René Herse Tandem c.1944

During the occupation of France in the Second World War, cycling was still popular, in fact even more so given that fuel for cars was difficult to come by. The Technical Trials continued and people often rode out of the cities for the day, hurrying to get back before curfew. René Herse managed to avoid being utilised by the Germans. If they had been aware of his background in aircraft engineering things might have been very different. So, with a steady demand for them, he continued to make his made to measure machines throughout. During the latter part of the War he had 5 employees. This Herse tandem was built during that period c.1944/5. Subsequently it was returned to the Herse shop for some ‘updating’ c.19478, when it received a new 109 serial number, denoting a repair or modification.

I travelled to France to collect it some years ago, and it certainly looked as bad as the photo’s when I saw it! It was in a sorry state but I could see the potential, and knew it could be returned to use, which was important to me. I have featured it’s preservation before in a previous post so I won’t dwell too much on those details.

As usual my guiding principle is to retain originality wherever possible. This is often a more lengthy and painstaking (and painful) process than ‘restoration’, but I believe we are the custodians of remarkable historic machines, and have a duty to retain their originality and should make great efforts to preserve their unique details for future generations.

It is fitted with many Herse specialities…Touring racks, Chainsets, stems, gear changer, modified Cyclo Derailleur, ‘Speedy’ brakes and cable hangers, and modified large flange front hub. It’s likely that the chainsets and 5 speed Cyclo derailleur were part of the slightly later modifications. Other parts include Maxi drum brake, Tank pedals, Bell bronze wingnuts and Ideale alloy saddles.

The racks were originally chromed, but the majority of the plating had peeled off and the tubing was pitted. Chroming over pitted metal looks terrible and is a sin against the bicycle Gods. Most chrome platers are capable of ruining items like this. The very best platers (of which there are very, very few) will plate with copper first and then polish, repeating 2 or 3 times, to fill the pitting before nickel and chrome. However, this is very time consuming and therefore jutifiably expensive. At the end of that lengthy process you have perfect chroming which would stand out like a sore thumb against distressed paintwork like on this machine. Most platers would polish away some of the metal, weakening the item. Since they are made of quite thin walled material, a decision was made to remove and neutralise the rust and paint them black. I think they work tolerably well.

Some of the ‘before and after’ photo’s are quite dramatic. For instance the front hub and spokes. The hub is a modified FB item with the flanges turned off and Herse’s large alloy flanges riveted on using 36 rivets. I cleaned it up entirely by hand with no polishing wheel employed. This gives a much more original looking finish. Some people seem to think that these parts were mirror polished when new: They were not, but instead had a nice satin sheen.

The modified Lefol brake lever is a thing of beauty and shows Herse’s attention to detail. A portion of the lever was cut away and replaced by a beautifully formed alloy section with 2 cable ports to activate the front and rear rim brakes together:

Riding a tandem is a joyful experience particularly when it’s an intelligently engineered machine which does everything well. As usual Herse does not disappoint. Once you are able to achieve synchronicity between captain and stoker, it is a uniquely wonderful ride. I highly recommend it!

Sources: Jan Heine – René Herse – Bicycle Quarterly Press

Alex Singer Randonneuse 1947

I realised that I have never featured one of my favourite bicycles, which was also the one that introduced me to the wonders of the French constructeurs. About 12 years ago I visited Neville March and his family near Bordeaux. I was already collecting Victorian and early 20th Century machines, and Neville had a great collection of these. But he also showed me his French touring machines of the 40’s and 50’s, and I was hugely impressed. It was the first time I had seen bicycles made by René Herse, Charrel, Barra and Alex Singer. His son Alexander, and daughter Helen were also very enthusiastic about them and they have continued the family collection after Neville’s passing. A number of the family’s beautiful machines are featured in Jan Heine’s essential book The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles.

What struck me about these bikes was the fact that they were envisaged as a completely integrated machine, designed as a whole rather than as a frame with an assortment of parts bolted on. Whilst British makers were selling frames to be fitted up with proprietary parts from Campagnolo, GB, Chater Lea, Williams etc.. the constructeurs were producing custom made racks, stems, gear hangers, front derailleurs and even brakes. There were many innovations, which came about largely because of the Concours, or Technical Trials, events of the 30’s and 40’s, where rival makers vied to make the lightest and most elegant bicycles and fittings. Those fittings weren’t just designed as novelties, but had to be practical and reliable over the rigours of the trials courses. Just look at the Alex Singer hanger for the Cyclo gear, not only beautiful, but strong and durable too:

They also made best use of the latest very light duralumin parts available from makers such as Stronglight, Mafac, Mavic, AVA, Lyotard etc.. The other feature that appealed was the fact that these bicycles are very subtle and understated in appearance. Lugwork was purely functional, without fancy decoration. Even colour schemes were restrained with some makers adopting a ‘house colour’, such as the Charrel Lyonnaise brown, and the Routens dark red metallic. I have often watched people on vintage bike rides not even give my French machines a second glance. It takes a keen eye to notice the beautiful details.

This Alex Singer was my first French bicycle of the Golden Age. It was built in early 1947 and it incorporates many of the innovations mentioned above. The frame is constructed from the superlight Super Vitus tubing, and is chrome plated. It has Nivex rear dropouts, with chain hanger on the drive side. The rear axle is split, allowing for easy removal of the rear wheel whilst leaving the chain in place on the chain hanger.

