In the motortrade the term ‘Bangernomics’ is frequently used to describe the practice of running older, quality cars on the cheap. The phrase comes from a book written by James Ruppert on the subject of running old cars. It can be done for those of us who are prepared to get our hands dirty and fix things ourselves. A large part of any garage bill is usually labour, not parts. Do it yourself, ideally with second hand parts and you can save a lot of money. The important part is knowing the difference between a viable repair to something that has plenty of life left in it and something which is likely to be a bottomless money pit. It’s the approach I’ve always taken to motoring.
It’s also the approach I also take with my cycling. I’ve ridden thousands of miles on bikes many of the modern fashion-conscious cyclist would most likely throw in the dump (which is where I’ve found many! It’s amazing how many people throw away old bikes, many of decent quality, because they think it’s not worth repairing.). It’s even easier to run an old bike than an old car as it is easier to fix them and parts can often be switched between bikes from different manufacturers and different eras with a little creativity.
It makes sense to do this from my point of view. I’m not particularly weathy and could never justify the cost of some modern bikes. I’m not racing anyone so I don’t need the latest, greatest bike. The durability of older components is generally better than what is used today. I favour reliability and durability. It is entirely subjective but I also just simply have a preference for the style of older bikes and feel no attraction for modern road bikes in particular. I personally feel that when you have stripped and rebuilt something yourself you have an attachment that just can’t be formed for something bought of the shelf. There is also the opportunity to experiment with different gear systems or whatever when you are building up your own bikes.
I will provide exhibit A, my early 1980s Record three-speed roadster which I’ve written about often on this blog. It’s a basic gents utility bike built behind the Iron Curtain and very much a budget bike when new. It was workmanlike but decent enough quality and it actually rode pretty well. I’ve owned it for about twelve years at this point and I paid just €20 for it. I have used it a lot, have covered thousands of miles on it, even including a few tours. In the days when I had a commute of over forty miles round trip, I did do it on the Record three days per week during the summer months. I rode it enough to have worn out three Michelin World Tour tyres on the back wheel.
Naturally I did spend money on it. I did replace the sprocket with a larger one to alter the gearing, an inexpensive and worthwhile thing to do to any Sturmey Archer equipped bike as most seem to be too high-geared from the factory. I did change the basic dynamo lamps for better Busch and Muller lamps with standlights (you can’t put a price on your own safety in my opinion. Good lights are always worthwhile if you ride at night). I did replace the front wheel with an alloy rimmed wheel in the interests of better braking and safety, a relatively cheap and very straightforward upgrade to any bike which has chrome rims as polished chrome makes a poor breaking surface in the rain. When I bent the rear wheel beyond repair, I replaced it with a new alloy wheel with one of the modern Sturmey Archer hubs. I had worn out the bottom bracket so I had converted to square taper and did some other things to improve the bike as I documented here.
So it was with some sadness that I’ve been foreced to retire it from service. Also, a bit of a shock given what happened without warning. I was climbing a hill out of the saddle and there was a loud crack and the bike suddenly felt funny. I stopped and got off and didn’t immediately spot what had happened. The bottom bracket shell had broken. There was no rust around it. The break appeared to fresh the whole way around so wasn’t the continuation of a crack that had developed over a period of time. Proof that steel frames can also fail without warning. It was about forty years old and had been well used during my ownership and it cost me so little in the first place. Still annoying though; despite it’s lowly value, the bike was very useful to me and one of my most used bikes. I was able to ride it gently for the eight miles or so back to base, sitting on it to freewheel down hills, walking it up hills and riding it gently on the flat.
I haven’t entirely given up on it just yet. I keep threatening to attempt a welded repair. My concern is that the heat from an electic arc welder would melt the braze in the joints where the frame-tubes join into the bottom bracket. I don’t have brazing equipment and don’t know anyone else who has. The bike has such low value that it’s not worth paying someone else to fix it. If it had been something of value like a curly Hetchins or something, then it would be financially viable to send it of to a frame builder to have a new bottom bracket shell brazed in. In this case, I suspect a professional frame builder would laugh if I sent them this! The other option is to find another frame and re-home the components.
