Thursday, January 12, 2017

Falter Star Rider Full-Size Folding Bikes

In late April of 2016, when I was taking a break from the grind of finals week, I found a 1960s Falter "Star Rider" folding bike for a low price on eBay located in Macomb, MI. I was fairly interested, but had no way to get to Macomb. I also wasn't sure if I was interested enough to weigh myself down with yet another project.

By the time September came around, the bike was still for sale, and I had my car on campus. The price had also fallen to half of what it was before. I was still in love with the beautiful aluminum fenders and chain guard. I bought the bike and contacted the seller and we arranged a pickup time. 

As it turns out, the guy actually had two of these bikes that had apparently been together since they were new. They had their original tool kits, wheel locks and keys, bells, and one even had the plastic air pump clipped to the seat tube. He offered them both to me for the same low price, so I brought them home. I could not find very much information at all, except for this thread in which the son of the original importer offered some information.

The bikes were heavy but at least somewhat well-made. They had evidently been red before, but as is common for red paint, it had faded to a "dead meat" color over the last 50 years. Looking at the way the right crank did not have a cotter pin, I think this bike may have some sort of 2-piece crank (edited for more info at the bottom of the post). I was also amazed that of the four frame nuts that held the bikes together in the middle, only one had been lost and replaced. I tried to think of ways to attach the nuts to the frame with string but came up empty-handed. Anyway, I was rather impressed that the bikes had Pletscher kickstands and racks ...

... Centrix rear coaster brake hubs, and a dynamo lighting system for which the wiring was concealed inside the length of the frame. 

 The main feature, of course, was that because the bikes could fold in half, they were small enough to be loaded into my car stacked against each other with no trouble at all. Because most of the folded volume was made up of the wheels, they were much more portable than I had expected.

My immediate plan was to fix them both up, keep one, and sell one. For the keeper, I had a set of 700c wheels with a Shimano 3-speed hub. I thought that since the shifter cable was fully housed, I could run it past the hinge in the frame without trouble. While that was true, the fenders were too small for the 700c wheels so I had to settle on the 26x1-3/8 steel ones I took off my Schwinn. These wheels are so incredibly heavy (more so than the standard Raleigh rims) that I'm still thinking about an alloy swap. I now know why the Schwinn was so slow before.

Now, the keeper has a 1988 Sturmey-Archer AWC 3-speed coaster brake hub. I originally had the shifter cable follow the down tube, go up against the seat tube, then down the seat stay. Because of the short wheelbase, I was afraid of my heel accidentally striking the black piece that holds the end of the shifter cable housing so I had it pointing up along the seat stay. However, the cable was too long and had too many bends in it to shift smoothly so I reverted  to having the cable follow the shortest path along the chain stay. There is still enough slack to allow for folding and it shifts better now. Since the pedals on these portable bikes were more subject to hitting things, I installed some old plastic ones so they would be less likely to damage ankles or whatever else they run into while being folded or loaded.

I kept the original lights and wheel lock, but replaced the bulbs with "warm glow" LED ones. Because I technically used a white LED in the rear light, it actually shows orange. Also, the Altenberger Synchron front brakes are actually the very first dual-pivot side pull caliper. For those who don't know, those are the most prevalent non-cantilever rim brake these days and are used on everything including high-end road bikes. However, the Synchron was not very well made and only used on cheaper bikes back in the day. The brake on the other bike was broken.

I replaced the terrible cruiser saddle with the Planet Bike Comfort Classic saddle that I've had on various bikes. The original 25.8 mm seat post was a tad short for me so I bought a 1.5 foot long anodized alloy one so I wouldn't have to coat it in grease. This makes the folding/unfolding process quite a bit cleaner. Lastly, I put the original tools and tool pouch inside a newer zipped bag just so I wouldn't have to worry about the original plastic pouch breaking and falling on the road.

