frame with the lightest parts makes for a very lightweight machine, really great to ride. With the 4 speed gear it is suitable for longer journeys other than the post office run!
I bought this bicycle some years ago but it’s taken me a while to get round to getting it up and running. It dates from 1953, is constructed from Reynolds 531 tubing, and unusually it is fitted with the Simplex Juy 51 gear.
The worst thing about the machine was the state of the chrome, which was peeling badly. I don’t much like re-plating things, so I searched for a long time for the right people to do a very careful and sympathetic job, without losing any of the important details. I settled on Derby Plating, and they really made a great job, particularly to the racks and bottle cage, which are very difficult to polish. They apply quite a lot of copper, polish then apply more copper, polish again, before nickel and chrome plating. The result was outstanding, but of course cost a small fortune!
Here is an example of the care taken in working the front rack:
I hand polished all the alloy parts, rather than use a polishing machine…more time consuming and physical, but gives a finish that doesn’t look to too shiny, closer to the original look of the parts. The original paintwork took many hours to clean and preserve. A small amount of touching up was done, and finally the surface protected with several coats of Renaissance Wax.
This machine is fitted with many of Herse’s specialities: Second pattern brakes with alloy nuts and alloy rollers to the straddle wires, Herse chainset and front derailleur, front and rear racks and decaleur. The Herse stem has a special aluminium boss for the bell fitment. The front light has a custom alloy mount. The bolt securing the mount is drilled hollow, allowing the wire to pass through invisibly. The bottom bracket has annular bearings pressed in and Herse alloy dust caps.
Finally it has the system in the head tube to transmit current from the dynamo to the front lamp. This consists of a brass ring pressed into the head tube, and connected to the dynamo. The fork steerer tube is fitted with a carbon brush which relays the current to the front lamp wire. All of that work is to do away with the unsightly wire which is usually exposed around the base of the head tube!
Other parts include Philippe bars and end plugs, Mafac brake levers and Jos lighting. Maxicar hubs are laced to the wonderful Mephisto rims. These rims have a wooden block reinforcing every spoke hole, making for a very strong wheel. They are surprisingly light – I think the wood is something similar to Balsa. The original handlebar bag is a nice bonus. It was undoubtedly supplied by the Herse shop and is bolted to their decaleur fitting.
The Simplex gear takes a bit of setting up. Retaining enough chain tension is the difficult thing. Please note that the pictures were taken before I set up the gear properly! It helps to have the original instructions….This might be helpful for others:
This machine is a very fine example of the great products of the workshop of the ‘couturier of bicycles’ in the ‘Golden Age’.
Please note: All photographs are my copyright and are not to be reproduced without my express permission.
Photographs of cycling clubs are relatively common, although the further back in time you go, the rarer they become. It’s very rare to see an image of a very large meeting of cyclists, and unusual to find nearly all of them with their machines. The two photographs below are exceptional, and even more so because of the fact that one of them contains a specific bicycle that can be identified, and is still in existence today! The meeting they depict is a very significant one in the early history of cycling.
The Harrogate Meet was first held in 1877, and officially known as The North of England Cyclists’ Meet. It was born at a gathering of the Halifax Bicyling Club, attended by delegates from the Anfield Bicycle Club, Bradford Ixion BC, Leeds BC and the Wakefield BC. The date of the first meeting was set for August Bank Holiday 1877 in Harrogate, the thriving spa town in North Yorkshire. The Commercial Hotel was appointed as headquarters, and cyclists came from far and wide…Liverpool, Darlington, Stockton, Hull, Manchester, Edinburgh, even Cambridge! The following year, on August 5th 1878 a group of about 80 cyclists met in the Pump Room at Harrogate at the instigation of Stanley Cotterell. He had published an article in the Bicycling Times suggesting that there was a lack of a club catering for touring. At that meeting the Bicycle Touring Club was formed, later to become the Cyclists’ Touring Club (now shamefully ‘rebranded’ as Cycling UK) It seems that this meeting was definitely linked to the Harrogate Meet, since the August Bank Holiday in 1878 was on the same day.
According to memories published in a souvenir booklet of 1898, subtitled Fun and Frolic in Cycling Camps at Harrogate, the early meetings were rather lively! According to Henry Sturmey, the smoking room of the Commercial Hotel was ‘packed to suffocation’ in the evenings, and after midnight there was a battle between various clubs, and the Yorkshire Yeomanry, which involved a barricade of mattresses and pillows at the head of the stairs. The Union Jack flag hanging on a pole outside one of the rooms was removed and a cyclist was found asleep wrapped in it the morning after, whilst members of the Yeomanry found their tall boots filled with water. The Landlady was not impressed! Another story recounts that in 1880 a Scottish club brought a barrel of whisky with them to the meet, the consumption of which caused further trouble! The culprits are pictured somewhere in the photograph below….
