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.1947/8, 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

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.

The catalogue illustration above is from the 1960 Herse catalogue, courtesy of Heiko Stroemer.

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, even the rubber handlebar grips are perfect, 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  Soubitez front light (note the alloy reinforcement), 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 it’s certain that 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

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’.




René Herse Randonneuse 1980


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

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


René Herse by Jan Heine – Book Review

My initiation into the wonderful world of French bicycles of the great constructeurs was some years ago during a visit to the collection of the March Family, near Bordeaux. I had not previously seen machines by Herse, Singer, Barra and Charrel before ‘in the flesh’, but I was struck by the subtlety and elegance of these wonderful bicycles. Unlike British bicycles of the period, there was little showiness about them. Instead of ‘fancy lugwork’ there was restrained detail, sober paintwork rather than ‘flamboyant’, and an integrated look utilising custom made items, rather than a series of shop bought components bolted to a frame. The cachet of these bicycles was in their attention to detail and their functionality. I became enthralled with them.

Last week an eagerly awaited and very weighty package arrived at my local post office. Luckily I was on my Porteur as carrying this monster of a book might have given me a hernia. This 424 page book weighs in at around 6lbs or over 2 Kgs. It was very thoughtfully packed in a box with custom made foam blocks on each corner, resulting in the book arriving in excellent condition.

Jan Heine is well known to enthusiasts of touring bicycles and in particular the classic marques of René Herse and Alex Singer, through his editorship of Bicycle Quarterly. Last year his Company Compass Bicycles acquired the trademarks, designs and other assets of Cycles René Herse, whilst Mike Kone continues to make Herse bicycles at Boulder Bicycles in Colorado, USA. Heine’s enthusiasm for the bicycles of Herse led to the enormous task of compiling this book from thousands of archive images, and the recollections of many of Herse’s colleagues, riders, and friends. Above all is the input of Herse’s daughter Lyli, one of the greatest women riders of the 50’s and 60’s, during which period she was eight times French Champion.


There are over 400 photographs in the book, mostly from the archive, but also images of about twenty original machines which illustrate the evolution and perfection of the marque. The drawings of Daniel Rebour add to the visual attraction of the book.

What makes this book for me is the clearly meticulous research carried out by the author. Each archive photo is captioned in detail and the text is liberally enhanced by the recollections of people that were actually there when the events happened. The chapters on competitions such as the Technical Trials and the Polymultipliée de Chanteloup bring to life the vibrant cycle-touring race program during the 40’s and 50’s, and these are areas little covered by other publications. These events placed emphasis on light weight and reliability, with points being gained for the lightest machines, but also deducted for any failures of parts brought about by the long and punishing courses. They were the proving grounds for new, lighter and better components. I was particularly struck by the importance of the Tandem in these events, again an area supported sparingly by other cycling publications. Herse’s numerous successes were not only in cyclotouring events, but also included the Women’s World Championship won by Geneviève Gambillon in 1972 and 1974, Briek Schotte’s win in the Paris-Tours of 1947 and Louison Bobet’s victory in the 1959 Bordeaux-Paris. On the track there were successes too, with 24 hour World records for Roger Baumann in 1953 and Yves Gilbert in 1957.


There was an upsurge of interest in cycling in France after the War, and Herse capitalised on this with up to six employees working away in his shop making frames and the many custom designed components that he produced… handlebar stems, chainsets, brakes etc.. which required a lot of hand finishing. But as soon as the early fifties orders began to decline and by the later part of the decade the advent of the moped and affordable motor cars such as the Renault 4CV and Citröen 2CV had taken hold, and led to a lean period and a much reduced staff. The sixties were made healthier by the interest in Herse bicycles from the American and Japanese markets. After Herse’s death in 1976 Jean Desbois took over the shop and continued to make great bicycles with his own distinctive handwriting until retirement in 1986.


