Wednesday, February 27, 2019

That Time Road & Track Test Drove A Bicycle

I used to be a "car" guy. I loved cars. LOVED 'em. Yeah, that's changed. Nowadays I barely tolerate them.

When I was a kid - and I mean a pretty young kid, like no more than 10 or 11 years old - I started subscribing to car magazines like Road & Track and I read those all through my teens and twenties. One of my favorite writers was Peter Egan who wrote the "Side Glances" column every month (and another column in the motorcycling magazine Cycle World, which I also read). His style was mostly anecdotal/autobiographical with a touch of humor - and if anybody ever compared my writing to his, I'd take it as a great compliment. (nobody ever has).

Just above the headmast - "Maserati's New
Super-Economy Sports Vehicle."
Anyhow, I was recently reminded through a discussion with the Classic Rendezvous group about that time Road & Track test drove a bicycle. It was April 1974 and the bike was a Maserati MT-3. This was soon after the beginning of the OPEC oil embargo (starting late '73), and suddenly there was tremendous interest in smaller more fuel-efficient cars. On the cover was the new Honda Civic CVCC, and the issue was loaded up with (mostly imported) tiny compact cars boasting about 25 mpg (there is something to be said for the fact that many, much larger, mid-sized and even some full-sized cars built today can better that 25 mpg goal). Of course, with that newfound zeal for fuel economy, and the fact that it coincided with the great American Bike Boom (which had just peaked in '73) it made sense to take a look at a bicycle. The fact that the bicycle came from Maserati, a storied name in exotic sports cars, made it the perfect digression from their usual fare.

In reality, Maserati bicycles were only tangentially connected to the motor company. The bicycle branch was headed by Alfieri Maserati (a grandson, I believe, of one of the original Maserati brothers of automotive fame) but was a separate entity from the car factory in Modena, Italy. The bikes were imported and sold in the US by Elsco Corp of Jacksonville, Florida, which was owned by Ed Hugus who raced Maserati cars and was a friend of the Maserati family.

Some people would insist that R&T conducting a road test of a bicycle was an April Fools joke (it was the April issue, after all), but I'm not entirely certain that that was the intent. The article definitely has some tongue-in-cheek elements to it - but it doesn't exactly read as a "joke." I believe it's possible there may have been at least some earnestness to it.

Whatever humorous effect the article contains mostly comes from the fact that they approach the bicycle "test drive" from an obviously car-centric background, and evaluate it using the same criteria for which they would evaluate a 4-wheeled test subject. For example, the photo that leads off the article shows the bicycle on a drag strip with their data-collecting "5th wheel" (or "3rd wheel", in this case) attached:
"All the usual electronic test gear was connected to the MT-3, but we found that it reduced performance so sharply that it would be better to test it at curb weight plus driver."
They go on to post all their data for the bike, whether that data is relevant to a bicycle or not.
Some data highlights: "Engine type . . . biped" ; "Torque . . . negligible" ; "Fuel requirement . . . high protein" ; "Headroom . . . ∞" - and of course, all the usual acceleration, handling, and braking data.
Locking up the front brakes. It's possible they staged that nose-dive (though the bouncing chain tells me maybe not). However, I'm quite certain the "burned rubber" smoke was airbrushed in afterwards (for you kids out there, that's what we did before we had Photoshop).
Along those lines, I enjoyed this observation on the quietness of the 2-wheeled Maserati: "The most striking thing one notices about the MT-3 is the utter silence of its powerplant, although we did note that after an extended run, or especially after a run uphill, the powerplant does tend to huff and puff a bit."

I'd say that really sums up the typical driver attitude towards bikes.
Some things made it clear that a bunch of car guys just really didn't "get" bicycles. For one thing, they seemed truly perplexed at the gear range of a 10 speed (2x5) drivetrain and the way the gear ratios overlap across the range, as opposed to increasing sequentially from 1st through 10th gear. Or even, for that matter, the fact that the very concept of "1st gear - 2nd gear - 3rd gear, etc." is not really applicable to most derailleur-equipped bicycles with two or three chainrings.

There were also several remarks about the difficulty of shifting a derailleur-equipped bike. "From time to time we make derogatory remarks about vague shift linkage or some such thing, but in this mechanism, there are actually no detents for the five speeds of the derailleur mechanism. So until you have plenty of practice, you will (as we did) have trouble going from one speed to the next." No detents? Well, this was about 10 years before Shimano Dura Ace SIS. There were some earlier indexed shifting systems, but they were not that reliable and were mostly on lower-priced bikes.

