1959 René Herse Porteur in uniquely original condition

In the 1950’s, the availability of reasonably priced cars had a very significant effect on the market for bicycles. In 1948, at the peak of the golden age of cycle touring, the Herse workshop produced 325 bicycles, and employed 5 or 6 workers fabricating and fitting up the frames. A steady decline in orders during the 50’s meant that Herse had to lay off workers, and by 1956 René Herse was the sole frame builder. In 1959 the shop produced just 85 bicycles. This porteur is the 14th bicycle produced in that year.

Herse porteurs are very rare, much more so than the randonneuses, and this example of the model with enveloping mudguards is perhaps the only one of its type in existence. More remarkable still is the condition of this machine. It has clearly been stored in good, dry conditions, and it is obvious that it had very little use indeed. There is hardly any wear on any of the parts, and the bicycle is generally in like new condition. This is the nearest you will ever get to seeing how the machine looked when the owner went to the shop to collect it. It is a unique discovery.

When the porteur came to my workshop it was covered in a thick layer of dust, but it was obvious that it was something special. I set about a very careful clean, adhering to museum type conservation methods. All materials used were gentle and acid free. None of the alloy parts or paintwork was polished, with just a couple of coats of Renaissance Wax being applied to preserve the original finishes.

There was no dissasembly during cleaning, because it was apparent that the majority of nuts and bolts on the machine had never had a spanner on them since leaving the Herse workshop, and I wanted to leave them like that.

Amusingly, the drive side crank does not have the ‘René Herse’ stamping…it must have been the one that got away!

The tyres, which were probably original, were Michelin with white walls. When I pumped them up one of them blew off the rim at quite low pressure, so they were the only item I replaced, to make the bicycle usable. All the other parts are completely original.

The fittings are as follows: Herse chainset, Herse annular bearing bottom bracket and alloy dust caps, Herse handlebar stem, Herse front brake and brake straddle hanger. Herse front rack with modified Soubitez front light, wiring passing through the rack tubing. Herse (Jos) rear light braze-on to seat tube. Torpedo rear coaster brake with a Simplex 3-speed derailleur. Maxi-CAR front hub, Bell wingnuts. I am not sure which make the rims are, but they are beautiful alloy examples, likely Mephisto. Lefol chain guard, and RBN enveloping steel mudguards. Handlebars are probably Philippe, Son-net bell on Herse fitting, and Rod handlebar grips. Ideale 49 Professionel saddle with steel stem. Zefal pump.

The combination of the Torpedo Coaster brake with a three speed Simplex derailleur is very unusual, although I’m sure it is original to this machine. Because of the chain path on this particular derailleur, you always get a straight chain when braking. The disadvantage is that the top half of the chain goes slack when you brake, and sometimes slaps on the top of the chainstay. Interestingly there is a Daniel Rebour drawing of a Cyclo derailleur, apparently specially produced for use with a coaster brake hub in Le Cycle October 23rd issue from 1950.

The front rack is attached to fittings brazed onto the fork crown, similar to cantilever brake mountings.

As the bike is a porteur and was designed (according to the Herse catalogue) to carry loads of up to 50 Kgs (!) on the front rack, the tubing is most probably Reynolds Speedy, a plain gauge heavier duty tubing than 531. The lugwork is the usual Herse type. Many are unaware that the Herse workshop made their own lugs, welded and brazed together on jigs, from tubing. There was no available bottom bracket made to incorporate pressed-in annular bearings, so fabrication was the only option. The lugs are beautifully filed and brazed, just as on the top of the range randonneuses, and presumably this frame was made by René Herse himself.

The condition of this machine is quite astonishing. When I had finished cleaning it, I like to think that I experienced something of the pleasure of the original owner on taking delivery of this beautiful bicycle 60 years ago. After all that time it still looks like new, and exudes quality.


Sources: René Herse – The Bikes – The Builder – The Riders – by Jan Heine, Bicycle Quarterly Press

Rebour by Rob van der Plas and Frank Berto, Cycle Publishing

Interesting safety bicycle saddle


One interesting aspect of making leather saddle covers for early bicycles is being able to see the sheer variety of saddle designs available in the Victorian period. Brooks were probably the leading maker but Leatheries, Lamplugh and Brown, Lycett, Mansfield, D.Mason and sons, and others had a share of the market.


I recently completed the leatherwork for this saddle which has rather an unusual design, probably dating from the late 1880’s or early 1890’s. It is distinguished by very unique springs and a fully adjustable nose. The springs increase in diameter as they head for the saddle base, and then take an elegant swoop to their anchoring point. Presumably their was some reason for this novelty, but more than likely the manufacturer was searching for something to set his products apart from the other suppliers. The front spring doesn’t have the ‘swoop’ so the three springs are all different and not interchangeable.


The nose of the saddle is adjustable for height as well as for the usual horizontal adjustment.



The frame is made from flat section rather than the usual wire, and is surprisingly free from distortion.



With thanks to the owner for permission to use images of his lovely saddle

New cover for a Nagel saddle


I recently made a new leather cover for a Nagel saddle. I didn’t have anything to work from for this rather unusual saddle, other than a few pictures of original saddles on the internet, and my 1886 Nagel catalogue…quite handy!



This type of saddle was a patented design, by G.Rothgiesser. They first appeared in 1884/5, the American patent (above) coming later. The leather is in two sections, joined by leather thonging. When the leather stretches it is possible to re-tension the saddle by tightening the cords and securing them by way of the fixing attached to the pan. The pan is unique, being of an unusual shape and having a hole drilled for the fixing to tie off the end of the cord.


There are a number of variations during the time they were produced, both in shape and in the number of eyelets. For instance, some have four eyelets on each side of the front section, instead of the three on others, including in the patent drawing above.

Clearly ventilation was good, but I would be concerned about chafing of the nether regions by the thonging. In the catalogue, the company publishes a testimonial from Thomas Marriott, who used the saddle on his Land’s End to John O’Groats ride of 1007 miles on a tricycle, in 1885. He states that “…it is one of the best saddles yet brought out”, although claims like this were two a penny in Victorian times! It is an interesting novelty and a fine example of some original thinking in early saddle design.



Making a new leather cover for one of these is challenging and time consuming. Cutting the wavy pattern is tricky, and there is a lot of edge finishing work, as well as the installation of 16 eyelets. The customer in this case asked for the finish to have an ‘aged’ look.


I’ve been busy with saddle work recently!….



Please address saddle making enquiries to me. My contact details can be found here.


Alex Singer Porteur c.1946


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!

René Herse 1953 Randonneuse


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’.




Newly discovered photographs: Harrogate Cyclists’ Meet 1879 and 1880

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.

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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

Grace’s Guide

Thank you also to Malcolm Neesam, the author of several of books on Harrogate, including  Harrogate Great Chronicle 1332-1841






How To Shellac Handlebar Tape – The definitive version

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. In France shellac is known as gomme laque.

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’.


Historical Note:

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.