Saturday, February 8, 2014

Mercian Cycles - History and Tradition

Back when I was still basically a kid first discovering really nice bicycles, one of the first people I encountered who shared my passion was an older guy who rode a Mercian that he'd owned since the 1970s. He had the Professional model, with the long spearpoint bottom bracket shell and a classic barber pole paint job, deep red and white, built with the full Campagnolo Nuovo Record group. I don't even know how much time I must have spent admiring the details on that bike -- but I know it left an impression on me. Today I own seven of them.
The Mercian Shop, in Alvaston near Derby.

Mercian have been building bicycles (that's British-style grammar -- not an error) since Tom Crowther and Lou Barker set up shop in Derby, England in 1946. Through the 50s and 60s, they gained quite a following with the British club riding scene. Their reputation for quality, beauty, and great-riding bikes continues right up to today. Mercian still make bikes today using the same time-honored, traditional techniques that they've used from the beginning -- building with Reynolds tubing, brazed together on an open hearth.

I was fortunate enough that Grant Mosley, who has owned Mercian since 2002 with his wife, Jane, was willing to take time out of his schedule to answer some questions for me about the company. Grant has been with Mercian for nearly 40 years. "I started as a Saturday lad," he says, "making cups of tea etc. in the shop. I was in the local cycling club and Jeff Bowler, the Shop Manager, asked me if I wanted a job while we were on a club run." I'm sure Grant never imagined at the time that he would one day own the place.

1950's catalog, from the Mercian archives.
The Mosleys are essentially only the third owners of Mercian Cycles, but in a sense, the company's history has remained intact as ownership has always stayed within. By the 1950s, company catalogs list Tom Crowther and his wife Ethel as sole proprietors. Then, according to Mosley, Tom left and in 1965, Ethel (by this time Tom's ex-wife) sold the company to Bill Betton, who had worked his way up within Mercian from apprentice to framebuilder. Betton ran the company for the next 36 years. Then, in 2001, Mosley got an offer. "The company was for sale and I bumped into Bill on a Sunday bike ride. He said he wished that someone within the company could buy it, and myself and Jane begged, stole, and borrowed to buy the company in 2002."

Serious Mercian fans or collectors might be aware that co-founder Tom Crowther went on to also sell frames under his own name. Most of these were still built in the Mercian factory, though it's hard to know how many. "Records before 1970 were burned at a company Guy Fawkes bonfire party in the early '70s, so it's hard to know exactly," Mosley recalls. "I know Mercian built some Tom Crowther frames, as we still have stocks of transfers for them. Tom Crowther frames that we've resprayed have our frame number identity on them, but we don't know if all Tom Crowther frames were made by Mercian."

Use Google Maps to get an interactive view of the shop.
You can use arrows to move around inside the shop. Very cool.
Apart from the aforementioned bonfire, Mercian history has been well preserved. Frame records since then are kept on file, and owners regularly write to the company to trace the beginnings of their frames, or to order a new frame with the same measurements and geometry of their old one. According to the company website (www.merciancycles.co.uk), there is a £10 charge for a records search, since the files are not computerized and searching can take time. With the popularity of eBay, they get so many requests for frame records that they can sometimes spend hours tracking down numbers.

Hand-shaping a Vincitore lug from a lug
"blank" is a painstaking process. The
results are exquisite.
(photo from 2004 Mercian catalog)
Another way that Mercian history is preserved is that their framebuilding tradition is handed down, builder-to-builder, within the company. Derek Land, who had built frames at the shop for over 45 years, retired not long ago. Grant says that Tony Phillips is currently the longest serving framebuilder, having been with the company for over 35 years now. Rob Poultney, the senior painter, has been with Mercian for over 40 years. According to Grant, Rob "started out as a framebuilder but didn't like it!" These well-tenured craftsmen help the "new lads" (that's pretty much anyone with less than 10 years at the shop) learn the Mercian way of doing things.

I asked Grant about the process of training the "new lads." He said, "Luckily we don't have to recruit new builders that often, but when we do they start with smaller jobs -- brazing dropouts and filing/finishing until they get the feel for the materials and tools. Then they start to build frames from start to finish, but with lots of supervision and assistance from a skilled builder." He then added, "Because Mercian build frames free-hand, without jigs, it takes longer to learn the art of framebuilding in this way."