One other thing they didn't seem to grasp: that performance bicycles, unlike cars, tend to be comprised of a frame built by a builder or shop whose name appears on the frame - then completed with a collection of components sourced from another company (or several other companies). In this case, the MT-3 was mostly built with Campagnolo components - and the reviewers found themselves annoyed at how many times the Campagnolo name appeared on the bike.

"Nearly all the running gear on the MT-3 is by Campagnolo, a name we all know from the beautiful wheels seen on beautiful Italian cars . . . One beef here, though: the Campagnolo name appears over 40 times on this machine and one is reminded a bit of the over-badgery of certain Japanese cars. By contrast, however, the name Maserati appears only twice."

In the end, though, they did show the bike some respect. "We do not test many racing machines; after all, few readers will ever be able to buy or drive one. But the MT-3 was different. Here is a racing machine that many can buy, and one whose speed is perfectly within the range of use on public roads (or bikeways)." They wrapped it up saying, "Whatever its eccentricities compared with the usual 4-wheel machines we drive, we certainly enjoyed the MT-3. There are several sore legs and bottoms among the R&T staff now, but also several healthier-feeling people. In fact, among the staff some have decided to add similar machines to their stables."

Another word about Maserati bicycles. I'm not 100% certain who made the frames, but I've seen some fairly reliable sources that say it was the Fiorelli shop. Those Maserati bikes were only available for a few years in the mid-70s, but were offered in a range of models and prices. The MT-1 was the top of a line which went all the way down to a model MT-14. The top models were made with Columbus tubing and Campagnolo parts, while the bottom-tier models were basically gas-pipe tubing with parts typical of a lot of budget-priced bike boom bicycles.

By the way, bicycles bearing the Maserati name are available again, made (I believe) by Montante cycles in Italy - purveyors of style-conscious bicycles-as-luxury-goods for fashionistas. They all seem to be "urban" single speed machines and range in price from $1980 - $4026. There were also some carbon fiber Maserati bikes about 10 years ago, made by Milani. See the current offerings at the Maserati website. Like their 1970s counterparts, they are Maseratis in name only, even though the company does more to link them to the car company history by giving them names and colors derived from the company's racing cars of the past.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

New Bikes for the Retro-Kids

My Retro-Kids are growing up.

It was pretty apparent by the end of last Fall that they were on the verge of having outgrown the last of their "kid" bikes - a couple of 24" wheeled machines that they'd ridden for the last two years. I knew both girls would be ready for "adult" sized bikes by Spring. Well, Spring is just around the corner.

I've been preparing for this since just after getting the 24" bikes. Almost two years ago I started watching ads on Craigslist and eBay, looking for some nice-quality '80s vintage frames that I could pick up cheap. I managed to find a couple - neither was more than about $75 or so. Though the paint on both frames was pretty decent, I wanted these to be special and I wanted the girls to have some input on colors, so back in the Fall, the girls and I took the frames over to my powder coating guy and I had the girls pick out the colors. The guy I go to does a really nice job, and the price is more than reasonable, though he only does the work on sort of a part-time basis these days so the turnaround time can take a while. He finished them up in January and now I'm getting started on putting them together.

This one started out as an early '80s Miyata (One Hundred - or maybe One-Ten model, I can't recall which).  I believe the color is RAL 6027. I installed the fork with a Tange Passage headset - a good basic headset, and quite a bit nicer than the one the frame had come with. The gap under the top nut will be filled perfectly by a cable stop spacer for center pull brakes.

As a nice finishing touch I outlined the lugs in a purple violet. I'll be attaching a custom head badge in the near future.
Another shot of the outlined lugs.
The second one started out as an early '80s Centurion Le Mans. I believe the color is RAL 4007. I used the same Tange Passage headset as on the other frame.
I outlined the lugs here in a light blue - not too far off from the color on the other bike. It's almost as if the frames have the exact reverse color schemes. This one also will be getting a special head badge soon.
Another look at the outlined lugs.
There they are together - ready for parts.
Both of these frames would have had 27" wheels on them originally, but I've got two nice pairs of 700c wheels ready to go. There should be plenty of tire clearance and probably room for fenders, too.

I've got saddles, bars, stems, cranks, and derailleurs for both bikes. I still need to get bottom brackets, seat posts, pedals, and I need another set of brakes. 

As I get more done on the bikes, I'll post updates on the progress. That's all for now.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

What's A Swiss-Threaded Bottom Bracket Anyhow?

I guess this post is kind of a follow-up to the previous one in which I described removing a stuck bottom bracket from an old Motobecane. That little project got me thinking about threading issues on old bicycles.