I have often heard said that Herse’s bikes are ‘over-rated’. This generally comes from people who have not even seen one, yet alone ridden one. It has been mine and my Wife’s privilege to be able to ride Herse bicycles, which are very special indeed. This book cements the place in history of this great marque. It is not a ‘coffee table’ book but a substantial and detailed history brilliantly illustrated with numerous archive photographs, an informative and entertaining text, and wonderful bicycles. It brings alive a ‘golden age’ when these machines were at the zenith of the constructeurs Art.

The book is highly recommended and is available here.

Hottest day of the year ride

First of all, my apologies for the lack of posts lately. Vintage Bicycle Blog is re-locating (subject to contract!) to the lovely countryside of the Lincolnshire Wolds, where a large coach house awaits the bicycle collection and workshop. I’ve been busy having a major clear-out and preparing for the move.

Yesterday was the hottest day of the year and, since its cooler on the bike, we went for a ride to the beer festival at the Compasses pub at Littley Green. The temperature soared to 32 degrees whilst we tasted a few fine real ales. There was a huge thunderstorm in the middle of the day, at which point we were safely under cover eating our lunch. In attendance was a very nice 1929 Bentley 4 1/2 Litre Le Mans replica, and there was ploughing by vintage tractors in the field behind. Fine examples of Fordson, Ferguson and Caterpillar tractors with period ploughs were in action. A lovely event with a very amiable atmosphere.

Later we cycled on to teas in Pleshey Churchyard, with wonderful home made cakes and lashings of tea. Tomoko was riding her 1946 René Herse, which she reports hardly needs pedalling at all, and I was on my 1970 Alex Singer.

All in all, a grand day out!

Autumn Ride – Herse/Singer

Today was a most splendid Autumn day… Crystal clear, very mild but hellishly windy. Tomoko and I set off from Leaden Roding through the small Essex lanes, to High Easter, High Roding and Mashbury, via Pleshey to our Lunch stop – The Compasses at Littley Green. It was warm enough to sit in the garden and enjoy a pint of newly formed micro-brewery ‘Bishop Nick’ 1555 Ale, and a roasted vegetable ‘huffer’. Bishop Nick is the brainchild of Nelion Ridley, formerly of Ridley’s Brewery. Ridley’s was bought by Greene King in 2005, and was shut down shortly afterwards leaving beer enthusiasts the poorer and Ridley’s pubs with inferior Greene King products. Now Nelion and brother Joss have revived their family’s brewing tradition with three fine new ales… all highly recommended, the 1555 being the slightly stronger special bitter. Suitably refreshed we pressed on, largely against the wind, through Hartford End where the now sadly derelict Ridley’s brewery stands, to Bishop’s End, High Easter again, and back to Leaden Roding. The Autumn colours are coming on nicely, hinting that there will be a magnificent display this year. Tomoko was mounted on her 1947 René Herse whilst I was on my chrome Alex Singer of similar vintage.

Click on photo’s for large scale detailed images

Found Inside 1953 René Herse Frame……

I started work today on a 1953 René Herse Randonneuse. When I removed the fork I found that the ends of the top tube and the down tube were plugged with screwed up pieces of paper. The top one was a sheet of lined paper with some indiscernible faded writing on it and the other was a flyer for Stronglight, stating their victories in competition during 1952, including the Bordeaux-Paris. I wondered why Herse would have plugged the tubes like this and the only thing I can think of is that they might prevent contamination of the Herse dynamo contact brush located in the head tube, if the bike was turned upside down. Question is… should I put it back?!

René Herse Mixte 1947

A wonderful example of an early Herse Ladies Mixte bicycle from 1947. In completely original condition and as per the receipt which came with the bike. All original finish and lining, with unusual Gothic Herse handpainted script on downtube, and no RH initials on head.  Herse chainset and stem. Lam brakes. Cyclo 4 speed gear. Grand Bois 700 x 28 tyres on Record alloy rims, Trois Étoile spokes and Maxi hubs. The nice little cast rear rack is missing its stays, and not knowing what they looked like I’m having a long think about what to do to replace them and blend them in with the bike. Any suggestions?

Click on images for full size, and click again on details to enlarge them