Consequently the hotels of Harrogate were less than happy to entertain the cyclists further, so the North of England Cyclists’ Meet and Camp was formed in 1881, with the attendees lodging in tents, in a field next to Harrogate cricket ground. The fun and frolics continued, of course, but at least the hotels were no longer terrorised! It seems that the meet continued into the 1900’s.
I am indebted to local Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam who has identified where the photographs were taken. The location was in the gardens of the Spa Rooms looking directly north into the grounds of Springfield House. The little crenelated building housed one of the mineral wells discovered in 1818, which began the development of the surrounding estate. The Spa Rooms were demolished in 1939 and the land is now occupied by an exhibition centre.
When I first laid hands on these photographs, the first thing I noticed was the presence of a particularly large Ordinary (Penny Farthing or High Bicycle) in the 1880 photograph. It towers over the rest of the bicycles there:
Viewing the details of this machine through a loupe, I recognised it as a giant Ordinary made by James Starley in 1874. Two identical machines were made to demonstrate the feasability of tangent spoking (crossing spokes as in ‘modern’ bicycles) for constructing a bicycle wheel. The wheel was 78 inches in diameter, as opposed to an average sized wheel of 52 inches. I recognised it because I had seen the very bicycle in the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. It can be identified from the small pair of handlebars behind the saddle spring, which are there to aid mounting, the distinctive shape of the saddle spring, and the forward extension from the head to support the pedal drive extensions, all of which are visible above:
The brother of this machine was sent to the United States shortly after it was made, and has since disappeared. The one in the 1880 photograph is clearly the one hanging on a wall in Beaulieu.
The other 200 plus bicycles in the photographs are typical of the time, all having straight handlebars, and a number of them appearing to have nickel plated frames. The riders are dressed in their various club uniforms, presumably some of them in Bicycle Touring Club dark green suits, and almost all have gleaming badges on their hats.
This last revelation about the Starley Giant was the icing on the cake of two of the finest cycling related photographs that I have ever seen.
Souvenir of the Harrogate Meet 1898 – Veteran Cycle Club Library
Thank you also to Malcolm Neesam, the author of several of books on Harrogate, including Harrogate Great Chronicle 1332-1841
Why use shellac? It is a very practical coating for bar tape, providing a tough and weatherproof coating, whilst still retaining the grippy texture of the cotton bar tape beneath. It can last for many years and can be re-touched or re-coated to prolong its life. Constructeurs such as Alex Singer, René Herse and Routens used it regularly. In my opinion it looks aesthetically very pleasing too.
What is shellac? Mostly produced in India and Thailand, shellac is a secretion from the Lac beetle on the bark of trees, from which it is scraped. It is melted down and purified and then dried in thin sheets which are broken up into flakes.
Various shellac colours are available and you can mix your own or buy ready mixed. I mix my own, since shellac has a shelf life of approximately six months, it works better, and it’s cheaper too. It also allows you to mix up small quantities for re-touching if you scrape the finish at a later date. Be sure to mark your jar with the date the mixture was made! Amber or Orange shellac is the most useful colour. Important: The flakes should be of the de-waxed variety. In the UK there is a shellac supplier called W.S.Jenkins, who can provide what you need, located in North London. It can also be obtained via ebay listings – 100g or 4 ozs will be enough.
In a jam jar I fill it about 40% full with flakes, and then fill the jar to just above the level of the flakes with methylated spirits (denatured alcohol). Denatured alcohol is simply alcohol with an additive to make it unpalatable for drinking! Stir well and then leave for about 24 hours, stirring very regularly. You will find that a thick residue forms in the base of the jar overnight so stirring (not shaking) with a stick is necessary to dislodge and dissolve this before the mixture can be used. The consistency should be thick-ish, like synthetic varnish, with a rich amber colour. If it’s too thin, add more flakes, too thick add more alcohol.
Different tape colours can be used to create various finishes, but in my experience white and brown tape are the most useful. White combined with Amber shellac gives the classic French look of rich amber, such as used by Alex Singer. Brown tape followed by Amber shellac produces a nice dark brown finish which may be suitable if you want to match a dark coloured saddle, for instance.
Amber shellac over white bar tape:
Amber shellac over brown bar tape:
Lemon or blonde shellac over white tape to match the copper-gold colour of this René Herse:
Roll back the brake hoods and secure with tape, if they are flexible enough. If they are fragile vintage items you will have to carefully work around them!