Back in the early days of the bicycle industry, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it came to any bicycle parts that required screw threading, it was up to various individual manufacturers located in different countries to come up with their own dimensions and threading standards for their own products - which is another way of saying there were no standards. Interchangeability of parts was just a dream.

Early in the 1900s, there was a push to create some unified standards - at least nationwide if not worldwide. For instance, in Britain, the industry came together around something that would eventually become known as BSC (British Standard Cycle) threading and dimensions. Most British companies adopted the BSC standard, though there were exceptions. Raleigh for instance was big enough (and basically made all their own components in-house) that they could and would continue to use their own proprietary threading all the way through the 1980s. Almost all Nottingham-built Raleighs (all those classic 3-speeds, for instance) used their unique threading - although their top end performance-oriented bikes, like the Professional and the International, and the "Team" bikes (all made outside of the massive Nottingham works) were built to the BSC standards. Most higher quality American, Japanese and later Taiwanese-built bikes also would use BSC.

The Italian industry likewise came up with their own standards, as did the French. For the most part, components were not compatible between bikes from different countries, but there were a few exceptions. For instance, on hubs which were threaded for a freewheel, British and Italian were close enough that some people would say they were interchangeable. Same goes for British and Italian headsets. Personally, I would say they were close enough that you could switch them in a pinch - but I wouldn't want to carelessly and repeatedly switch back and forth between the two (for example, from British to Italian, back to British, and back again). Over time, the slight difference could lead to weakened threads on the hub (which are usually aluminum) and a freewheel that eventually breaks loose from the hub while riding -- OUCH.

French headsets are not compatible at all with British or Italian. The pressed-in parts in the head-tube were the same size, but the threaded parts were a slightly smaller diameter. Also, a French threaded fork and headset also requires a slightly smaller stem (22.0 mm vs. 22.2) which can make updating an old French bike a little more challenging. French freewheel/hub threading was close enough in size to British and Italian that one could almost fool himself that it would work, but if he tried to force a French freewheel onto a BSC hub, it would bind up and possibly ruin the threads - and to actually attempt to ride with a BSC freewheel on a French hub, it would probably strip right off as soon as any torque was applied. Again - OUCH.

For bottom brackets, there was no compatibility between the different national standards at all. Italian BBs are wider and slightly larger diameter than both BSC or French. Both Italian and French used normal right-hand threading on both sides, while BSC used left-hand or reverse threading on the drive side. The reverse-threading on the drive side of a BSC bottom bracket prevents the cup from loosening while riding which is a feature that should not be under-appreciated. Why French and Italian bikes weren't done that way has long been a mystery to me, but the potential for loosening can be an issue. I've only had a couple Italian-threaded bikes in my time, but one of them did loosen on a ride and the only way to prevent it was to use loctite and lots of torque.

Then, just to make things a little more interesting, there were the Swiss. The Swiss industry mostly adopted the French standard for threaded parts but with a notable exception - the bottom bracket. A Swiss threaded bottom bracket uses the same basic dimensions and thread specifications as French but uses reverse-threading for the drive side - just like the British. Here in the US, Swiss threading was fairly uncommon and maybe considered a bit of an oddball. I guess there weren't a lot of Swiss-built bikes imported to the US.

French bike - Swiss threading. Go figure.
So, here's an interesting fact. The French company Motobecane used Swiss threading on many of their bicycles. Was it all of them? Most of them? I don't know the answer to that. If it wasn't all of them, then best of luck to any mechanic out there trying to figure out which way to turn the fixed cup on the bottom bracket to remove it. In my previous post, I mentioned my efforts to remove a stuck BB cup on an old Motobecane where I suspect someone in the bike's past perhaps didn't know that it was reverse-threaded. No "lefty loosie - righty tighty" here. It's also possible there was no mistake at all, since reverse-threaded fixed cups can simply get tighter with use the same way that right-threaded cups can loosen.

Whether I re-use that old bottom bracket or replace it with a new one kind of depends on what I decide to use for a crank. If I end up replacing it, there are options. British and Italian-threaded bottom brackets are still widely available. French ones are less common than the other two, but they are out there. Velo-Orange, for instance, offers their modern cartridge bottom bracket (and their headsets) in French threading. They don't, however, currently have a Swiss-threaded version. They do have an internally-expanding bottom bracket which they say works with any type of threading, even on bikes with stripped-out threading. Phil Wood makes retaining rings/cups for their excellent bottom brackets in the widest variety of threadings - including Swiss and even Chater-Lea (which is a real oddball today). The downside is that Phil bottom brackets  are pretty expensive - around $180 for the whole package. I was pleased to discover that Interloc Racing Designs (IRD) makes Swiss-threaded cups for their sealed cartridge bottom bracket which is a much more budget-conscious item. The IRD cups are sold separately, and I couldn't confirm it, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were compatible with some other brands of cartridge bottom brackets.

