Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Used to Like Cars

Not so much anymore, but I used to like cars a lot. When I was in my teens, apart from wanting a Masi just like the one the kid in Breaking Away rode, I also wanted a little two-seat roadster -- like an MG, or a Triumph. Horribly impractical little things, with temperamental mechanicals, and diabolical electrical systems. I was not afraid. There was something about the cars that inspired passion. I don't like to say that they had "soul," because let's face it, they're just objects. But I don't know how else to describe it. Was it history? Who knows?

My father-in-law, who has always loved the "top-down" car experience, has a Mazda Miata. He's driven it for years and loves it. He even belongs to a Miata club. The little Mazda is supposed to offer the same kind of driving experience as the little roadsters of the past -- wind-in-the-hair, sprightly acceleration, zippy handling --  but with all the bulletproof reliability that Japanese cars are known for. No more late nights in the garage chasing electrical demons, replacing ignition points, or re-jetting carburetors. The new cars just don't have things that go wrong that often -- but when they do, it's also a fair bet that the average home mechanic won't be able to solve them himself.

I've driven his little Miata. It's nice, but I don't want one. No passion. No "soul." It could be that I just don't get excited about cars anymore, but if I had the choice and actually still wanted a little roadster, I'd still probably go for the old MG -- reliability be damned. Though, truth be told, if I had the money for that kind of purchase, I can't say I wouldn't spend it on a really nice bike (or two).

Like her father, my wife is also really big on the convertible experience, but from a slightly more practical standpoint. She wants something that still has room for kids and cargo. Some years back, she had me come with her to test-drive a Toyota Solara convertible -- a mid-size two-door. We drove it, and all I can say is that putting the top down did nothing to disguise the fact that we were still basically driving a Camry -- a dependable car with a little more reliability than a Maytag dishwasher, and about as much fun to drive. A driving appliance, if you will. We didn't buy it.

So, what does this have to do with bikes?

The way I feel (or felt) about those cars is pretty consistent with how I feel about bikes. Comparing the old British roadsters with the modern Japanese version, it's hard to argue with the fact that the newer car is superior in so many ways. More reliable. Better brakes. More efficient. Probably lower emissions. Safer. The list of "betters" could go on and on. But given the choice, I'd still choose the old classic for what are totally emotional reasons. History. Nostalgia. "Soul."

There is no doubt that my '73 Mercian weighs more than a new Specialized Tarmac. The vintage Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleurs don't shift as smoothly and reliably as the latest Dura-Ace Di2. The old Record brakes take a lot more hand effort to stop than the latest dual-pivots or disc brakes. My square-taper bottom bracket might "flex" more than a new BB30 or whatever new oversized press-fit wonder the technophiles rhapsodize about today. My 36-spoke wheels with their box-section aluminum rims generate more wind drag than 20-spoke wheels and deep-profile carbon-fibre aero rims. But given the choice, again and again, I'll take the old classic. Every time.

The makers of many carbon frames like to call their product "hand-made" -- and I suppose that might be true of some of them. But most of them are popped out of molds. Sure, someone laid pieces of resin-impregnated carbon fiber into that mold by hand -- but it's still popped out of a mold for cryin'outloud. And if one of those frames differs in any measurable way from every other frame in the run, it's a defect.

There's something beautiful about a set of frame lugs that were filed and shaped by a craftsman, and recognizing that it is not a defect if the lugs aren't exactly identical down to a fraction of a millimeter as all the other lugs shaped by the same artisan.

I like my traditional cup-and-cone ball bearing hubs, and non-cartridge square-taper bottom brackets. They need to be serviced from time to time, but that's just the thing. . . I can service them. I even enjoy doing the work because it's therapeutic in a way. There's something satisfying about a bike that can be serviced, and being able to do the work yourself. If a Shimano Di2 goes bad, can it be fixed? And who would fix it?

I like treating a Brooks leather saddle with Proofide, and love the way the stuff smells. I like that my hand-built wheels don't look like billboards. The list goes on and on. Bikes are best when they are simple and beautiful. The classics might not truly have "soul," but that's the only word that seems to capture the idea.


