The following article by Hugh O'Neill appeared in "Bicycle Magazine", Sept. 1982.

Hetchin's: A Marque of Distinction

From the very beginning right through to this day, Hetchins have turned the necessity for lugs -- and for the breaking up of straight lines -- into an art form. Hugh O'Neill traces the history of this famous make of lightweight.

How crazy they are in America is open to question. It is the living room of a typical American suburban, middle class home. The furniture is modern. There is an abstract painting over the dining recess and in a huge picture frame over the fireplace is a bicycle frame. On the other side of the continent in Seattle, there is a flourishing Hetchins Appreciation Society. Each year the Hetchins population of the States increases by at least 50 machines.

What is it that makes this particular bicycle a living legend in the States as well as in the UK? There are thousands of Hetchins in existence. There isn't an owner who does not dote on his machine and some collectors have 20 or 30 Hetchins frames. The second-hand price can sometimes be nearly as high as the new price. And yet the company is still in existence, still producing original curly frames.

"I can't understand it all" said Alf Hetchin recently in genuine surprise and modesty.

There are reasons. Every Hetchins frame is itself a reason. Even the very history of the marque is a reason.

Aged 26, Hyman Hetchins ('Harry') and his sister fled from Russia; their parents were killed in the Revolution. Harry established a music shop in Leyton. Sheet music and instruments sat side by side with the new portable gramophone and shellac 78 rpm discs. It was not unusual then for gramophone shops to sell bicycles, and Harry, himself a keen cyclist, gave over part of this shop to Raleighs and Rudges.

A Natural Engineer

Harry's club, the Allondon Road Club, was probably where he became interested in racing. As the bug bit deeper he began to dream about building his own frames. Fortunately Harry was a natural engineer -- and a perfectionist. Gramophones brought in for repair would often vanish into his workshop to emerge a few days later repaired with some component he had made. He also believed in a complete service, so he had small 'Hetchins' cans made filled with a spindle of oil for the home maintenance man.

So, in the early 20s Hetchin built his first cycle. It has a conventional design of frame and simple lugs, but it sold; and Hetch soon needed some other builder to make some frames for him.

It was at this stage that two ingenious and complimentary talents came together. Harry was joined by Jack H. Denny, the inquisitive and creative son of a local frame builder.

Jack learnt his craft from his father, the owner of two London cycle shops. It soon became evident that the son outshone the father, who was magnanimous enough to recognize the fact. On Jack's 21st birthday Mr. Denny gave him the Wandsworth Road shop.

Many of Jack's friends had had cycling accidents, some quite nasty, and all due to the breaking of frame tubes and fork blades. Jack could see that the straight shouldered lugs then in use gave a sharp shearing stress line straight across the tubes. He started to experiment with stiffening strips tacked on to extend the joint, and the breakages stopped.

The idea of just tacking on bits of metal however offended Jack's artistic eye, so he began to ornament the stiffeners and to cut away the lugs. He had always been attracted to the Fleur-de-lis design and this was what he incorporated into the early models. The choice was not quite entirely fortuitous, for this is the shape that gives the best load-spreading capability. Certainly it is a theme that Jack returned to many times.

One day Jack turned his mind to another problem. Riders were touring and racing over ever increasing distances. Road surfaces were poor and the new narrow saddle was all the rage. Consequently weekend riders were separated by a week of hobbling in bow-legged agony. Something was obviously needed to reduce road shock.

Just A Fancy Idea

Jack recalled a curly frame that he had seen on a stand at the Lightweight Cycle Exhibition at the Floral Hall. It had been made by Maurice Selbach who had said it was just a fancy idea. Not to Jack it wasn't! If the front forks curve to absorb road shocks, he thought, then why shouldn't I try to do the same thing with the rear stays?

He built his first frame with a gentle curve in the seat stays and the 'S' bend in the chain stays. The idea worked, the bends did damp the road shocks, but there was an unexpected benefit. The 'S' removed a great deal of the flexing of the bottom bracket zone.

