Monday, October 13, 2014

Game Changer: My Raleigh Sports has an SW Hub

Late last night, I was going through photos of my 1958 Raleigh Sports when I zoomed in close to a photo of its rusted 3-speed hub.  I'd always thought I had the ubiquitous, rock-solid reliable AW hub that tens of millions of bikes have.  I never did read the stamping clearly enough somehow, even after closely inspecting my hub so many times.  For whatever reason, the letters "SW" now stand out crystal clear and everything makes perfect sense.

Photo taken shortly after flushing out the hub last summer

The classic 3-speed AW hub was made from 1936 until the 1990s and an updated "no-neutral" version is still in production.  It is by far the most common Sturmey-Archer hub and is renowned for its durability.  Tons of information on it can be found on Sheldon Brown's site and all over the rest of the internet.  Anyway, the SW "Super Wide ratio" hub was put into production in 1956 to be a replacement for the AW.  It's a good design on paper (click the link and read up! I put it there for a reason) but due to the crude manufacturing processes back in the day, it ended up being so unreliable that the AW was once again the standard by mid-year 1958.

My hub has the date November '58 stamped on it, so I didn't really question my initial identification of it being an AW.  I did notice, however, that my hub didn't click while coasting like all of the other AW's I've experienced.  The silence was very nice, but the hub also skipped under acceleration every once in a while.  I'd always thought that those two things were attributed to the previous owner's abuse, allowing gunk to build up in the freewheel, pawls, and whatnot.  However, once I started reading, I laughed at how every single detail of what I'd experienced with my own hub was clearly articulated by Brian Hayes on Sheldon Brown's website in the link above.  Every question I'd ever had about my hub was answered in one night.

I won't go into detail about the differences between the AW and SW because they're already stated here.  Instead, I'll just talk about my personal experiences.  One of the things that made me laugh was when Hayes said the following:

"One of the ironic things I have discovered about the SW is that while its pawl design is easily overloaded from slamming the pedals around, it is also easily overloaded by not engaging all three pawls, and the engagement of all three is more assured with a firm slam on the pedals. For this reason, I think that proper use of the hub involves a delicate balance between riding too hard and riding too timidly. This observation is a bit academic, however, as there is no way to judge the effectiveness of your style of riding except over long periods of time (years). Experience has taught me that the proper shifting technique is critical to eliminating troublesome slips."
I don't take it easy on the bike during my commute but I do ride very softly too, namely at night, on the plateau that is Central campus, or on grocery store trips.  Nothing has gone wrong so far, but one year might not be long enough to judge.  It was written somewhere in there that standing on the pedals to power up a hill is not advised but my daily commutes between North and Central campus involve standing on the pedals for more or less an eighth of a mile.  That's disconcerting.  That being said, I've been doing this for a year and it's only gotten better.  Maybe I've already smashed the pawls into a certain shape.  I don't know.  

The skipping of the SW hub under acceleration, which was more common before I flushed it out, can be attributed to one or more pawls not completely engaging after coasting.  That can be caused by the imprecise sizing of the springless pawls, as well as grease and gunk making them stick.  Hard use of the hub, as well as skipping, would cause the pawls to chip or become dented which would then lead to even more skipping.  Skipping of my hub wasn't too much of a problem to begin with and now that it's much cleaner, I think it's only skipped like twice since I restored the bike.  It also helps that I refill the hub with SAE 30 motor oil every two weeks or so.  I guess I got one of the better ones because even after almost 60 years, it's been working far better than most enthusiasts say they do.  I'm fortunate that my SW hub has treated me so well despite everything that's been said above.

Getting the pawls to engage after coasting to a stop has proven to be slightly inconsistent but not a bother.  There have been many times when I'd raise the right side pedal to a good position to push off from, only to have it sink back down when I rest my foot on it.  That's from the pawls sticking in the coasting position without even engaging the slightest bit.  Again, that happens less frequently now that I've cleaned up the hub.  The freewheel increments are very widely spaced to begin with, anyway.

Hayes begins another paragraph in the article with "Unlike the relatively rapid, smooth shifting of the AW hub, the SW shifts like a garbage truck."  That's so true and so perfectly worded in a way that I can relate to.  Just as he states, I do find that it sometimes takes up to a revolution for my gears to engage after upshifting, although 95% of the time there is no delay whatsoever.  I always thought the delay was just because of grime or tired springs but as an SW, I think it's held up amazingly well after the half century of hard use.  Anyway, I usually find more delay after downshifting, probably in part because of the wide freewheel increments.  I do coast for a split second and re-engage after shifting though, by habit, to help things fall into place.  

I remember when I first got the bike, all the way until March, how the shifter cable was adjusted so that the only usable gear was 1st gear.  I originally thought it was a mistake on the previous owner's part, but I'm starting to think it might have been done on purpose.  Hayes' states that most of the pawl-engagement problems occurred in the 2nd and 3rd gears.  Could it be that some decades ago when the hub was badly gunked up, the owner tightened the cable to avoid higher gears? Either way, by the time I figured out how to adjust the cable, I'd already filled the hub with WD-40 multiple times so things were sufficiently loose by then. 

Taken during a long ride a few nights ago

The reason why this new information is a game changer is that it puts me in an interesting position regarding the future of my Raleigh Sports.  Being myself, I naturally think far into the future when dealing with things that mean a lot to me.  I originally intended to keep the precious bike in more or less the same setup as I have it now for the rest of my life, assuming nothing catastrophic happened along the way.  A more ideal commuter bike would be built around another Lady's Sports frame with a few upgrades, namely a new 5-speed drum brake rear hub and alloy wheels.  An AW hub would have lasted a lifetime without a doubt but now, if my SW was to require a major rebuild at some point within the next few years (fingers crossed that it won't - not that it should, anyway), I would most likely not want to spend the time and money to find another SW that only "sometimes works," as some joke.  At that point, there would be few enough original, functioning major components left on my bike that I'd feel alright building an updated machine around the current frame.  That means that I wouldn't have to maintain and house two identical (HEAVY) bikes and I wouldn't ever have to not-ride my lovely, old '58 Sports.  I'd still rather keep the SW hub alive, though.  We'll see.