Brazing free-hand in an open hearth. Few builders
still use this traditional, time-honored method today.
(photo from 2004 Mercian catalog)
Mercian is well known for its free-hand, "open hearth" brazing method. Frame tubes and lugs are fitted together on an alignment board, then the joints are pinned and then brazed in an open-hearth fired by air and natural gas, rather than the more modern method of building the frame in jigs with oxy-acetylene torches. Mercian's builders feel their method is gentler on the tubing, and one of the secrets to their frames' longevity. "Since day one Mercian have built frames this way," said Mosely. "It's a really traditional way of brazing and we're probably the last in the UK to still build like this."

A view inside the Mercian frame shop. (photo courtesy
of Bob Troy)
"We've built this way for over 65 years, and the fact that we renovate decades-old Mercians proves to us that it's kinder to the frame," he continued. "There are arguments to support every method of building that people use, and I'm not saying either is right or wrong, but if it ain't broke don't fix it! Mercian bikes ride really well, they're responsive, stable, and comfortable, and once people ride one they're pleasantly surprised. So I reckon we're doing it right."

Another tradition going back to the beginning is the almost exclusive use of Reynolds tubing. "We've always had a great relationship with Reynolds and because we've built with it from the start, the framebuilders have a real 'feel' for the tubing." Over the years, the company has built primarily with 531, and was among the earliest to be certified by Reynolds for 753. Today, Reynolds 631, 725, and 853 are popular choices. Grant says they have used other brands of tubing when customers have specifically asked them to, "but we still prefer Reynolds." The shop has also built some frames from 953 stainless, but supply interruptions have, at least for now, put that material on hold.

Long spearpoint lugs and a bold color palate distinguished
the Paul Smith track bike. (from Mercian's site)
In the last decade, Mercian frames have taken on an almost iconic status. Back in 2007, fashion designer Paul Smith collaborated with Mercian on two special limited-edition bicycles -- a touring model, and a track bike -- distinguished by Smith's unique color motif, as well as special long-point lugs on the track model. I asked Grant about how that collaboration came to be.

Sir Paul Smith, on his
stealth-black Mercian.
(photo by Horst Friedrichs)
"It was a trip to the Nottingham Paul Smith shop which started the ball rolling. We noticed in his shop a chair made for him by a local company and just thought a Mercian would look nice there. We got in contact in the off-chance, and Sir Paul thought it would be great if we could make a few bikes for them," Grant said. "Of course we jumped at the offer and the rest as they say is history."

Paul Smith also ordered a special "urban" fixed-gear bike for himself -- a "stealth" machine with a matte black finish and black components. Photos of Sir Paul with the bike have appeared in numerous non-cycling publications, including fashion magazines. Smith, a longtime cyclist who rode a Mercian in his teens and dreamed of becoming a professional bike racer (a bad crash ended that dream), frequently adorns his shop window displays with bikes -- a number of which were built by Mercian. Grant would not specify, but hinted that other collaborations may be in the works.
Ewan McGregor's Vincitore Special, with vintage
Campagnolo parts. (photo from Derby Telegraph)

More recently, Mercian built a bike for none other than Obi Wan Kenobi himself, actor Ewan McGregor. Grant told me how that came about. "I posted a picture of a leaf green Vincitore Special on our Twitter feed," he said. McGregor, who had been following the company's site, "saw the bike and said it reminded him of the first bike his dad bought for him." The actor contacted Mercian and placed an order for a Vincitore Special -- leaf green with a barber-pole paint scheme. He provided his measurements, and let Grant advise on the rest. McGregor spent some time searching eBay for vintage Campagnolo parts. "He supplied a few of the components to be fitted, like Campagnolo Delta brakes," added Grant.

Yes, that's my bike in the 2004 catalog.
As a personal side-note - I'm a huge fan of the color scheme of McGregor's Mercian. In 2003, Mercian built me a Professional model, not unlike the bike I admired so thoroughly when I was in my teens. Rather than copy that vintage example exactly, I picked out leaf green and white. When the frame was done, Grant asked me if they could photograph it for their new catalog. What could I say? YES! I built that bike up with a complete 80s vintage Campagnolo Super Record group. A honey-colored Brooks leather saddle and matching bar tape finished off the bike, which later appeared on the company website in an "owners gallery." Since then, I've seen several other Mercians painted in the same scheme. I have no illusions whatsoever that I was the first to get a bike painted like that, but I like to think (even if I'm mistaken) that it got more popular after my bike appeared in the catalog.