I may be pondering a possible DIY attempted repair just for an experiment as much as anything else (and I don’t really have anything to lose) but in the meantime it left me without a roadster for pottering about on. I do have my Rudge and much as I love it, rod brakes don’t cut it in modern road conditions. They’re fine in the dry but useless in the rain and it tends to rain quite a bit in this country.
I pulled my old Kalkhoff from the back of the shed. I’ve written about this in the past and this is a genuine skip-rescue bike, one of several passed on to me by a builder friend who was working on a house and rescued the Kalkhoff and several other bikes from a skip and kindly passed them on to me. I serviced the Kalkhoff at the time and as the back wheel was bent beyond my ability to repair it, I replaced it with a wheel with a Sturmey Archer hub, added some dynamo lights and rode it as a winter bike at the bike and probably covered a few thousand miles on it. Then I decided to have a play and re-instated the original Sachs derailleur, added a second sprocket to the sprocket to the hub to give myself six gears. I wrote about my hybrid gearing setup here.
I even did a little overnight tour on the Kalkhoff with this hybrid gearing setup – an overnighter to Glencolumbkille. The bike rode well enought considering it’s a basic hi-ten frame with basic components but was never ideal as the frame was a little on the small side for me and the bars were lower than I would ideally like. I decided to fix this by replacing them with a set of North Road bars I had lying around. This effectively turned it into a roadster. I did borrow the sprung saddle from the Record. I may yet borrow the alloy rims and maybe the square taper chainset (but as mentioned, I haven’t completely dismantled it just yet as I may attempt to weld it).
Something concerning that I noted when I removed the old drop handlebars from the bike was once the bar tape was removed, it was worrying how rusty the bars were and how deep the itting was. There is no doubt their strength would have been compromised. It really is worth inspecting components on older bikes, especially if they were stored somewhere damp and corrosion allowed to take a hold. A broken handlebar would be an unwelcome surprise to put it mildly.
With the North Road bars in place, it looked more like a roadster already and it gave a comfortable riding position. The bike had survived well in several years of “resting” and didn’t really need anything other than a check over and some oil on the hub and the chain and a good clean. So I started using it a bit and did a few rides of approximately thirty miles. I found it comfortable and it rides well. It was only a basic five speed road bike originally and somewhat oddly for a bike of it’s type, runs on 26 x 1 3/8“ wheels. The paintwork is tatty but original. I am still running the hybrid gearing system. It works but I have mixed feelings about it as it spoils the simplicity of a standard three speed, probably without too much of an advantage in real terms. I gain one extra high gear really with the other two filling the gaps in the standard three speed hub’s wide range rears. It can be useful, and it is a great conversation piece as few know what it is but I’m tempted to remove the rear mech and the smaller sprocket and return to normal three speed specification.
Then, I suffered another catastrophic failure! Somewhat ironically it happened in more or less exactly the same place as the Record frame broke, again as I was climbing out of the saddle. It was the bottom bracket which failed this time so not as bad a frame failure but I was left with a long walk home as I couldn’t ride the bike at all this time. It also failed with a bang and without warning, the pedals just suddenly felt loose. Something very unusual had happened. The bottom bracket adjustable cup had simply broken in two; the very end along with the lockring had broken away leaving the rest of it still inside the frame. I have never heard of this happening before (nor has anyone else I’ve spoken too).
It is difficult to understand why this might have happened. All I can simply suggest is metal fatigue. Even if it was a manufacturing defect I would have expected it to fail many years ago. I know the cups were in good condition with no deep wear rings or gouges or anything like that and it is a good quality German made part and not some spurious remanufactured rubbish like a lot of cheaper replacement cycle parts today.
It was to be a simple and inexpensive fix this time. I have lots of spare bits and pieces and I was able to just simply swap out the failed part for one of the spares I had in my box of random cycle parts. The bike has a cottered chainset. Much is written about the difficulty with working with cottered chainsets but I have never found them to be that much hassle. In simple terms, remove the nut and washer. Then put the nut on again until level with the top of the threads. Support the crank from underneath (but make sure the pin has somewhere to come out. A piece of steel pipe of between the crank and the floor is ideal as the pin can drop into the pipe). Then hammer the pin out. A typical sixteen ounce carpenter’s claw hammer is best I find. The import thing is to strike it hard and accurately. The shock will drive it out. I see many people who seem to be afraid to hit these type of pins, either on bicycles or other applications. If you just hit it with gentle taps it won’t budge and you will end up rivetting it in place and cause a much bigger problem.