You can usually get away with two rolls of tape for a pair of drop handlebars. It depends on how much you overlap when winding it on. I tend to wind on with quite a bit of overlap, so I sometimes end up using a little more than two rolls – wish they made the rolls a bit longer! My first preference for make is Velox Tressostar. Newbaums also make good tape. Velox is slightly stretchier, making it easier to use around the brake housings.
Make sure your hands are clean before starting! Before applying the tape, cut six 2 inch long sections for the brake lever area. This prevents any bare metal showing around the lever hoods. Apply the back pieces first, then the side sections tight up to each lever housing.
Tape in place any cables on more modern machines, in two or three places, starting and finishing tape underneath the bar.
I prefer to wind the tape from the bar end. I start with the left hand side of the bar seen facing the handlebars from the front of the bike. Anchor the tape underneath the bar, with the roll towards you, allowing enough to tuck inside the bar end, and then wind away from you round the bar, keeping the overlap as even as possible, and the tension tight at all times, taking particular care around the lever housings. This is the most difficult bit, as tension needs to be tight and great care needs to be taken to prevent creases. If you get a crease, unwind a bit and do it again.
Finish the end towards the centre of the bars by making the cut underneath the bar where the end of the tape will not be visible. Measure distance of finish to the stem, to match on other side.
Important: The other side should be a mirror image of the first side. Make sure that you are winding correctly.
If you don’t have nice end plugs, you can use natural wine corks inserted into the bar ends. If you do that, insert them now as it’s best to shellac over them.
On my porteur I used a cork from a bottle of French Cider, just for fun. You can use shellac as a glue to fix the cork in place:
Prepare the bike for applying shellac by covering the frame and front wheel with an old sheet or towel, so that it doesn’t get splashed. Best to have the front wheel in a floor bike stand, so you can move around the handlebars. The first coat can be put on generously, using a small soft decorators paintbrush (natural bristles are best), as it will soak into the tape. Try to apply smoothly and slowly, so as not to ‘froth’ the shellac, and watch out for drips, particularly underneath the bars. Leave at least 2-3 hours between coats, ensuring that it is dry before re-coating. Three or four coats usually suffice. Keep the coats even and free from runs and drips. The aim is to retain the texture of the bar tape for grip, rather than a smooth slippery gloss finish! Leave for at least 24 hours before using.
Brush is cleaned using meths/alcohol, and any drips on frame or other parts can also be removed this way.
If you scrape the bars and remove some of the coating at a later date, you can mix up a small amount of shellac and touch it in. Effectively, the tape is ‘glued’ to the handlebars by the shellac. There’s no need to use twine wrapping at the stem end, so beloved by Rivendell! Personally I think twine looks messy, and is an unnecessary bit of decoration. It was certainly never used by the great ‘constructeurs’.
Shellac was used as an adhesive for sticking on solid bicycle tyres, back in the 19th century. Solid tyres were held together using interlocking spiral wires in the UK, then stretched onto the rim, the shellac being used as a security measure to prevent the tyre rolling off the rim.
Just like today where cycling clubs have their own design of jerseys, in the early days of cycling it was also common for each cycling club to have an official uniform for riding. Unlike today, though, this usually constituted a tailored jacket and breeches, wool stockings, and a cap or even a type of protective helmet.
Recently I came across the certificate above, issued in 1890 by the CTC to appoint an official tailor for club uniform. The uniform specifications were laid down by the club in their rules, although the uniform was not compulsory. In the British Library there is a copy of the CTC Uniform Rules and Regulations, which is dated 1888. Remarkably this allows us to see the exact materials specified for the uniform, since there are samples of the actual cloth glued into the publication. Additionally there are details of the uniform requirements for women. The author of the regulations was E.R.Shipton, the Secretary of the CTC, whose flowing signature is on the certificate above.
Carton Reid on his excellent blog Roads Were Not Built For Cars writes about this publication and the CTC uniform in detail. Initially the club adopted green serge for their garb, but it was found that ‘it showed every speck of mud or dust’ of which there was plenty on the roads of the time, so it was discontinued in 1882 in favour of grey tweed. This was settled on ‘after many months of patient investigation’ and testing of over forty different cloths. At the time wool was favoured against the skin, as a hygienic and sanitary fabric, far better than cotton for the rigors of riding. Dr.Gustav Jaeger was partly responsible for this, with his ‘Sanitary Woolen System’ which was popularised by the Royal Family, amongst many other patrons. So, woolen undergarments were also specified.
