Vintage and veteran bicycles of quality and how to preserve them for future generations, with a particular interest in the French 'constructeurs'. Please note all images are my copyright unless otherwise stated, and may only be used with my express permission.
Today I had a unique opportunity to photograph two Lea-Francis machines!
In the long and chequered history of the Lea Francis company (founded in 1895), which quite remarkably exists to this day, the manufacture of bicycles quite naturally led to motor cycles and thence to cars. Their products were always of exceptional quality.
The most expensive bicycle of the period, in my opinion the Lea & Francis was the bicycle equivalent of the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. The quality of the fittings and finish is truly outstanding.
This completely unrestored and extraordinarily well preserved example was in one family ownership before I acquired it, and it was always kept inside the house when not being used… as it is today! Dating from c.1909, it is fitted with the Lea & Francis 3 speed gear, L & F patent alloy pedals, L & F alloy rear carrier, and patent L & F ‘Reflex’ reflector. Lea and Francis in fact invented the reflector, which was later used to great effect on road warning signs.
There is no rear step for mounting since it is fitted with the patent ‘trip motion’ device which locks the left hand crank in the 4 O’Clock position for mounting from the pedal, releasing automatically when riding forward.
The concealed roller lever brakes are a work of art, the front one being easily adjusted by removing the cap at the centre of the bars and turning the adjusting bolt. The gear change is topped by an ivory knob. There are phospher bronze bushes in all the brake pivots. The nickel plating on my machine is entirely original and like new.
The finish is very modest with no fancy lining to the black enamel, except for a thin red line on the rims, between the black enamel and the nickel. There are two transfers, one at the top of the head tube, largely missing, and the other on the rear mudguard in fine condition. Brooks saddle with oiler in seat pin, puncture repair kit concealed in handlebar grip, and correct period Lucas ‘Acetyphote’ Acetylene lamp. It also has the original tool kit.
The bicycle has clearly had little use… the mileometer reading of 5780 miles (about 600 are mine) is probably correct, and it still rides like a ‘Rolls’! Undoubtedly my favourite Edwardian bicycle.
In August 1928 Lea Francis had an astonishing overall win at the Ulster Tourist Trophy race, the equivalent of a Grand Prix at the time, in front of a crowd of some 250,000 spectators. The winning car was driven by Kaye Don. There is a fantastic silent film of the race here.
In the supercharged Meadows engined 1500cc ‘Hyper’ he beat all the large engined cars including Bentleys, Mercedes and Bugatti. This win put Lea Francis on the map as a sporting car manufacturer, and as a result the company made a small run of TT-bodied replicas of the winning car. The Hyper was the first production supercharged vehicle, albeit that production was somewhat limited. This Hyper ‘S’ is one of these few.
Uniting these two creations of the Lea Francis company was a thrill. Twenty years apart, they are both the finest examples of early 20th Century British engineering.
My recent post on Lockdown London reminded me of another unique situation 10 years ago. The Icelandic volcano of Eyjafjallajökull had been active since the end of 2009, but on 14th April 2010 the activity went into a new and more violent second phase when it began began to erupt beneath a glacier. The massive eruption sent an estimated total of 250 million cubic metres of ash as high as 9 kilometres into the atmosphere. It had a huge effect on air travel, and on 15 April British controlled airspace was shut down.
At the time, my wife was in Milan at the Salone furniture fair, the biggest of its type in the world. When initial reports said that the affect on air travel would be limited, I looked at the met maps and formed a different opinion. (I used to be a commercial hot air balloon pilot and have a good knowledge of meteorology). I suggested that my wife, who had return air tickets for a couple of days later, get home as quickly as possible. Flights were all full, and people were fighting over train tickets to leave Milan. She was lucky enough to get the last few tickets on a sleeper train to Lille, for herself and her staff. Thousands of other people weren’t so lucky and were stranded in Milan for many days when airspace closed. Some paid thousands of pounds to get taxi’s from Milan to the UK.
Unfortunately she couldn’t get Eurostar tickets home from Lille, so I took the car through the tunnel and picked them up, to great relief. I made a brief detour to my favourite Belgian beer shop, Nöel Cuvellier at Poperinge, to stock up, so the journey was beneficial in other ways!
Enjoying the absence of aeroplanes from the skies, I realised that it would be a unique opportunity to visit a deserted Stansted Airport, the nearest airport to us. So I rode my 1973 Alex Singer Paris-Brest-Paris model there and enjoyed the pleasure of viewing Norman Foster’s architecture with hardly a soul in sight.
British airspace was closed for over 6 days and caused travel chaos across Europe, The Ukraine and Turkey. For me, nature had provided some welcome respite from the crowded and noisy skies over London, which are otherwise always adulterated by numerous aircraft vapour trails.