  1. Brooks I'm with you, though I do wonder whether what you say is true for all time (well within sensible bounds) or whether it's all just some sort of sliding scale. Will there be future retro grouchs who have a certain disdain for the current bikes on offer but sing the praises of simple old bikes like the Specialized Tarmac RRSR, and were there people who found your rather lovely Mercian a bit of an abomination, wood being the correct and only truely good material for rims, brakes being for sissys and gears only for the weak.....

    1. I sometimes wonder about that question too. I wonder what people will think of the current bikes in the future. I suppose everyone believes that when they were young things were better. In the post "Other Retrogrouches" I suggested that in the late 1800s, there were probably penny farthing riders who scoffed at the first "safety bicycles."

  2. Using the pictures in your post as an example: frame material aside, when I look at modern vs. old, the branding on the new stuff is amazingly tacky, IMO. Look at that Specialized: The "SWORKS" is more prominent than the brand name. Weird. The wheels, as you noted, are rolling billboards, rather than classy high polish.
    Your Mercian (like most older nice bikes) has a noticeable, but not tacky, brand on the downtube that makes it recognizable from a distance, but it's not screaming at you. And that's it. Even with flamboyant color schemes and flourishes (Mercians, in particular), vintage bikes came across as fun... or just different. It was a fun way to personalize your bike or add flair, if you were so-inclined. It never came across as marketing over-load.

    The only reason this trend exists, I would speculate, is so that the Suburban Armstrongs can be sure that they are all having a proper riding experience. It's hard to judge whether or not somebody else's bike is worth being alongside you unless you can tell from 50 feet away what brand of wheels and cranks and bar tape they're running.

    I must dispute one word in your post (that's not bad, right? One word in that whole post?):
    I wonder how "reliable" electric shifting is after your gear is a couple of years old? Been drenched in rain and sweat? I honestly don't know. I like long rides, and the prospect of trusting an electronic shifter/derailleur vs. your 30+ year old Campy derailleur is a no-brainer to me.
    You know when something breaks down on a ride? At mile 50 of a 100 mile out-and-back trip. With a regular derailleur, you can usually cobble together some sort of solution with merely a screwdriver or something else in your tool kit. Or, worst case, you just put the chain on the cog you want, and you don't shift the rear 'till you get it fixed. With an electric set-up, does it stay where you put it? Can it be serviced on the road, or do you have to pack a soldering iron? Let's not even get into the absolutely stunning different in cost between the two systems.


    1. certainly, the long-term reliability of the electronic shifting can't be known yet. That's true. I've read "long-term" tests/reviews of the system (particularly the Shimano version) where people have talked about how well it's holding up -- but "long-term" is completely relative. It certainly can't be more than a year or two. Will it still be working the same 5 years from now? Ten?

      I totally agree when you talk about being able to cobble together an on-the-road fix to a mechanical problem. I don't know how much a person could do if an electronic system broke down. I didn't elaborate a whole lot on it in the article, but that's sort of the intended idea I was thinking about when I mentioned how newer cars don't break down as often, but when they do, you likely can't fix it yourself. That, and the idea that the older bikes might require some maintenance and work, but it's work you can do yourself. That's one of the attractions to me about the older, simpler systems.

    2. Note S-Works *is* a brand - it's Lawyerized's "high-end" designation and only very special shops are allowed to sell it. You may have noted that you cannot buy those brands online, as dealers are restricted from selling that way. That's illegal in the US and Canada, so I am hoping one of the states Attorneys General gets around to kicking their butt over it. In the UK, it is possible to buy their stuff online - however, I believe they discourage discounts.

  3. Brooks, I know what you mean.

    My first car was a used 1958 Austin-Healey Sprite. Then I got a new 1965 MGB. Thinking back, the amount of maintenance it required in the 3 years that I had it before getting a new Camaro was incredible. Broken crankshaft, broken overdrive, worn-out synchromesh, worn-out rocker shaft and bushings, the list goes on. But I was young and it was fun working on the beast. When the Miata came out, I often considered getting one, but never did. You're right. No soul. The same goes for bikes. I have a 1981 steel lightweight, all Campag, and some older ones in various states of construction, but never had the desire to buy one of the new plastic wonders. Just no soul.