Jackets were either Norfolk or Lounge style, with knee length breeches or knickerbockers, a grey checked flannel shirt, hand knitted socks, and a choice of headgear ranging from a cricket type cap to a helmet. The helmet would probably have been lined with cork, like a pith helmet of the period.
For ladies there was a coat bodice or Norfolk jacket in the same cloth, and a skirt with or without apron or pannier. Knickerbockers were also an option, and would seem to be a little more practical than the skirts pictured below. However, at that time there was still opposition to women wearing such a garment.
Three weights of wool tweed were available:
After settling on the regulation uniform, the CTC then appointed official tailors in major cities, so that the quality of the product could be assured. The certificate in question appoints Gulland and Kennedy of Edinburgh as their official supplier. In London one of their appointees was Goy and Co. who made the racing cap in my previous blog post.
Gulland and Kennedy was a well known tailors established in 1886, and the certificate is a very rare survivor of it’s type.
In The Cyclist Christmas Number for 1890 (above) the uniform colours of all recorded clubs are quoted. For instance, Clapton CC of East London, wore dark blue with white cap, whilst Edmonton CC wore grey check. This would generally have been of tweed or wool serge, with different weights of cloth available for summer and winter use… if you were wealthy enough! The Anfield Bicycle Club of Liverpool adopted an all black uniform, leading to them being dubbed ‘The Black Anfielders’. However, a number of clubs took a more casual stance with no uniform specified. Amusingly the Farleigh CC states ‘grey imitation CTC cloth’ for their outfit. The CTC would not have been amused having claimed that their fabric was of unsurpassed quality and warning about the inferiority of imitators:
Thanks also to Ray Miller and the Veteran-Cycle Club online library, for The Cyclist Year Book 1890
This type of cap was worn by racing cyclists in the 1880’s and 90’s. Typically silk caps would have only been used for racing on the path (track), whilst wool caps would have been used on the road. On the front peak are embroidered the letters L.B.C standing for London Bicycle Club, which was one of the earliest cycling clubs, founded in 1874. The cap is of silk, in dark blue, claret and black panels. The lettering and braid are of silver, which has tarnished to black. Imagine what it looked like when it was new!
The cap was made by Goy, the leading Cyclist’s outfitters in the City of London. Goy’s seem to have been a large company that also sold bicycles and accessories, as well as equipment for other sports. Their logo of the ship mast and sails is beautifully printed in gold on the lining of the cap. The cap is in exceptional condition for it’s age.
Some images of cap-wearing racing cyclists of the 1880’s…
It is a very rare item indeed. My friend Gertjan Moed, who owns and runs the wonderful Nationaal Fietsmuseum Velorama bicycle museum in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, told me that he had never seen one in 40+ years of collecting.
Here the cap is modeled by the perennially dapper Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds fame.
In April 1975, shortly before René Herse died, Jean Desbois returned to frame making at the Herse workshop. He had previously worked for Herse in the 1940’s and 50’s before leaving and pursuing other avenues of work. He had made some of the finest frames that the workshop had ever produced, including some of the concours machines, as Herse’s lead craftsman. He probably made the spectacular chrome framed machine on the front cover of The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, by Jan Heine. That machine was built in 1952 for the Salon du Cycle.
Over 20 years later he again produced beautifully crafted machines under the René Herse name, marrying Lyli Herse (RH’s daughter) in 1980. This example, built in the year of their marriage, is a typically understated yet beautiful bicycle. The frame is constructed from Reynolds 531 tubing. The fork crown is Desbois’ characteristic simple and exceptionally elegant spearpoint. The lugs are beautifully filed. It features internal cable runs for rear brake and both gear cables. Even under the bottom bracket, where the gear cables emerge and run through guides, the finishing is perfect.
The rear derailleur cable emerges through a brazed on fluting which also incorporated the mount for the chainstay protector. By this time Herse’s signwriter that painted the names on the frames had died, so Desbois used transfers instead. As usual, wiring to the front lamps runs through the custom made rack.
Desbois’ stem design was quite different from the earlier design. They were cut out of a solid piece of duralumin. Holes were drilled for the cutout and the hand filing took over four hours to complete.Here the stem is contrasted with the much earlier item on my wife’s 1946 Herse:
Other equipment includes Philippe bars, Weinmann levers, Huret titanium rear derailleur and Super Champion 700c rims on Maillard 700 team issue hubs.
As with most of machines under the Herse name, it is the highly understated and subtle detailing combined with the exquisite craftsmanship of a gifted skilled artisan at the top of his game, that makes these wonderful machines so appealing.
Click on photo’s for large scale images