As we are allowed an exercise ride or walk each day, I chose to have a quick ride through central London, making sure to keep well distanced from other cyclists and walkers. I equipped the Singer Porteur with my Sologne fishing basket to carry my camera and a drink. First stop was Trafalgar Square, which was deserted, with only a security guard visible in the above photo.
Piccadilly Circus was similarly very quiet, with only a handful of people walking and cycling. There were very few cars on the roads generally. Buses were quite frequent but carrying very few people.
Moving swiftly on, I rode back through Shoreditch where I passed through quiet streets, one lined with graffiti.
In Brick Lane I was surprised to see the 24 hour Beigel bakery open, but then I suppose they would probably only close in the event of nuclear war!
Just around the corner, in Redchurch Street, is one of my favourite shops, Labour and Wait. It’s an old fashioned style hardware store, where you can buy all manner of traditionally made household items including brushes, enamel ware, tools, and even some very nice work wear. The outside is finished in beautiful Victorian green glazed tiles.
The porteur has everything you could need in a city bike: Good Mafac brakes with Koolstop pads, mudguards, mud flap, chain guard, and a big front rack! Four gears are more than enough for London, which doesn’t really have any significant hills. It’s light and quick too, on Grand Bois 700c x 28 tyres.
I found that quite a lot of cyclists, in our current unprecedented situation, have failed to grasp the idea of passing other cyclists 2 metres apart. Because of the very light traffic this was easy and safe to do, but a number passed me annoyingly close. I kept moving quickly so that it was mostly me doing the passing, at the required distance, hanging back if necessary until traffic conditions allowed.
London is looking very unfamiliar, but the most noticeable thing for me, apart from the lack of vehicles, was the difference in air quality… and the quiet. The air was very noticeably fresher, and the few vehicles and absence of aircraft overhead made it pleasantly though uncharacteristically quiet. Perhaps we can learn some lessons about our environment from the current crisis. Personally, I think we should have one traffic free day per week in central London and other major cities, so we can enjoy the benefits of clean air and the quietness of being vehicle free, and some respite from the norm. This should have the added advantage of encouraging the use of bicycles, which is always a positive!
The ‘End to End’ record, or Land’s End to John O’Groats, holds a particular fascination in British cycling history. It’s holders have included previous heroes such as the great G.P.Mills, T.A.Edge and Lawrence Fletcher. Until 1903 the records were paced, but from then on they were under the strict rules of the Road Record Association (RRA), which disallowed pacing and laid down the route and other criteria to be followed.
In 1908 H.E.Green set the new record time of 2 days 19 hours and 52 minutes, for 837 1/2 miles, which was to stand for a remarkable 21 years. Green was a predominant time triallist who had held 15 RRA records from 50 miles, through to 12 and 24 hour time trials. Similarly Jack Rossiter was a distinguished performer, holding record in 100 miles, London to York and 12 hours TT. In 1929 he set out to beat Harry Green’s time and take the Blue Riband of solo cycling.
In the intervening period since Green’s ride there had been a rule change. The ride previously included a ferry crossing, which for Rossiter’s ride was bypassed, adding 28 1/2 miles to the distance, making a total of 866 miles.
His mount, provided by Raleigh, was a Club Model built up to his favoured, rather idiosyncratic, specification. It was said to have weighed just 23 1/2 pounds (10.7 kilos) and was fitted with a 3 speed Sturmey-Archer K-series hub gear, with a medium gear of 78 inches. It had a forward curved seat pin, and ‘Marsh’ drop bars set at a downward angle which seemed to be quite popular at that time. The brake levers were unusual, being inverted at the end of the drops. The Brooks saddle was fitted with a Resilion padded cover.
There was just a small forward extension mudguard in front of the steerer to prevent mud splashing into his face. Lighting was provided by a Lucas Acetylene lamp, with only a reflector at the rear. His clothing was the typical outfit of a time triallist, with thin alpaca jacket and alpaca knitted tights. He was said to have made his own waterproof jacket!
Setting out from Land’s End on the 22nd August 1929 at 08.00, the weather was by no means ideal! In rain and with muddy road surfaces, he crashed at Penzance. Picking himself up he was thankfully uninjured and carried on over Bodmin Moor with reduced tyre pressures to give better traction in the wet conditions.
His route was detailed on this route card, which I acquired for the National Cycle Archive. It is believed to have belonged to Rossiter, the notes being written either by him or a member of his team.
Travelling through Exeter he reached Bristol at 19.00, 50 minutes ahead of schedule, despite the crosswinds and rain. At Gloucester he fitted his lamp and rode on through the dark to Kidderminster and then Whitchurch, where the landlord of the Swan Hotel welcomed him at 02.45 to give him some refreshments. During the night it was damp and cold, and Jack made use of his pullover and cardigan, as well as his waterproof jacket. Onward to Warrington where he took breakfast over the course of a 22 minute stop.
