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

A crisp autumn day…


Yesterday was a particularly nice one…. sunshine, a fresh wind and unseasonably mild temperatures. So, we loaded the René Herse tandem in the car and headed for deepest Essex. Unfortunately, since our neighborhood is teeming with Range Rovers and heavy traffic, we have to drive away from the outskirts of the metropolis to get to somewhere more civilized for riding. It’s such a shame that we are forced to do this.


Starting from Leaden Roding, we took the small lanes through High Easter and High Roding, past the medieval remains of Pleshey castle, to Great Waltham. From there a very narrow sweeping lane runs us through to Littley Green where is situated the wonderful Compasses public house. Run by a member of the Ridley’s brewing family, the pub is dedicated to real ale, with a regularly changing list of finely conditioned beers. Ridley’s beer is no more – the brewery being bought out by the Greene King organization and swiftly closed down – typical of the aggressive attitude of this large brewery whose own beers are decidedly mediocre. Food at the Compasses is good too, and the staff first class. The pub is teeming with cyclist’s in the summer months and they even have their own cycling jersey.



We chatted in the warm sunshine with our elderly friend Phil, an expert on Deer, and hearing the arrival of a ‘proper’ sounding motorcycle, found that a beautiful Vincent was lodged in the car park. Suitably sustained by food, beer and chat, we headed back, through the puddles of the previous night’s downfall of rain.



Tomoko, who was sporting pigtails today, is great on the tandem – nice and steady, and she even pedals occasionally. The Herse rides smoothly and everything works beautifully, even the brakes. The front and rear brakes operate from the twinned right lever whilst a Maxi drag brake is operated with the left.

We were contented after such a lovely ride, but driving back one of the above mentioned Range Rover’s coming towards us suddenly veered over onto our side of the road on a dead straight section, prompting a blast on our horn and locked brakes. It was a very near miss. Thus we were jolted back into reality by one of those sad people who have nothing better to do than drive around in ‘status’ cars playing with their mobile phones. If only they knew the joys of cycling…..but of course simple pleasures wouldn’t appeal to them.



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.

Robergel Trois Étoiles Spokes

Robergel were located in Perruel, on the river Eure, not far from Rouen. They made the nicest and best quality spokes that I have ever seen…. Trois Étoiles, or three stars. The quality of these extra light stainless items is superb. The transition from thinner gauge to thicker is very smooth, where they are butted at both ends. It’s no wonder that Herse and Singer both used their ‘rayons’ as far back as the 1940’s. On the head you will find either a three pointed ‘star’ or an ‘E’. The packaging is beautiful too, being a triangular carton on which they are claimed to be ‘pratiquement incassable’ – practically unbreakable – and ‘absolument inrouillables’ – completely rustless. Even the nipples were contained in a little triangular box. I remember the late Neville March, the collector of wonderful French bicycles of the ‘Golden Age’, telling me that he had never broken a Trois Étoiles spoke during the disassembly of numerous wheels. I recently acquired a stock of various lengths which should enable a number of French touring bicycles to be restored to original specification…. Merci Patrick!

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

René Herse Racer 1976

A highly original Herse racer built in Paris in 1976, just before the great man died. All original finish and lining. Perfect crisp lugwork. Reynolds 531 tubing. Rear brake cable internally routed. Very rare Herse triple chainset, Huret Success titanium RD and Jubilee FD and changers. Cinelli bars and oval logo stem. Campagnolo Record brakes and hubs. Super Champion Competition sprint rims with period Clément tubulars. Chain slap braze-on. Brooks Pro French model saddle on Campagnolo stem.

This bike looked a little sad when I bought it. It required a very careful cleaning job over many hours, and sourcing of new old stock campagnolo brake hoods (at vast expense), new period tubular tyres, new cables and correct period outers, and new bar tape with shellac to match the paintwork.

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

Alex Singer 1970

An excellent example of the work of the great Paris constructeur Alex Singer, or rather Ernest Csuka, who took over the business when Singer passed away. Dating from 1970 it has beautifully filed simple spearpoint lugwork and is finished in the house pale blue metallic with part chrome stays and forks. This randonneuse is on 700c’s and is fitted with the Singer hand-made stem and front rack, and chainstay protector braze-ons. Mavic rims on Campagnolo hubs, Spidel derailleur and simplex retro-friction changers. TA cyclotouriste triple chainset and 6 speed block. Maillard 700 pedals. Mafac Racer brakes. Brooks Professional saddle on Simplex alloy post. Lined alloy mudguards with Singer custom mounting reinforcements. Shellac coated handlebar tape.