The frame was given to one of the hard men of cycling to try, Harry Rothwell. In order to toughen himself and to test the frame thoroughly, Harry carried two house bricks in his saddle bag.

He couldn't fault the frame and it was returned to the shop where it was hanging when Hyman Hetchin walked in. He had come to ask Jack to build some trade frames. He saw the curly and quickly asked three questions: 'what's that?'; 'does it work?'; and 'can I have it?'

H.H. had a shrewd eye for business. The deal that the pair finally agreed was that JHD would sell his shop, would become a junior, profit-sharing partner in the Hetchin business, would build high-quality, fancy-lugged machines and would allow the patenting of the curly stay idea.

This would mean a bigger business and therefore new premises would be required. The Seven Sisters Road, Tottenham operation was started.

There were a number of other builders in the area: some achieved fame for a time. Each tried to outdo the other and to produce lighter and better frames. Hetch and Jack focused not on weight but the lugwork. Taking a standard Chater Lea casting they drilled and cut and filed, then welded on embellishments to produce ever more intricate shapes and patterns. Jack found that this also gave a considerable strength advantage. The shapes were such that he could get a good run of brass brazing metal with 15 seconds less heating. This was quite significant in preserving the nature of the metal of the very thin tubes [chrome moly steel, such as Reynolds, gains its strength through tempering, and loses a bit of it with every re-heating.]

The development work was now completed and in 1932 [sic -- should be 1934] the Rear Vibrant Triangle (patent No 33317) and the Hetchins Vibrant Triangle (Patent No 443454) were taken out. The curly Hetchins was born. [There were not two patents, as O'Neill here suggests, but only one. --Editor]

A press write-up on the first production bike created a considerable stir. Some manufacturers tried to buy the patent -- then, finding it was not for sale, tried to discredit it.

One Quality -- The Best

From the early days Hetch never used anything but Reynolds 531 tubing (although some of the earliest catalogues listed Chromo SAQ as the alternative). The reasoning was simple. By only having one quality -- the best -- there could never be a mix-up. There is no need to put a 'Reynolds 531 Double Butted' transfer on a Hetchins bicycle -- it just could not be anything else.

At the time when the Curly was born there were two main lug designs. They were called the Ideal and the Brilliant.

A pre-war catalogue shows various styles of cycle. The prices are for cycles or framesets with the most expensive fittings (then BSA or Chater Lea). If Brampton equipment was preferred the price would drop by about 30/-. The list was: Brilliant No.2 Vibrant for 6 pound 6. Competition Road or Path: 13 pound 10. Superbe Road: 12 pound 10. Brilliant No. 1: 10 pound 10. DeLuxe: 8 pound. Ideal: 6 pound 6. Ladies DeLuxe: 8 pound 15. DeLuxe Tandem: 15 pound 10. Ideal No.1 Tandem (lady in back): 13 pound 5. The brilliant No. 1 frameset with Williams C1000 chainset, seat pin, and head clip cost the sum of 5 pounds 5. (No wonder that with over 1000 built in one year the company made no profit.) At the time the tandems all had straight stays, as did all Ideal and DeLuxe model bicycles.

Whorls and Scimitars

The post-war cycling boom took the company to the crest of the wave. Jack and Hetch turned frame-building into an art form. Jack took the dimensions of a standard lug, laid it out in two dimensions and sketched his design. Often it started with a doodle playing with curved lines. The patterns that emerged feature whorls and scimitars.

Obviously such impressive designs could not be given mundane names. So, a trip was made to Tottenham library where a Latin phrase book was pressed into service. The first name chosen was Nulli Secundus (second to none). This was followed by Experto Crede (the expert's choice). A simplified version of the Secundus (without window) was called the Super Special.

