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

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.