The image above is of the back of the support lorry, showing some of the spare gear, McVitie Digestive Biscuit tin, and his carbide lamps. A carbide container tube is seen just behind the lower lamp. The lamps are the substantial Lucas Calcia King No.326, which stands 7 inches high (17cm). Carbide lamps have a water reservoir above a calcium carbide container. The water is dripped slowly onto the carbide producing acetylene gas, which is lit to produce a very white, bright and effective beam. The support lorry had to keep at least 100 yards behind the rider, so he was entirely reliant on his lamp during the night. I happen to have exactly this type of lamp in my collection, my one dated 1925:
As daylight broke, Rossiter was shaken by the cobbled streets of Wigan but pressed on at speed towards the Lake District. He was 2 hours ahead by the time he reached Kendal. Stops for refreshments were generally very brief, just a matter of a few minutes, but at Kendal he stopped for 1 hour 20 mins, to enjoy a bath, massage and some rest. Onward he pressed over the steep climb of Shap, in a ‘low’ gear of 59 inches (!) gaining on record all the time. Before Carlisle, at 14.00, he changed his rear wheel for one fitted with a Sturmey combination which was slightly lower geared; 55/72/94 instead of 59/78/102. This seemed to make him more comfortable and, coupled with a more favourable wind direction, allowed him to make excellent progress through Gretna, Lanark and Stirling.
Rolling down into Perth in the darkness, he had an unfortunate meeting with a rabbit who ran into his front wheel and brought him down heavily. His knee was badly grazed and both arms bruised, but his bike was unscathed and he continued into the city at 00.53, where his wounds were dressed and treated with Iodine, whilst he took on food.
Sandwiches with cheese, custard, rice, Virol, eggs and coffee were the main constituents of his diet, along with beef tea, Peppermint Creams and McVities Digestive Biscuits. Virol was a popular ‘health food’ which contained malt extract, beef fat, various vitamins, glucose, fructose, egg and orange juice!
In Blair Athol, at 05.45 he stopped for beef tea and digestive biscuits before the long climb over the Grampian Mountains. The weather had cleared, giving him some welcome moonlight, but the wind had changed to a headwind for the ascent. Just after the climb a howling gale came up, which he would have endured whilst climbing had he not been so far ahead of schedule. When the Pentland Firth came into view he knew he was almost at his goal, and when he rode into the forecourt of the John O’Groats Hotel at 21.22, he was greeted by the timekeeper F.T.Bidlake, who announced that he had beaten the record by 6 hours 29 minutes. Rossiter replied: “That’s good, now what about a spot of something to eat?”
On the first day he had covered 392 miles, and the second 307 miles. His average speed was nearly 15 mph. His stops accounted for 4 hours 32 minutes, so he was actually riding for 2 days 8 hours 50 minutes. The record time was 2 days 13 hours 22 minutes for 866 miles, which was to stand for 5 years until beaten by the great Hubert Opperman.
There is a connection between Rossiter and someone else featured on my blog, because he was married to Lilian Morris, the sister of the great frame builder H.R.Morris. I believe the photographs, now in the National Cycle Archive and featured in this post were owned by Rossiter’s family and given to Dick Morris.
Amongst these documents was also a most unique item, a souvenir programme and menu for the celebratory dinner in December 1929, at the Frascati Restaurant on Oxford Street, London. The menu is signed by numerous important figures in the field of cycling. They include the timekeeper for the record, former great racing cyclist and tricyclist, and vice-president of the CTC, F.T.Bidlake, former racing cyclist and president of the CTC Herbert Stancer, and the Chairman of Raleigh, Sir Harold Bowden.
This wonderful Humber Cross Frame belonged to a friend of mine who sadly passed away a few years ago, at an untimely age. He had a collection of well over 100 bicycles of all types, but this was a particular favourite of his. It lived inside the house rather than with the other machines. I felt a particular responsibility to preserve this Humber carefully in his memory, and for future custodians.
Thomas Humber was a particularly important figure in the history of the bicycle, both as manufacturer and innovator. He founded his company around 1868 in Beeston, Nottingham, initially making boneshaker velocipedes. He was a prolific maker of high quality Ordinaries (penny farthings), and many racers rode Humber mounts. His 1884 safety bicycle was one of the very first to adopt a ‘diamond’ frame. Later on, factories were opened in Coventry and Wolverhampton. Humber had a reputation for high quality and this led to the Royal family of this country as well as many international royalty adopting his machines. In the 1890’s he designed a demountable bicycle, which could be dismantled for storage or transport. The Beeston factory was closed in 1908 but the ‘Beeston Humber’ name was continued and attached to the highest quality machines, even whilst made in Coventry. Agencies in Europe and around the world sold their products (see French poster below).The Humber company was bought by Raleigh in 1932.