Hetchin also registered a special design of fork crown. This consisted of two separate plates, the fork blades passing through the lower one. This, the Twin Fork Crown (Registered No 849405) was itself distinctive, but as the more ornamental lug designs were developed, so embellishments were added to the fork blades below the crown. Again it was decoration with a strengthening function.

The two designs that many consider to be the ultimate appeared in the late 50s. Not content with working the lug castings into a magnificent combination of whorls, fleur-de-lis and swallow tails as on the Magnum Bonum, extensions were added to the Magnum Opus to give embellishments along the tubes and fork blades of almost three inches long.

One ornate design of the time, the Cognoscenti, did not take off. The pattern used small fleur-de-lis motifs. Only 25 were made, all of them staying in the UK. There is still a box of unused lugs in the Hetchins workshop today [where is that box?!!!!].

One-Off Whim

The catalogues of the 50s and 60s show that there were a number of small variations to the main designs -- often some one-off whim of Jack's creative fancy.

A different style of design also appeared in the 50s [sic -- should be 60s]. These were the Vade Mecum series including Gothic No.s I, II, and II, and the Mountain King. These had a Gothic simplicity with clean, broad Fleurs and spires.

Customers could choose the lug style and have it applied to various designs of frame. They included the Light Tourist No 1a, Road Racing No.s 2, 3, 3a, 4, and 6 (the 6 being a replica of the Tour of Britain model). There was also a Short Distance Time Trial design No. 5, the Short Base 12 and 14, the Path Model No. 16, and the Circuit of Britain Road Racer. All were available with orthodox or Vibrant rear triangles and the customer had a choice of lug patterns.

There were other variations at the time. Hetchins made about 50 frames where equilateral triangles were used. This was similar to the slightly earlier Thanet and was known as the Hellenic.

Reynolds produced a specially fluted and reinforced seat tube for the short wheelbase models (No.s 12 and 14). The 12 was also known as the Six-Day Model.

The names reflected what was happening out on the track and road. Possibly thanks to the Vibrant rear triangle, the company was now logging up many notable racing successes. Toni Merkens had ridden a Curly in 1936 to become Olympic and World track champion. Piet van Kempen and Cor Wals of Holland had won the Wembly Six Day and Cocky O'Brian of the States had many track wins. Post-war Hetchins teams took prizes in the Tour of Britain, the Circuit of Britain, the Empire Games, and many national and local events.

Among the models then produced was the Super Special Curly. The spec of the Super Special was: 74.25 degree head [tube angle], 72 degree seat [tube angle], 40 inch wheelbase. Round, oval, or dee forks with 2 inches of rake. Steel HP rims on large flange Airlight Continental hubs, with Dunlop HP Road Racing tyres. Reynolds alloy bar and stem. B17 [Brooks] saddle. GB brakes with hooded levers. Williams C34 chainset and Webb solid centre pedals. Bluemels guards. And the finish was all chrome. Price 41 pounds 5 and 9.

At one time the company also produced the Trio. This had a curly frame with a spare fork. There was a steep fork for the track and a more raked fork for the road. The rear dropouts gave a combination of road and track options.

By the mid 60s, the motor car and motorcycling finally succeeded in ousting the bicycle and the great cycling boom of the post-war years started to collapse. Most of the specialist builders went out of business. Some sold to larger combines, some were bought just for their names. Hetchins carried on.

Second Generation

In 1961 Hyman Hetchin, alias Harry, Hetch or the Old Governor -- born in Russia, a devout and practising Jew, Freeman of the City of London, and maker of the Rolls Royce of racing cycles -- died at the age of 70. His son, Alf, also a keen cyclist and already known as the Young Governor, took over the business. Supported by Jack Denny the frame-building continued into the second generation -- one of the few builders to do so.

New designs were still being produced -- from the Gothic, the Mountain King, the Bonum Super, through to the current Keyhole and Swallow. The simpler names probably reflect the less ambitious styling. Nevertheless the lug designs are still unique and are the company's answer to another problem.