The bikes had flat handlebars which helped the folded package remain smaller, but the flat bar with this particular geometry was actually quite uncomfortable for me. I felt as if I was perched atop this small bike with its front wheel tucked between my toes, leaning too far forward to reach the too-narrow handlebar. I found that the clamp diameter of these handlebars was 24.4 mm, which was close enough to 23.8 for me to just take an old Raleigh handlebar and clamp down a little harder. This particular handlebar is the bent one from my 1948 Raleigh Sports, and the shifter is from the early '60s. It feels much better now.

Actually, before I installed the Raleigh handlebar, this bike was being used by a friend for whom I built a 1984 Takara Prestige. That bike was stolen shortly after she bought it in September so I let her borrow this one for the majority of the semester before I had more upgrades for it (at which point I gave her another one of my extra bikes). I somehow remember when I was taking this one back to fix the shifter cable routing, she commented "such a funny little bike" in a way that suggested she may actually have liked it, despite it being much slower and heavier than the Takara. Even I can't say I disagree with that comment; the bike has an odd charm to it. As for my friend, she's on loaner #3 at this point.

Although the bikes are very convenient for traveling, I'm not actually sure how feasible it would have been to commute regularly on these in stock configuration. I wonder whether continental Europeans were more used to this kind of geometry or if it was just a down-the-street kind of bike. I would definitely prefer my Raleigh Twenty for actual multi-modal commuting since it feels so much more natural. In my opinion, the Falters feel slightly less willing to accelerate than a similarly-sized Raleigh Sports and toe overlap with the front wheel is a real problem, especially when operating the coaster brake. The flat handlebar made handling really twitchy and although that is slightly alleviated with the Raleigh handlebar, the bike still feels exceptionally eager to turn left and right which can be both good and bad. Ride quality is certainly not as cushy as that of a Raleigh Sports because the downtubes may have thicker walls for strength.

As for the second one, well, I'm not exactly proud of what I did but I salvaged the fenders and chain guard for a different build. I then threw on a set of fenders from a Free Spirit 3-speed I parted out.

To my surprise, these bikes came with Raleigh "Red Dot" tires. They were actually extremely light and comfortable compared to the Continental City Rides I put on the other bike, so I took the better of the four tires and put them on this one, then overhauled the coaster brake. The interesting part of this hub (photos of which I cannot seem to retrieve) is that instead of a series of discs that are compressed, or brake bands that are forced open, or loose shoes, this brake has three sharply grooved shoes that not only are forced outward, but held together with sprung hinges that function similar to the way a stretchy metal watch band does. This prevents the shoes from riding on the hub shell and causing drag when brakes are not applied.

The right crank was slightly bent so it crumpled the original chain guard. After straightening the crank out a bit with a chopped-off top tube, I cut and drilled the Free Spirit chain guard to fit around the bike perfectly. I forgot to consider that the outer face had a sort of thickness to it because of the way it is rolled in on the bottom, so after I started rolling the bike out of the door, I realized that the crank would not clear the guard.

The only things I really invested in this bike are new grease, labor, and a new chain; the rest was free stuff I took off junk bikes. I'm hoping this bike can find a new home with a student who would like a cheap, portable bike.

EDIT 1-17-17: After some more research, I have finally discovered that this bike has a Thun/Thompson bottom bracket. Like an American one-piece bottom bracket, the cups are pressed into the shell and the bearings sit outboard, facing the cranks and not inside as they do in a traditional three-piece unit. The spindle part of the crank is threaded on the left side for bearing pre-load adjustment and so you can remove all the parts, with rings and lock nuts that look similar to those on a one-piece crank. Also like a one-piece crank, the right arm and chain ring are attached to the spindle (this is not the case with all Thompson cranks; some have removable right arms). However, as pictured, the left crank arm is still removable and in this case attached by a cotter pin. This allows for a bottom bracket shell diameter that is smaller than that of a one-piece. However, problems involved with sealing bearings that face outward remained, so in cases such as this bike, extra dust covers that go around the shell are attached on both sides. I wonder why this option didn't extend to American bottom brackets.

EDIT 6-9-17: The second bike has been refinished and un-stripped, made beautiful again and found a new home.