Whether to restore or renovate a vintage bicycle

Every Hetchins is worth having in good condition; whether it is worth putting in good condition is another matter. Some ruminations on restoring and renovating follow.

Jim Cunningham of CyclArt defines "renovation" and "restoration" as follows: "to restore is to return to the original state." To renovate is to upgrade or modify, and to refurbish is to clean up whatever is still there. Restoration of a frame means repainting, rechroming, and fitting original transfers. Renovation of a frame means repainting, rechroming, refitting transfers, as above, but also modifying the frame (adding braze-ons to take modern components, spreading the dropouts to take newer hub widths, etc.). Restoration of components is usually limited to finding replacement screws, as no one is prepared to pay a machine shop or foundry to duplicate a complete 60- or 70-year old derailleur. As far as components are concerned, NOS (new original stock) is the most desirable (but rare and getting rarer); failing that, refurbishment is second best (cleaning up the old parts).

For purists, "restoration" means putting the frame back to as-sold condition in every sense, including period-correct components and period-correct colors. For example, no flamboyant colors allowed on a 1930s frame. Fanatics, and I have known a few, can spot modern spokes on a 1950s wheel from across the room.

When should a vintage bicycle frame be restored (repainted, rechromed, transfers refitted) or renovated (modified), and when not?

If a frame has some feature which will be destroyed by restoration, such as the single surviving exemplar of an original transfer or a special finish no longer available, then do not repaint/rechrome,


failure to do so will allow/cause the frame to deteriorate (rust away).

For an example of when not to rechrome, see this frame. It features a spectacular original gold-chrome finish (now scratched and faded, but no one could even get close to it nowadays), and a full set of transfers which were believed (until we checked the serial numbers on this frame) to have been introduced 2 years later.

If a frame is to be restored, the next questions to be asked are:

1) Should it be returned to original condition (restored), or brought up to modern spec (renovated)?

1a) Corollary: how close to original counts? I.e., are you a purist (period-correct paint) or a fanatic (period-correct spokes)?

2) What is the cut-off date for vintage components?

3) What is a frame worth in (un)restored/(un)renovated condition?

The answer to the first question depends in part on whether the original spec can be ascertained. If a frame has been renovated before, it may not be possible to determine original spec, unless a builder's card can be found for it. The sales records seldom give details of finish and are of limited help. Furthermore, even if original spec can be determined, it is not always possible to duplicate it. The above gold-chrome frame is a case in point.

Generally, if a frame is to be displayed and only seldom ridden, then restore to original spec. If a frame is to be ridden, consider renovating to modern spec: i.e., have the dropouts spread to take wider blocks and indexed gears, add braze-ons for mech, gear levers and so on. Several makers, such as Shimano and Acor, have started producing retro-components for such bikes, for example long-reach dual-pivot brakes and indexed gears.

But note this exception: if a frame has already been renovated, i.e., modified, by having braze-ons added, do not have them removed. Reynolds tubing gets its strength from tempering (heat treatment) and every re-heat weakens the tubing.

For the collector: if you have several vintage frames, it is sensible to return some of them to original spec with original components, where available, and to renovate at least one frame to modern spec with newer components. Ride the latter with confidence, display the former with pride.

Mixed vintages. Mixed frame and component vintages are acceptable on a bike to be ridden, provided it is tastefully done. Do not expect to win ribbons at Concours d'Elegance with mixed vintages, however. See this bike for an example of a 1951 Experto modestly updated to 6-speed non-indexed gears, assorted 70s components, and a modern Velo-Orange crankset. See this bike for an example of a 1955 Experto with thoroughly modern 9-sp. indexing and dual-pivot brakes; the only frame modification was a derailleur eyelet on the dropout. See this bike for an example of a 1957 Experto returned to original spec with period-correct components.

How close to original counts? While it is a joy to see a historic bike in pristine as-sold condition, its rider astride it in period-correct jersey and leather shoes with a 'tub' wrapped round his shoulders, remember that even the most elegant and exclusive bikes, such as Hetchins and Singer, were designed and built to last a lifetime. I don't think Hetchin or Denny expected a bike they sold in 1940 to be kept in as-sold condition by its owner forever. A typical rider from the 1940s through the 1970s bought a few components and hung them on any old scrap frame he could find. As and when his finances permitted, he upgraded, piece by piece. One day, after living frugally for years, he took the plunge and ordered a hand-made frame. The old parts were transferred to the new frame, and then, piece by piece, as the old parts wore out, they were exchanged also. For many historic machines, the fanatic's "as-sold condition" is fantasy; there never was such a condition, so the attempt to put it that way is spurious. Now the fanatic might reply, 'the original owner would have bought it that way, had he possessed the means. The collector does have the means, therefore, bla bla...' Would Beethoven have composed for the Moog synthesizer, had one been available to him? The debate will never end. There is room for everyone in the collectors' scene. Even fanatics have modern air in their tires, modern pads on their brakes, and modern tape on their bars, so any dividing line is ultimately arbitrary. Provided it is tastefully done, this Editor has no objection to a 1950s wheel with 2006 spokes in it (round please, not aero blades) or a bike with such mixed components as a typical upgrader might have fitted over a period of years. Hundreds of Hetchins are by now on their fifth owners, and I'm sure nothing would have pleased Hetchin and Denny more than to know that their frames are still rideable with components from the next century. (Try fitting fuel injection and disc brakes to a Model T Ford and you'll see what I mean.)

A note on original components: a vintage frame with original components, in any condition, is worth more than without them. However, most original components, even in new condition, prior to the introduction of the Campagnolo Nuovo Record groupset in the late 1960s function markedly worse than Campag NR. The Campag NR groupset marked a watershed in component functionality. (The exceptions are very rare and hideously expensive to restore.)

Keeping a vintage frame rideable and safe in modern traffic conditions is often a challenge. See below for an example of a drop-bolt to fit short-reach brakes and ERTRO622 wheel on a frame designed for 27" wheels.

2. What is the cut-off date for "vintage" components? The last Campag groupset which qualifies as vintage is the C-Record, successor to the legendary Super Record group. C-Record was produced from 1988 to 1993. The Delta brakes (see foto above) had good stopping power and excellent modulation, but were markedly heavier than the dual-pivots introduced from Japan at about that time. The C-Record indexing did not function very well, certainly not as well as what was coming out of Japan at that time. Nonetheless, C-Record represents the aesthetic high-water mark for components. The last vintage Campag groupset which really worked well was the Super Record; 1987 was the final year of production. There were numerous other makers of components, of course, such as Specialities TA, Huret, GB, Chater Lea, Williams, Lyotard, Airlite, to mention only a few of the better-known. A complete list is beyond the scope of this web site. Below: C-Record; farther below: Super Record.

Functionally speaking, the cut-offs are:
a) friction shifting (before Shimano and Suntour re-introduced indexing; exceptions are French derailleurs of the 1940s which already had indexing);
b) for brakes: single-pivot side-pull brakes such as Campag, GB, Universal, Galli (before Shimano invented dual-pivots); for non-side-pull brakes, the cut-off is Campag Delta and, of course, center-pulls by Mafac, Weinamnn, Universal, etc.; and don't forget cantilever designs (such as Mafac, Singer, etc.) which pre-date the re-invention of cantis and V-brakes by Shimano in the 1990s;
c) toe-clip pedals (before clickies).
In sum, the cut-off is about 1990 when the Japanese stopped merely refining European component designs and started rethinking them.

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