It has a Singer fillet brazed stem, clamped to the steerer tube like the modern a-head. It also has their own design of brake and hangers, with unusual arrangement for the cable anchorage at the back and an elegant little brazed on hanger under the handlebar stem. There are twin bolts for the seat pin, echoing the arrangement for the handlebar stem. The Cyclo derailleur hanger is a work of art in tiny tubing! Front and rear racks are custom made, and there are Mavic Inal mudguards and Mavic wheel rims. The spokes are the super thin and light Trois Étoiles, tied and soldered, laced to C.A.R. hubs (before the company became Maxicar). Tyres were supplied by Grand Bois in Kyoto, 650B x 42. Stronglight cranks are mated to Lyotard pedals, and the derailleur is the duralumin Cyclo 4-speed. Philippe Professionnel handlebars are fitted with Lefol brake levers. A very light Ideale 47 saddle with duralumin frame completes the picture.

It’s unusual that this machine doesn’t have a double chainset, particularly as the original owner came from an area not far from Lyon. As the bike is equipped with front and rear racks it seems to have been designed for touring. I can only assume that he was either a very strong rider, or that he avoided mountains when he went touring!

Chrome finish was usually reserved for the top level machines, and is a practical and hard wearing finish. However, after almost 65 years, some of it is peeling off, although there is no pitting to the metal beneath. I’m entirely happy with the patina and wouldn’t dream of re-plating it. From time to time I wipe over the peeling areas with an oily rag to protect it.

This is a fantastic bike to ride. Common to many of this period, the fork rake is very pronounced (and very elegant) and this leads to low trail geometry. Combined with large diameter tyres this contributes to a stable ride, with excellent cornering characteristics. To understand the theory behind low trail geometry there is an excellent article by Jan Heine here. The bike is very light, considerably more so than later machines of similar design by Singer that I have. The lightness is the more remarkable since it is equipped with racks, mudguards and dynamo lighting. I love the fat 42mm tyres, which I run at 55lbs. Rolling resistance is very low and it makes for a very comfortable and fast ride. It was my first French randonneuse, and it started something of an addiction!

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 a Herse 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 (note the alloy reinforcement) 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 similar to the Simplex, 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 style and 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

Alex Singer Porteur c.1946

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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:

Before:

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After:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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:

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This machine is a very fine example of the great products of the workshop of the ‘couturier of bicycles’ in the ‘Golden Age’.

 

 

 

René Herse Randonneuse 1980

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Other equipment includes Philippe bars, Weinmann levers, Huret titanium rear derailleur and Super Champion 700c rims on Maillard 700 team issue hubs.

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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

Hugonnier Routens Randonneuse c.1948 – naked!

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I try to resist buying bicycles which are not in original finish because their treatment poses all sorts of questions and dilemmas. As regular readers will know, I am not keen on ‘restoring’ bicycles. I’ve been looking for a Routens for a few years now, but the top models rarely come up for sale. By ‘top model’ I mean that it should be constructed from lightweight tubing, have the typical Routens fork crown, the Routens cable operated front derailleur, and front and rear racks. It should also be fitted with all the best alloy components of the time.

This tourer from the ‘Golden Age’ fits the bill in all respects except for the lack of original finish. The seller described the bike as being in original paint, but it clearly wasn’t, and I based my bid on that being the case. The builder, Jo Routens, was a Grenoble based constructeur. He was a very fine rider and won a number of competitive randonneur events including the Paris-Brest-Paris. He set up shop with his business partner Hugonnier in 1945. The partnership was dissolved in 1952 after which Routens continued under his own name. The Routens company still exists in Gières, on the outskirts of Grenoble.

The design of his bicycles was clearly influenced by the designs of the Lyonnais builders Reyhand and Charrel. Construction is nearly always lugless, with the top of the seat stays joining the top tube in front of the seat tube. Rear brake cable routing through the seat tube is another Routens speciality.

I tested a few parts of the frame and found that there was no original paint under the nasty respray. I then stripped the frame using a citrus based paint stripper which is very pleasant to use, since you don’t need to use gloves, and the residues can be disposed of without any toxicity. Once the paint was softened, I used steel wool and automotive finishing abrasive pads to remove all remaining traces. The mudguards had also been painted with blocks of colour and here I discovered the original finish beneath the new paint. It was chocolate brown ‘Lyonnais’, with gold lining. The bicycle is almost identical in specification to this one on the Tonton forum, and it looks like the finish was also very similar, including the unusual feature of a painted front derailleur.

The frame (Number HR786 – 60cm) was in excellent condition under the paint, with no rust. The main triangle is in Dur-fort Series C, which was their extra light tubing, with Fobur fork blades, seat and chain stays. All the tubes are clearly stamped with the names. Interestingly the main triangle is fusion welded in the manner of Reyhand, not fillet brazed, except for the characteristic butted seat to top tube joint, which is bronze brazed, as are all the other joints. The frame is very light indeed, comparable with the lightest Herse frames of the period. Very unusually it has the dynamo on the right side – why?

The problem is what to do with it now? Repainting in original colour without transfers will look strange, I think. Trying to reproduce the transfers will be difficult to achieve, and they are unlikely to look much like the originals. The bike on Tonton has beautiful original transfers not only for Hugonnier Routens, but also for the Dur-Fort Series C tubing. I need to think……

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Fittings include Maxiplume cottered aluminium cranks with Cyclo Rosa rings, Cyclo 4 speed rear derailleur, Routens cable operated front derailleur, Lewis brakes and levers (note that braze-on’s are very different from Mafac) Maxi hubs laced to Mavic rims, DFV stem with drop bars which are turned around and have had their drops cut off!