For those interested in ordering a new frame from Mercian, the wait time is currently about 5 - 6 months -- and that's true for celebrities, too. Even Ewan McGregor didn't get to jump the queue. When it comes to custom frames, the company offers some standardized specifications for racing, touring, track, audax, etc., which can be a good place to start, but customers have a lot of input on their frame order. Grant said, "We don't do trikes, triplets, 4-wheeled buggies, etc. but for solo frames we look at each enquiry as it comes and advise accordingly." I've found in my own experience that the company can be very accommodating for special requests, whether in colors, lugs, geometry, or whatever a person may desire for their dream bike. If one comes up with some ideas that the builders, in their experience, feel would not work well, they'll advise against it. Otherwise, a person can get pretty creative when ordering a Mercian.

The online frame builder lets you create your dream bike.
Be careful -- it's addictive.
Should someone want a new Mercian but not want to wait, there are some options. Mercian keeps a few frames in the shop painted and ready to go. One can always call or email to inquire about what's in store. They've recently come up with a semi-custom option as well. Grant said, "we've recently built a small stock of King of Mercia frames in popular sizes, in 725 tubing, all in undercoat, so they can be painted to order and shipped in 4 - 6 weeks." This move, Grant said, was in preparation for their upcoming online store. Until the online store is up and running, though, customers can entertain their new-bike fantasies with the online frame builder. With it, one can pick a model, choose tubing, braze-ons, and other specifications, and try out all 63 standard colors in a variety of popular paint schemes. It's a little bit addictive.

Given that the company has been building frames for over six decades, there are a lot of vintage examples out there. Figuring out when a Mercian was built is usually pretty easy (but not always). On most vintage frames, the serial number will be located on the bottom bracket. Usually, the last two digits in the series will be the year that the frame was made. However, there have been some years, especially in earlier vintages like the 1950s, where the pattern was different and the first two digits were the build year. Sometimes, other details on the frame can provide clues, but according to Classic Lightweights UK, if a frame has a serial number like 59557, it may be impossible to know if it was built in 1959 or 1957. Also, I have seen some older Mercians -- notably some track bikes from the 50s -- where the serial number was stamped on the rear fork end instead of the bottom bracket. By the way, a second number stamped on the bottom bracket is a framebuilder's code, which can indicate who built the frame -- interesting to know. Since Y2K, the serial numbers have become unambiguous -- the year is now indicated with the full four digits -- xxx2013, for example.

I asked Grant if he's seen a resurgence of interest in Mercian frames. "We have a very full order book. The demand seems to be growing," he said. "There are a lot of riders out there who have never had a good steel frame. They started on alloy (aluminum), progressing to carbon, then trying the NEW steel frames." Not only that, he added, but the company also gets a lot of repeat business. "Most of our customers who order seem to re-order again and again once they have felt the difference in the ride quality." I know what he means. . .

My Mercians:
Professional model - 2003 -- with 80s vintage Super Record group. Reynolds 631 tubing. The idea here was to have a new bike that would seem almost like a vintage example. A trendsetter?

"Classic" model - 1979 -- my second Mercian. Reynolds 531. This one was refurbished at the factory in "Bianchi Blue" with a cream head-tube. 
"Anniversary Model" 2006. Sixty bike were made to celebrate 60 years in business. Has modified Pacenti lugs, a special head badge, and Reynolds 725 tubing. Campagnolo Centaur group. Honjo fenders and Velo-Orange racks. The bags are from Gilles Berthoud. 
I've been putting a lot of miles on this one.
Strada Speciale track bike. 2008. 631 tubing. Lots of NJS parts.
1973 Superlight - Reynolds 531 tubing. Original paint. Period-correct Campagnolo Nuovo Record group. When I found this, it was a nearly 40-yr-old new-old-stock frame.
King of Mercia model. Reynolds 725. Modern Campagnolo Centaur group. 
2012 Vincitore. Reynolds 631. Built as a "road/path" bike with a mix of old and new Campagnolo parts. Single speed, fixed gear. This one was pictured in the UK publication Urban Cyclist.