With the decline of interest in cycling, many component suppliers also packed up, notably Chater Lea. Imported lugs, already cut to nice shapes, became available, including the well-known Nervex and Prugnat.

Hetchins started work on rather than with the Prugnat lugs. Again drill and file, interesting windows and keyholes were fashioned. The long central spear points were bisected and bent outwards to form graceful swallow tails [sometimes called Spyder lugs].

There have over the years a number of systems, rather than a system of [frame serial] numbers. There have also been various emblems and transfers. It is virtually impossible to date any pre-war bike. In the 50s and 60s there was a period when the first two numbers were the year in reverse. During this time letters were also used -- the letters of the name "Hetchins". Not infrequently you get H (for Hetchins) followed by a number. H25433 was a 1952 Hetchins and was frame number 433 for that year. [On the other hand, I have E24114, which was made in 1951 not 1942, so go figure....] However the dating idea was eventually dropped. So, working from the frame dimensions and the lug pattern, you can only guess the date. [Hilary Stone and Len Ingram have done more work on dating from frame numbers since O'Neill's article appeared, and the various systems have been deciphered.]

The first frames had the Hetchins name in script on the downtube, but from the time of the introduction of the curly stays, the large antique capitals have been the norm. The seat tube transfer has also changed a number of times but precise dates are unknown. One of the early ones was the 'TCV', a varnish transfer incorporating the olympic bands; there was also a 'six day' transfer with the badge on a long pointed panel.

In 1964 [sic -- actually 24.2.1974] the company moved to a double-fronted shop in Southend-On-Sea [compulsory move due to a plan to widen Seven Sisters Road, Tottenham]. Alf is happy there, but he misses the visitors, particularly those from the States, who used to call on him in London.

A Certain Mystique

So these are the reasons. It is not just 'crazy Americans'. You have a unique design, the artwork of the lugs, superb craftsmanship, a beautiful 'tight' ride, sufficient disorganization in the records to engender a certain mystique, and over 50 years of almost continuous production and innovation.

Today Hetchins are still building quality frames -- 'Not as many as we were because we are all getting older!' The exporting, started in 1945, is now a feature. 'We have exported 50 to 60 frames a year -- all to the States.' Although the main designs are more simple, some are made with lugwork that is almost excessive -- 'the customer gets exactly what he wants.' They do not have catalogues. 'Every frame we make is a one-off and there are no standard lines.' There is no mail order, other than to the States. 'We have more than enough people coming into the shop to keep us busy, and we like to talk things through so that we really fit the frame to the customer -- personality and all.'

Jack has started the building the moment you walk through the door. He says his greatest pleasure in life is giving the customer satisfaction.

I don't believe him! Jack does want a satisfied customer and gets pleasure from that satisfaction, but his greatest pleasure is in the creation he produces. He would be quite happy if he never sold them. Every Hetchins frame is a personification of Jack Denny.

There is a cloud on the horizon. One day it will come to an end. Jack H. Denny, the Master, is past retiring age. It can only be for love that he should, at the age of 74 [sic, should be 76] still come in and build new frames. Alf, the Young Governor, is now younger in heart than he is in years. They have made many attempts to train up a youngster, and to get Alf's son interested in the business. 'The work requires more than just skills.'

Alf is determined: 'somehow we will continue to produce frames that are better than the rest, but without Jack they will have to be simpler. We will not die!' assures Alf.

If they ever do stop, I think that there will be a number of us now proudly riding our Hetchins machine, who will follow the American lead. Mine, at any rate, will be mounted into a picture frame and hung over the mantelpiece.

--Hugh O'Neill


Further articles of interest:
Hilary Stone's "Early Days of Hetchins", appeared in Cycling Plus, March 1995.
John Liffen's "The Origins of the Hetchin's Cycle Business" appeared in The Boneshaker No. 145, Winter 1997. Reprinted here.
Some of the statements made by Mr. O'Neill have been obviated by subsequent investigations.

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