Friday, May 8, 2015

Roll On, Rollfast.

I was at work a couple weekends ago, making my rounds when I spotted a gigantic bike sale going on in someone's yard.  I returned later to find that a guy who I only know as Victor was moving soon and trying to sell as much of his stable as he could.  As far as I could tell, he was just like me.  He had various vintage bikes, frames, and wheels lying around and crates full of old parts. Most of the bikes were ones that hardcore cyclists and enthusiasts would shrug off as being heavy, crude, and worthless.  There were many old electro-forged Schwinns, Free Spirits, Hercules AMFs, and a few brands I'd never heard of.  There really weren't many high-end frames and most of the bikes were to be sold as projects or for parts.

After visiting a couple more times and chatting with him, I walked away with this 1962 Rollfast 3-speed for a reasonable price.  Although there were several bikes I could have fixed, flipped, and made a quick penny from, I really only felt like grabbing this one and I didn't even intend to re-sell it, either.

The Rollfast is weird.  I can't seem to find anything about the brand, but my first impression was that it was another Raleigh-made English 3-speed.  Upon closer observation, it got confusing.  Raleigh frames have rear fender eyelets located directly behind the axle dropouts, but the Rollfast has the eyelets on top.  The rear fender sheet metal (the front fender is not original) is thinner but the chain guard is the exact same.  The Rollfast seems to have a Raleigh stem and handlebar as well as the weird non-reversible Raleigh front hub, but the lugs are different.  Lastly, the chain ring looks like the kind that Raleigh used on its cheaper subsidiary brands, but the front fork crown looks really different from anything I've seen. This bike looks to have been built for a department store company.

Coincidentally, the condition it's in is identical to what my 1958 Raleigh Sports was like before I restored it.  It even has the same Schwinn replacement mattress saddle! I have no intention of restoring this one though because the original decals and patina are just too cool.

Here's the thing, though.  I really bought the bike because I wanted the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub. My thought was to give this bike a single speed coaster brake wheel so it could be a basic hop-on-and-go bike, and the Sturmey AW hub could go to a future project.  Although I wasn't 100% sure about making the conversion right away, I soon discovered that the rear wheel was bent and dented beyond repair so there really wasn't any other solution at that point.

The shifter was my favorite part of the bike.  It's a mid-1950s style one with a little window indicating the gear (as if it was really necessary but hey, I love the details).  It technically pre-dates the hub by at least 6 years, so I'm not sure whether the shifter is a replacement thrown on from the parts pile or if it came from the factory, an older model that surfaced from the bottom of the barrel.  I think it's the latter.  I will certainly be keeping this one, maybe even putting it on my '58 Sports to make it a little more period-correct.  I could then just use the new shifter that the Sports has on whatever project this '62 hub goes on.

I finally freed the hub from its damaged rim yesterday and found out that beneath the layer of greasy dirt, the chrome was flawless.  The few little dots of rust were easily removed with WD-40 and aluminum foil and strangely enough, the cog still even had its silver finish.  The cog on my '58 hub had long since turned permanently black by the time I cleaned it up.  Since it was missing the oil cap, I ordered one on ebay. I couldn't find any of the "newer" plastic ones that seal better so I bought an NOS metal cap from the '30s or '40s.  It actually matches the metal cap on the front hub of the Rollfast, not that it matters anymore.

Anyway, here's the coaster hub.  I'm not sure why, but I feel like the single speed coaster fits the personality of the bike more than a 3-speed hub does.  I bought the cheapest wheel & hub I could find, which was made by Wheelmaster.  I thought Wheelmaster was one of the better brands, for spokes at least, but when the wheel came, it was pretty roughly finished.  The welded seam wasn't completely smooth and the entire thing wasn't even polished.  The wheel was also severely out of true. I trued up the wheel the best I could and threw it on the bike.

I hadn't truly ridden a coaster brake bike in maybe ten years, so I took it easy at first.  Something I didn't notice until I started riding was that the right side crank is bent outwards bit, giving a slightly awkward feeling with my foot wiggling side to side, up and down as I pedaled.  That feeling disappeared after a few minutes.  The bike has 46/18 tooth cogs so riding it as a single speed is equivalent to staying in 2nd gear with factory gearing on a 3-speed.  Starts were slow and my cruising speed had me pedaling at an uncomfortably high cadence. Weaving through people on the Diag, the bike had me wanting to go too-fast all the time.

I rode the bike to and from work and it was, for lack of a better word, a lot of work.  I couldn't really find the right cadence at any speed or slope and I had to constantly make sure I wasn't stopping with my feet in the wrong position.  However, after riding around for about ten miles last night, I couldn't get off.  Despite the fact that it was a single speed, it just felt really nice at night.  As long as I stayed on North campus (or central) avoiding the hills in between, it was actually pretty comfortable.  It forced me to take it easy and just relax on the mild hills.  Riding the hills in the dark wasn't that bad either, because the darkness also forces me to slow down.  I did push my limits on the way home though, hitting 31 mph pedaling down a hill and nearly losing my pocket full of coins.

As if this bike wasn't already full of surprises, I realized that the tires that Victor put on it however long ago were still in perfect shape.  They were essentially brand new Kenda K40s with not even a single crack.  Normally on ebay, a working, vintage AW hub would be worth around what I gave Victor, and so would an old Raleigh frame.  A pair of new K40 tires would also be worth about that much.  Instead, I got all three of those things for the price of one.  What a steal! I know enthusiasts who wouldn't spend what I spent for this bike (it was still less than $50) even if it was fully functional, but I don't believe in selling vintage bikes for scrap price.  These things are far more than scrap metal; they're durable, dependable machines at the very least.  They have a history and deserve to be appreciated and ridden.

I think I'll keep this thing around for a while.  Maybe lend it to a friend who needs to run to the store real quick. Despite my criticism, I'm liking this bike more than I thought I would.

EDIT 12-27-15, 8-28-16: I have finally discovered the origins of this Raleigh-like yet non-Raleigh bike. I'm surprised it took me so long to figure out. Anyway, Raleigh and Phillips were at one point the two big names in English bikes. Tube Investments, which controlled Phillips, bought Raleigh in 1960 and put Raleigh at the lead of the cycling division. Prior to 1960, before Phillips' bikes became badge engineered Raleighs, it was part of a sub-group within TI called the British Cycle Corporation (BCC) with Hercules, Armstrong, Norman, etc. They had the features shown here - plain lugs, plain forks, and slightly thinner-walled tubing and made in Birmingham. After production of the Phillips-style frames ended in 1960, it still took a few years to use up all of the old parts which is why sometimes names that didn't have an established Raleigh-assigned appearance, such as Armstrong, Hercules, Norman, department store brands like Rollfast, etc. are sometimes seen with these different frames and a post-1960 hub. That is what happened here and the 1962 wheel and hub and other Raleigh-looking parts were indeed original to the bike, assembled by Raleigh in Nottingham attached to an older Birmingham frame.

I have found there are quite a lot of American store brands who've had their names on the side of a Phillips-framed bike. Some older than, some newer than 1960. Rollfast, The Londoner, Indian, Hawthorne Hercules, etc. It seems more rare to see a Raleigh-made frame with a store-brand name in America but they are not at all rare in Canada (see Eaton Glider).