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