This is a particularly beautiful machine, primarily because of the unusual and beautiful thick green lining originally edged in gold. Much of the gold has worn off, but fragments can still be seen. The fittings are all original, including the Sturmey Archer 3-speed K series gear, number K178481. A Brooks rear carrier holds a canvas and leather bag which I custom made to hold tools, food and clothing for forays into the countryside. It is completed by a correct period Lucas Silver King front lamp and Lucas Warna rear lamp.
I approach a very original and rare bicycle like this as I would a museum piece, with conservation and preservation in mind, and using materials that will protect the original finishes, and not release any chemicals which might attack and degrade them.
It took me approximately 18 hours to clean, preserve, and service the bike, taking great care to not damage the lining, transfers, or plentiful patina. The forks are nickel plated beneath the enamel and some areas of paint had flaked off. This looked rather ugly, was distracting, and inconsistent with the overall look of the machine, so I touched in some of the areas with a thin coat of satin black acrylic paint. This has the effect of unifying the finish and draws the eye away from the damage. The chain case was removed and very carefully straightened so that it closed correctly. Some silver overpainting was removed from the handlebars using cellulose thinners, and a chrome cotter pin was changed for a correct nickel plated one! When thoroughly clean, the enamel was protected with a few coats of Renaissance wax, a museum grade material, which buffs up to a nice original looking lustre.
The perished tyres and inner tubes were replaced. These lovely cream tyres were produced in Korea for the Dutch Oude Fiets bicycle club some years ago. They are of very nice correct period pattern, but were too ‘new’ looking, so I distressed them a little using a mixture of black and brown boot polish.
The resulting machine is very handsome, I think. I’ve owned several cross frames and have always found them very nice to ride. The upright riding position is akin to sitting on a sofa, and encourages long distances at modest speeds. I’m looking forward to putting some fair weather miles into it…..just as soon as we are released from this disabling and distressing C19 virus lockdown!
Veteran-Cycle Club Library
An Encyclopedia of Cycle Manufacturers, by Ray Miller
H.R. ‘Dick’ Morris’s shop in Orford Road, Walthamstow, East London, was the bicycle shop that I went to regularly when I was in my teens, back in the 1970’s. I always wanted one of his frames, but couldn’t afford it at the time. Memories of Dick Morris are very pleasant for me…. He always had time to offer advice, imparting his extensive knowledge in the high pitched sqeaky voice that I didn’t know until much later was a result of treatment for throat cancer when he was a younger man. The shop was a bit spartan, but in the cramped workshop out the back he produced some of the finest English lightweight frames ever made. His lug cutting was without equal, in my opinion, so finely done, particularly bearing in mind that he was a big man and had hands like bunches of bananas! See an excellent article about Morris here on our friends at classiclightweights.co.uk website.
This frame, number H478, was ordered on the 2nd November 1968, with 72 degree head tube, 71 degree seat tube, and Campag ends. ‘Fancy lugs’ were specified, and that’s what the owner got! As with almost all of his frames, it’s in Reynolds 531 tubing.
Most of the frames that Dick made were quite workmanlike, using spearpoint or Nervex lugs. They were, however, always beautifully filed and very cleanly finished. From time to time he produced very fancy lugwork to order, but the really special ones with his initials in the head lugs probably amount to less than ten frames. This frame is one of those special ones. It has his initials ‘HRM’ carved in the head lugs, and all the other lugs are beautifully and meticulously cut using saw and file, including to the bottom bracket.
When I bought the frame it had some extra braze-ons added later, and was fitted with a 7 speed modern groupset. It was not in original enamel. I sent it to Mercian, who removed the non-original braze-ons and re-enamelled the frame in my choice of colours. They carried out the work to a very high standard, with excellent lug lining. They did the work in exactly the time and budget quoted, and they clearly take pride in their work.
I decided to build it up with very nice parts, not necessarily exactly from the late 60’s, but that I thought Dick might have approved of. He liked French components, so the chainset is Stronglight with drillium rings. The drivetrain is completed with a Campagnolo Rally rear derailleur and Campag front changer. Hubs are Campagnolo laced to Mavic rims, fitted with Grand Bois 28c tyres. Bars are beautifully engraved GB randonneur, with mafac drillium levers, and Mafac ‘Racer’ brakes. I may change the centre-pulls to side-pulls since they get in the way of the beautifully detailed head lugs. The saddle is a modern Brooks Pro, whilst I wait for a more suitable period saddle to turn up. Bar-tape is shellacked over brown tape, to match the saddle.
You can see another spectacular Morris frame, on which I did a conservation job for the owner, here.
So, finally, I have one of Dick Morris’s very special frames and I am delighted with it!
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 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 there 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