    1. Unlike you, I never did get the chance to own one of those old roadsters I admired so much -- but I was well aware of all the kinds of problems they could have. But it didn't deter me from wanting one, figuring that I'd get a good shop manual and some tools and learn how to do the work myself. I've had some older cars, and a few motorcycles -- and always did a lot of the maintenance and repairs on my own and learned a lot. Nowadays I can't even replace the headlight bulbs on our newer cars. Comparatively, working on classic bicycles is a breeze. Don't know what I'd do if an electronic shifting system quit working, though.

  4. I've just found this blog, so I'm reading backwards. Apologies for the reverse chronology.

    I owned an MG Midget for seven years - in Canada of all places. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I paid CDN$150 for it. The owner thought the gearbox was gone and only asked $100, but I knew it was "only" the clutch (the engine comes out to replace the clutch). I drove it every summer on every nice day. I never put the top up. I drove it from Toronto through New England to the CDN Maritimes with only a tire problem that required fitting the spare. But every year it was something.

    That car had character. It had some inventive (?) engineering (the hood came off to remove the battery). But it doesn't really compare well to cars of today, soul or not.

    Bicycles, OTOH, are a bit different. My oldest bicycle is not. That is, I have some old frames but they are hanging on the wall. Some day. I'm not into old for old's sake. I'm into usability, style, function and form. I've got a lovely old Peugeot (not a PX-10, but I did get the wife one of those). Almost every part is odd. A quill seatpost? (You have to remove the seat to adjust the height - apparently there was a special kinked allen key to make it easier).

    I can see the Retrogrough is my size by looking at the bike pictures. I don't know about you, but I find brifters a lot easier to use than downtube shifters. I've got bikes with both, and I love the look of downtube shift levers, and they are simpler, but it's a long reach down for me - the downtube stays where it is as frames get larger. OTOH, I'm a fan of Tiagra. I like the open cables (semi-classic and easy to replace, plus fewer corners). Despite it being a "cheap" groupset, I prefer it to 105. Interestingly, I see the price differential is getting smaller.

    I don't want a bicycle with a battery. I don't care if a shift is a millisecond quicker. I don't care if it weighs ten grams less. But I am hoping tubeless tires catch on for bikes. I do like double action caliper brakes. But disc brakes? OK in principle, but go into a shop and check the variety of pads - as bad as cars for less reason - destined for obsolescence. I don't like proprietary parts for no good reason, like "aero" seatposts, or integrated brakes. I don't like integrated headsets (and neither does Chris King). I don't mind Aheadset stems, nor do I mind external cup bottom brackets. I quite like stainless steel, but I'm not fan of aluminum (except for a commuter bike).

    So I pick and choose. Not all old tech or bikes were great, but some were. Not all of what is “new” is good, but some of it is. Maybe because of my line of work I have to choose appropriate technology to achieve solutions. But I do know I have two alloy bikes, one carbon bike and many, many steel bikes.

  5. I think you should go look at Pashley. They have been in business since 1926. All their stuff is old school, but in a modern way. In the car world, their equivalent is neither quite Morgan nor Rolls-Royce, but something of a mixture of the two (although they actually collaborated with the former in order to make a line of bicycles that can actually be obtained at Morgan's dealers as well as Pashley's dealers). As one would imagine, they are consequently rather expensive, but actually, really not that bad when compared with a number of the others out there. I think you would love that.

    I agree about electronic shifting. I would not buy a bike like that except in the most extraordinary of circumstances (e.g. if my life depended on it). I would try to change out the shifting system as soon as possible. I am leery of tubeless tires, because they usually come with more rolling resistance. Maybe Michelin's project to make pneumatic tires obsolete via flexible polyurethane spokes inside the tire can fix that, and then tubeless pneumatic tires would also be rendered obsolete. Then we would have the benefits of pneumatic tires, without the drawbacks, and that would work very nicely. That really would be an improvement.