By the way, there's a terrific "crib sheet" for bottom bracket threading on the late Sheldon Brown's website.

Anyhow, by the 1980s, when international ISO standards were developed for bicycles, they mostly used BSC as their basis. For that reason, newer ISO parts will thread right onto most British and better quality American (and many later Japanese) bikes without trouble. Most bikes made today - at least those that still have threaded bottom brackets and headsets - use the ISO standard. Some Italian bikes may still use Italian. Of course, on many modern bikes, they've switched to press-fit bottom brackets and threadless headsets - and it seems like there are all kinds of unique and proprietary "standards" out there, making compatibility almost as much of an issue today as it was 100 years ago. I guess that's what we call Progress.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Removing An Extremely Stuck Bottom Bracket

I recently picked up an old bike frame for a future project. It's a mid-'70s Motobecane and it seemed to be in decent shape overall, but it did have a drive-side bottom bracket cup that was extremely stuck. The guy I got it from had tried and failed to remove it, so he just sold it to me "as is," bottom bracket bits and all. Being that I couldn't say for certain that the included spindle would work with whatever crank I'd eventually want to use, and the fact that I can never just "leave well-enough alone" I decided I'd need to make sure I could actually remove the stuck cup before I started putting any more money into the project.

I expect that (at least in part) the problem may have been that someone (whether it was the seller I got it from, or perhaps whoever he might have gotten it from) wasn't aware that the bottom bracket was Swiss-threaded and therefore "reverse" or "left-hand" threaded on the drive side. I can picture someone putting arm-breaking effort in the wrong direction trying to remove it, and only making it impossibly tight as a result.

I tried some penetrating oil and letting that soak in for a while, but still couldn't budge it. I tried heating the shell with a heat gun - hoping it might cause it to expand a little - and tried chilling the cup with an ice cube, but none of that helped either.

One thing that makes it difficult to remove a stuck cup is that the outer part of the cup, and the spanner that removes it, are only about ⅛ of an inch thick. Even when the cup is not stuck, it can be difficult to apply the necessary torque without having the wrench slip off. In this case, where the cup was truly seized up, it was near impossible. The wrench would end up slipping, and I was concerned that if that kept happening, eventually the flats on the cup would get rounded off, and then there'd be no getting it off no matter what.

There is a special tool available for removing difficult bottom bracket cups. Here is one from Hozan tools that sells for about $100 or so. There's a similar tool from VAR that costs even more but works in similar fashion. The tool has a notched face that fits over the outside flats of the cup, then has another part that threads on through the bottom bracket shell and tightens up against the inside of the cup, thereby holding the tool securely against the cup and keeping it aligned. I'd love to have one, but for a home mechanic, it's a lot of money considering the limited use it would get.
For my own use at home, I came up with a pretty nifty solution that only cost about 50 cents.

Here it is - a 7/16-inch bolt (about 1-½-in. long, though 1-in. would have worked fine) and a couple of washers. The extra large diameter fender washer was already in my toolbox. One of the other washers was an old crank bolt washer that happened to be just the right inside diameter to fit around the bolt, and just small enough in its outside diameter to fit inside the BB cup without contacting the bearing surfaces, thereby saving the races from damage.
Because there are currently some options available for replacement Swiss-threaded bottom brackets, it wouldn't have been a terrible tragedy if the cup or its races got damaged during removal - but if I could remove it without damage, that would be a plus.

So, here's how it works. The bolt with the smaller washer goes inside the bottom bracket shell, through the bottom bracket cup, with the bolt head and small washer centered in the cup. On the outside, I put on the spanner, sandwiching it in place with the large fender washer and the nut. Tighten it all down.

With the spanner held securely in place over the cup, snugged up to the edge of the bottom bracket shell, I could apply some serious torque, involving a big piece of pipe slipped over the end of the spanner to really extend the leverage. It still took a lot of effort, but I got the thing to move.

There's the cup - with nice undamaged races.
I haven't attempted to use this little hack with an adjustable BB cup, which is the one that typically requires a pin spanner for removal. I imagine it could still work with some small modifications to account for the pins - though those adjustable cups don't seem to get stuck quite as often as the drive-side fixed cups do.

I hope this little home mechanic hack proves helpful to someone out there.