Sunday, December 13, 2015

Chuck Schmidt's '59 Mercian

Every now and then I need to take a break from retro-grouching to do some retro-admiring. Today's subject for admiration comes from Chuck Schmidt, a vintage bike enthusiast who also runs the Velo-Retro site. Chuck's site is a great place to find reproductions of vintage bicycle posters, advertising materials, t-shirts, and more.

Regular readers know how much I love Mercian bikes, old and new - and that I have a small collection of them (I'm up to 8 complete bikes, plus one frameset). Well, Chuck's bike is one that any vintage bike fan would love to have - and would make any Mercian fans' knees get wobbly. It's a 1959 Superlight Road-Path, and it's a gem.

Chuck's bike has terrific original paint and decals. He says the color has been described as "Creme Pesto Sauce" but it is not a color currently offered in the Mercian color pallette (a shame, really). One of the things I'd like to point out is the lettering style used on the down tube. That is a pretty rare style that, as far as I can tell, was only used for a very short time - probably no more than a few years. Most other Mercians I've seen from the '50s tend to have "script" style lettering. In the early 60s, Mercian adopted the lettering style they currently use, which they call "gothic." The lettering on this bike bears a resemblance to the current gothic style, but with the addition of a shadow detail -- making it almost a transitional design between the older script and the current style. Searching the whole archives of the Mercian Cycles Flickr page, I could only find a couple other examples with that style down tube lettering, and they were from about the same timeframe as this bike.

The Superlight model is distinguished by its unique lugs that are cut away to the minimum, yet still display a certain ornate character. The lugs were all cut and filed by hand, and I don't think any other builders made anything quite like them. The model was quietly dropped from the Mercian lineup sometime in the late '90s -- probably about the time they started switching over to investment cast lugs.
Those minimalist-yet-fancy lugs are the detail that sets the Superlight apart. Notice that Chuck's bike also features an earlier version of the Mercian head tube crest, featuring World Champion colors and Olympic rings. According to their website, the company would switch to the current "The World Over - Globe" design in the early '60s, not long after this bike was built.

This may be the first Superlight - built
for Tom Crowther. Other than color
and decals, it has a lot in common with
Chuck Schmidt's bike. (Photo from
Hilary Stone's site)
This would have to be one of the earliest production examples of the Superlight model that one is likely to find. It's not clear exactly when the model was first introduced to the lineup, but the earliest catalog in which I've seen it was from 1963 where it was listed as "The New Superlight." (Mercian didn't put out new catalogs every year -- the next earliest catalog I've seen came out some time in the 1950s but doesn't mention this model). There is some evidence that the first Superlight may have been built in 1958, specially for Tom Crowther, who was one of the Mercian co-founders, so one can assume the model was probably offered to the public soon after. Pictures of that bike can be seen at ClassicLightweights, and it had apparently been sold previously through Hilary Stone's site, where more pictures and information can be found. Although Stone's description states that the Crowther bike has many of its original parts and its provenance can be verified, Stone did not specify original paint, and I do have some questions about whether the paint and decals on that bike are original since it has the later graphics. Maybe the Crowther bike had a repaint in the '60s?

This is probably my favorite part. I love how the painter added an extra little curl in the lug outlining just ahead of the binder. Notice how the original Superlight seat lug only wraps about 3/4 of the way around, and how the seat stays are brazed in directly to the back of the seat tube without reinforcement. Later-built bikes have a different seat lug design - one that wraps all the way around the seat tube, with an extension down the back to receive the seat stays. I don't know if there was a problem with these earlier ones breaking, but I'm sure that the later version was stronger. This version's prettier, though.
Just by way of comparison, here is the revised seat-lug from my own '73 Superlight. Still nice, but there's something awesome about the super-minimalist original version.
Chuck tells me that the original owner of this bike had welded a derailleur hanger onto the right rear fork end, which was then removed, returning it to the original state. You can see where some of the paint was lost on the lower half of the fork end as a result. The wheels are built with "BH" (British Hubs) aluminum hubs that are fixed-gear threaded on both sides. The rims are Super Champion Medaille d'Or tubulars (260 grams!). Holding the wheels in place are Gripfast wing nuts, though I'm told the bike now sports GB (that's "Gerry Burgess," not "Great Britain") wingnuts.
Appropriate-looking Philippe bars and stem, with some of the details picked out in red. The bar tape is vintage Gem plastic tape. Brakes are Weinmann 500. (Wanna start a "religion and politics" style of debate with vintage bike fans? Ask whether that front-brake-lever should be mounted on the left or the right!)
Keeping with a "French Lightweight" theme, the bike has a Stronglight crank with a 48-tooth ring. In this shot, you can also see the curly details cut into the bottom bracket shell. Fantastic.

Given the age, and the condition of this bike - and the fact that it is a very early example of a really special model, I'd call this one a very enviable bicycle.

Thanks, Chuck, for sharing the bike with us!


  1. I have a 1950 Mercian Bi Lam with long point lugs. John

    1. I know that bike, John. Keep an eye out for an email from me on the CR list. I may want to feature your bike here some time soon. It's another one that I think is pretty unique.

  2. I can't remember if I ever brought to your attention my mid-80s Mercian. It can be seen on Cyclofiend, single speed gallery, #280, from 2009. The model is a Professional. I bought the frame new but second hand. It had been a custom order by a racer who wound up buying something off the shelf to go racing when the Mercian did not show up in time. It has the "shot in" seat stays, on the seat lug which incorporates the pinch bolt mount. The lugs are not as refined as on the 1959 Superlight, but they are lovely long points and the head tube lugs have just a hint of the curly cue design. Those bottom bracket ulta-long points are a stand out feature of the frame. Love this bike. I don't ride single speed much any more so have been considering how I might convert it back to a full range of gearing for my ageing legs (now over 70 years).

    1. Yes - I've seen your bike, and it's a pretty one. Great paint job on it. Yours was certainly a custom-order frame, as it doesn't quite match up with any one model in the Mercian lineup. Mercian would (and still do) honor special requests like that. You have the extended bottom bracket tangs from the professional model, but with the "shot-in" seat stays which were used on the Superlight and the Strada Speciale. Those lugs are a very nice Prugnaut set, just slightly re-contoured.

  3. Gorgeous! Some bikes just have that air of "correctness" for lack of a better term. A nice Mercian is one of two bikes I've always lusted after(the other being an 80's Colnago complete with garish 80's colors). They're around and available but the money always seems needed somewhere else first.It's time to get my priorities straight.Nothing popped out of a mold will ever top the allure of this kind of metalwork. Good One!

  4. I have four Mercians. Rational mind says I don't have room for another bike. A bike like Schmidt's could get me out of my rational mind.

    After that, it's only a matter of funds and Schmidt's willingness to sell. Which would I come by first?

    1. Chuck never mentioned putting it up for sale. If he did, it's probably a good thing that it looks a bit small for me.

    2. I probably wouldn't have the funds for it. And, really, Schmidt probably appreciates it as much as anybody does. Oh well.

    3. Just to kick the hornets nest, the brake lever should definitely be on the right(if you're right handed of course).

  5. Front brake lever on the left!

    That is a gorgeous old bike. Those lugs are certainly taken to the minimum: the tube fitment had to be pretty much perfect to make that work.
    I think I like the seat lug on the copper Mercian better than the ultra-trimmed-down one. I do appreciate the extra flourish with the lug-lining, though. It's a bit of attention to detail that you just don't see anymore.


  6. I spent a lot of time riding with Chuck on that bike.
    He's fast!