last of the Jones shops just closed in April of this year.
Some say that Lawee wasn't satisfied with the quality of bikes that were coming into the shop, so he got into the business of importing them himself. He imported Legnanos and Bianchis from Italy, Raleighs from Britain, and Motobecanes from France. His influence was probably greatest with Motobecane, for which he was the US distributor. Lawee helped make Motobecane one of the best production bikes coming out of France in the '70s. In a recent thread on the Classic Rendezvous group, many people who were in the bike biz back in that decade remember that the quality of Motobecanes - brazing, alignment, paint, and component choices - was generally a step above the competition, and that probably had something to do with Lawee's influence. I recall reading in the blog from Velo Orange that Motobecanes were also a favorite of that company's founder, Chris Kulczycki. Many vintage cycling fans have fond memories of the brand's black, red, and gold color scheme, which is generally considered a true classic look. Under Lawee's guidance, Motobecane was also one of the early adopters of Japanese components which generally worked better than the more traditional European-sourced parts from the same period.
|Motobecane Grand Record image from the '73 catalog. The bike came with a mix of French parts and Campagnolo derailleurs. The black and red with gold accents was (and still is) a great look. They also had the Grand Jubilee (with Huret Jubilee derailleurs) that came in almost the reverse scheme - flamboyant red with black panels, and the gold accents.|
|The real lust-worthy machine was the Team Champion - all orange like the bikes used by the Motobecane Bic team. The catalog makes sure to point out that Luis Ocana won the Tour de France on a bike like this, but it's generally accepted that Ocana's bike was built by someone else and only painted/decalled for the sponsor. The rest of team probably rode actual Motobecane-built bikes though. These were truly limited production and had really nice hand-built details (catalog image from Bulgier.net).|
Early in the 1970s, Lawee created a new brand - Italvega (the name could be translated to something like "Italian star," but the catalogs said "The brightest star of Italy"). The frames were built in Padua, Italy by the Torresini shop, with components picked by Lawee. Torresini was the same shop that built the Torpado brand (that name roughly comes from abbreviating TOResini PADua). Italvegas have a fairly small but devoted following, as the bikes were nicely made and equipped, but most models generally don't command super high values in the vintage market, so they can be great bargains.
|Scan from the 1976 Italvega catalog. The top-of-the-line Superlight was all Columbus tubing and Campagnolo and Cinelli components. Many of the components, such as the crankset and the brakes, were drilled out -- drillium right from the factory (photo from Bulgier.net). It's worth pointing out that Torpado also offered a model called the Superlight that was similar - but Lawee's Italvega version was distinguished from the Torpado by going much farther with the drillium.|
|There is a great set of pictures of this model on the ClassicRendezvous site.|
|Just like Eddy. I personally get a little squeamish about drilling brake calipers, though these holes were rather small (but they had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall).|
By the end of the '70s, Lawee moved his Italvega production to Japan, and at that point the name was changed to Univega. Most Univegas were built by Miyata, at least through the earlier half of the 1980s, but specifications were generally picked by Lawee to distinguish them somewhat from Miyata models. Some time in the mid '80s production started to move to Taiwan, but the earlier Miyata-built bikes are generally more desirable.
|This near-mint original condition Alpina Sport was spotted on eBay earlier this year (seller "thoures"). Like the Stumpjumper, it spawned a whole range of mountain bike models, and a lot of competition.|
Ben Lawee retired from the bike business in 1996 at age 70 when he sold Univega to Derby Cycles, the parent company that also owns Raleigh. As far as I can find, the brand is no longer available in the U.S., but it is still active in Europe and the U.K. The current Univega website mentions Lawee in their "History" page, but they incorrectly claim that he started Univega in the early '70s without mentioning that the brand actually started out as Italvega. Lawee died from stomach cancer in 2002, but his influence on the bike industry is worth remembering.