History and Tradition are such a big part of Mercian Cycles. And not just for the company itself -- but also for the people who ride the bikes. Like myself, who admired one in his youth and wanted so much to own one, there are many others who can tell similar stories. Look at Paul Smith, who raced on a Mercian in his teens, then decades later began designing bikes with the company. Or Ewan McGregor, drawn to a Mercian that reminded him so much of a bike his father bought him in his youth. Or even Grant Mosley -- working Saturdays at the shop as a lad, years later becoming the owner of the brand as it neared its 60th year in operation. I'll bet lots of people find themselves drawn to the bikes for similar reasons. And the brand is still there, still making bikes the way they did in the beginning, ready to welcome back old friends, or to greet new ones just discovering the virtues of a hand-crafted steel frame. The Mercian shop, its workers, the bikes, and the people who ride them are all part of this Tradition extending back to 1946.

I'd like to thank Grant Mosley for taking the time to respond to my questions. Thank you so much for contributing to the Retrogrouch Blog!


An assortment of tools on a framebuilder's workbench.
A lugless fillet brazed frame. The joints are being smoothed to a seamless radius.
A Paul Smith track frame, ready for paint.
(the above three photos were in a 2008 Mercian promotional calendar)

Links and sources:
Mercian's own website has some history, model specifics, ordering info, and more.
I have a collection of vintage Mercian catalogs -- many of which are on Flickr.
Classic Lightweights UK has some info on vintage Mercians.
Classic Rendezvous also has some general info and pictures.
The Mercian Cycles Pool on Flickr is a great place to see other people's Mercians, or post your own.
Derby Telegraph article on Ewan McGregor's Vincitore.
Another Derby Telegraph article about Mercian, the Paul Smith collaboration, and more.
There is a chapter on Mercian in The Custom Bicycle, by Michael Kolin and Denise de la Rosa.

9 comments:

  1. have a 2005 Mercian Vincitore Special that I had them build to my specs in 2004 Igot in 2005 it is a great frame, responsive and well finished with the barbers pole on seat tube. I hae done close to 65k on it now, this includes riding up and down most of the Colorado mountain passes. I also have a 1950 Mercian Roadpath also a fine machine. John Crump Parker, Colorado USA

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    1. Hi John - thanks for writing. I believe I've seen that Road Path bike of yours -- on the CR and at a Cirque du Cyclisme event? Nice bikes.

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  2. A great read. Very reassuring to know there's still so much passion for beautiful bicycles.

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  3. I have just picked up a Mercian King of Mercia. Hopefully just my first and I love it.
    I was wondering what are the handlebars on your classic 1979 and your 2012 Vincitore?
    Thanks.
    David

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    1. Hi David -- the bars on the '79 Mercian have been changed since that photo was taken. I had first tried a pair of Rivendell's "Albatross" bars, flipped upside-down, but later switched to a basic "mustache" bar -- not a huge difference, but I like the mustache bars a little better. The Vincitore has a pair of Soma Portola bars, from Soma Fabrications. They are very similar to the old Specialized "dirt-drop" bars in that they have a wide flare and a shallow drop.

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  4. Thank you for this enjoyable and informative blog. I am considering sending my 1975 SL to Mercian Cycles for a complete restoration. How did all that work out for you with the '79 "Classic". BTW, I have two KOMs, a Superlight, and a Vigorelli being built. I like Mercians. Again, many thanks.

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    1. I thought they did a great job, and the turnaround time wasn't too bad, considering the shipping back and forth. Keep in mind the cost of shipping both ways and add that to the budget, though. I had a fairly reasonable exchange rate when I did mine, which still kept the cost below having someone here in the U.S. do the work -- even with the shipping costs included. I also liked knowing that it was being repainted by the same people who had built and painted it the first time (considering how long Rob the painter has been there, it's possible it was literally repainted by the very same guy!).

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    2. Yes, I like the idea of Mercian Cycles refurbishing a vintage Mercian. Although the current exchange rate stinks, my calculation of cost by Mercian vs. cost in the S.F. Bay area is very compatible. A single color without decals is upward of $385 here. It will cost approx. $75 to ship it to Mercian and approx. 90 GBP to return it to CA. Thanks for your opinions and suggestions.

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  5. Mercians are not an addiction. I've just put down a deposit on my fifth. Only my fifth! That's not an addiction. ;-)

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