With both cranks removed I was able to remove the bottom bracker spindle before removing the remains of the threaded part of the cup using a blunt chisel to drive it around until it was out enough to get a grip on it. I guess many would probably insist I should have removed the fixed cup for inspection and cleaning too but I don’t consider it necessary unless you need to replace it. It is perfectly possible to clean it in situ. Then apply grease before inserting the ball bearings, one at a time. A normal cup and cone bottom bracket like the one on this Kalkhoff will take eleven quarter inch ball bearings. Then apply some more grease. You can fill the adjustable cup with grease and eleven ball bearings in the same way.
Then you can put the spindle back in place and screw in the adjustable cup. Note that the adjustable cup has a standard right hand thread and the fixed cup on the driveside has a left-handed thread (unless it’s old French or Italian which have right hand thread on both sides – usually!). Work gently to ensure the balls don’t fall out of place. Also pay careful attention to ensure the cup starts on the correct thread as it’s surprisingly easy to cross-thread a bottom bracket cup. Never force it. If it feels very tight at the start, try again. Not relevant in this case but be very careful you have the correct cup type if working on a Raleigh (which had their own unique thread standard) or an old French or Italian bike which are metric threads rather than the more usual 1 3/8“ x 24 TPI standard cycle thread.
Adjust the cup until it spins freely with no free play. In reality, as any bike you will be doing this on will more than likely be old with a few miles on the clock, it may not be possible to get it 100% so you may have to compromise slightly. Then put on the lockring to keep it locked in place. Hold the cup in position while tightening the lockring and ensure it doesn’t tighten. Then check the adjustment again. The tools needed for these job varies as there are a few designs out there. I find German bikes are conveniently designed to take standard spanners (although you will need a very big one for the lockring but pipe pliers will work). My replacement cup was the more typically British design with pin holes for a pin spanner and lockring which needs a C-spanner but you can manage with a hammer and punch and pipe pliers.
You often find bottom brackets (and hubs and headsets) were originally fitted with caged bearings which hold the balls in place. I personally think they are best removed and thrown in the bin. Their only purpose it ease of assembly. Using cages mean you have less balls on each side which will wear more as there are less to take the load and also I have seen bottom brackets destroyed when the cage got out of shape and damaged the cup or the cones.
You can then refit the cranks. With cottered cranks, (which have what I consider and unfair reputation. They only give problems if not installed correctly), you need to be aware of how they work. The nut does not pull them into place. The thread is not strong enough. This is the mistake many make. If you just tighten the nut, they will come loose and cause problems (and never ride with loose cotter pins as you destroy the cranks). They need to be hammered (or pressed if you have the correct tool) into positon and the only purpose the nut serves is to hold them in place. Also pay attention to the angle of the flat part of the pins. On new pins, it may be necessary to file them to a shallower angle so they have better contact with the spindle. Both sides need to be exactly the same or else the cranks won’t align. There is a wrong way to put them in as the threaded part can then catch on the hem of your trousers as it goes around. It’s easy to get confused and it will make no functional difference whatsoever but it can cause them to catch your trousers if you ride in loose-fitting clothes.
Support the crank underneath when hammering to avoid damaging the bearings. Push the pin in and tighten the nut (but don’t over do it as it is easy to strip the threads) and then a few hard and accurate hits with the hammer. Then tighten the nut and repeat. Do this a few times until the nut stops coming loose. That should then be good to go although it’s worth checking after a few rides.
With my skip rescue bike now fettled with second hand parts from with very little money spent to create a perfectly usable, working bicycle, I can look forward to happy miles over the winter. Yes it’s a bit rusty but I don’t need to worry about it getting dirty on mucky winter roads (and I have decent full-sized mudguards. Many modern bikes don’t even have space to fit them). I can also go shopping and not worry about my bike being stolen. I also am not losing money in depreciation. Above all, I have the enjoyment of saving things from the dump and the learning experience of putting it all together again. We’re being told to reduce waste and recycle but I see many bikes with plenty of life left in them, sometimes even quite valuable ones being scrapped as nobody wants to be bothered fixing them which is not very green. Also old bikes have a history and a story behind them.