28 January 2016

Vintage? Classic? Both? Neither?

I started working in bike shops in 1975, at the tail end of the '70's Bike Boom in North America.  One thing that makes me feel old is that many of the bikes I assembled, repaired and rode (whether they were my own, borrowed or test-ridden) are considered "classics" or "vintage" now!

So what is the difference between "classic" and "vintage"?  As a student of literature and history, when I hear of a "classic", I think of something that is still just as interesting, relevant or useful, or having as much artistic merit, as it did when it was first created or introduced to the world.  Some obvious examples would include most of Shakespeare's writings and Michelangelo's and Rodin's sculptures.  And, as a velophile (Does that word actually exist?), I would classify bicycles and frames from some of the greatest builders and constructeurs, as well as Brooks B17 and Professional saddles, the Huret Jubilee derailleur, Mavic and Super Champion rims, almost any SunTour derailleur or Campagnolo Record, Nuovo Record or Super Record part from the 1960's through 1985 (when they ceased production).

Now, to "vintage".  It's actually a term that refers to wines made from grapes grown in a specific year. The term took on the connotation of "high quality" because wines of certain years are particularly prized.  It took on the additional connotation of "old" because those prized vintages, especially in red wines, develop their reputations over time.

So almost all things you can buy in a thrift store--including bikes--are called "vintage", especially in any neighborhood or forum (e.g. Craigslist) with pretentions to hipness.  Now, some "vintage" items are very nice and offer things (such as design, material, craftsmanship and, in the case of bikes, a ride quality--or simply character) that are difficult or impossible to find today.  But other "vintage" items serve as reminders that "they don't make 'em like they used to, thank God!"

You can blame ;-) "Mike W." for what I've written in the previous four paragraphs. His comments on yesterday's post reminded me that not all "vintage" bikes were great, or even good.  Sure, if you have a bike from a French constructeur or an English  builder like Mercian, Bob Jackson, Ron Cooper or Jack Taylor, it's probably excellent, even if it has mid-level componentry.  Ditto for top Italian builders like Colnago, DeRosa and Cinelli.  And the same could be said for some of the American builders who came along at that time, like Albert Eisentraut.

After those bikes, there were some fine mass-produced (or high-production) machines from manufacturers whose names we all have heard.  For example, a Raleigh Carlton frame from that period is most likely very nice (especially if it's the blue mink-and-sable Professional).  So is a Schwinn Paramount.  Those companies also made some nice mid- and upper-middle-level bikes.  But a famous name doesn't always make for a bike that's better or even more unique than what is made today.

Bikes like this one are commonly listed as "vintage" on Craigslist, eBay and other sale sites.

The truth is, back in the day, we thought some of the machines called "vintage" were great because we didn't know any better.  Most young people today can't understand how exotic that first bike with a derailleur we saw back in the day (say, the late '60's or early '70's) seemed to us, let alone how other-worldly entry-level racing bikes looked and rode in comparison to the balloon-tired bombers, English "racers" or "muscle" bikes we'd been riding.

For me--and, I imagine, for folks like "Mike W.", the glow dimmed when we started putting together and fixing those bikes a few hours a day.  Any of us who worked in bike shops at that time can recall supposedly "good" bikes that came out of the box with bent forks, mis-aligned frames, improperly cut bottom bracket and headset threads, wheels that were all-but-hopelessly out-of-round, not to mention paint that fell off if you breathed too hard in the vicinity of the bike. (And that's before you started drinking!)  One bike I assembled--considered a "good" bike in those days--had a bottom bracket full of cardboard.  Another from the same maker had what looked like a combination of paint chips and sawdust.

I have a theory as to why we saw such bikes.  Before the Bike Boom, very few adults in the US rode bicycles.  Typically, they bought bikes for their oldest kids who, as often as not, passed them down to younger siblings and on to neighbors.  Families replaced their cars, but not bikes, every couple of years.

Then, when the Bike Boom hit, American bike factories weren't prepared.  Not only couldn't they make enough bikes to meet the demand; they weren't equipped to make the kinds of bikes the new cyclists were demanding.  So, dealers and distributors turned to foreign manufacturers.  Because bike sales had been declining in Europe during the '50's and '60's, factories there couldn't make as many bikes as Americans wanted.  (With the exception of large companies like Raleigh and Peugeot, European bike makers usually built just enough to supply local or regional demand.) However, they had been making "lightweight" bikes with derailleurs.  So, those makers increased their production.

We all know that when a company suddenly increases the number or amount of anything it makes, quality is almost certain to suffer.  What made the situation worse, though, is that many of those makers had outdated factories and equipment.  When bike sales were slow, they didn't bother to replace worn-out machinery and tools. (This is often given as the reason why Sturmey-Archer hubs started to decline precipitously in quality in 60's and, by the 1980s, new ones were all but impossible to adjust and maintain.)  The result is that those bike makers--including such industry giants as Raleigh, Atala and Gitane--shipped out bikes that were, frankly, shoddy.

(Rumor had it that Atalas and other low- to mid-level Italian bikes were made by prisoners.)

Now, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I like a lot of--but not all--vintage equipment.  My Mercians are, in many ways, inspired by favorite "vintage"--or, more precisely, "classic" bikes-- in their practical (at least for me) designs and sweet rides. Yes, I ride Brooks saddles, toe clips with straps, Nitto bars, stems and seatposts (or Velo Orange items patterned after them) and cranks with square tapered axles.  And, oh yes, canvas-and-leather bags.  I admit I chose the bags for style as much as function, but I also expect them to last longer than most of their high-tech counterparts.

My point is: "Vintage" (the way most people use the term) is not always classic.  I like a lot of vintage  and vintage-inspired stuff, but I don't ride it just because it's vintage.  I ride it because it works, and has worked and will probably continue to do so in ways that new stuff can't or won't.  In other words, I believe that much of what I ride is, or is based on, classics.  They work for me.  And I always buy the best quality I can, for classics are not disposable: they endure.


  1. How much junk is passed off as "vintage" or "rare" on such markets like the Big Auction Site? Not just bikes, mind, but i've made an informal study on bikes especially. And don't get me started on "collectors' pricing!!"
    On the subject of overproduction, i remember seeing scads of Raleigh Records- their $100 entry-level 10 speed of the Boom- that were rushed out in unfinished condition. We said that Raleigh had perfected the brazeless lug (wish i was kidding about the brazeless part.)

  2. This is getting very interesting!

    This distinction between vintage and classic is sort of blurred over here (in Finland). Private cars were not common here until the 70's. People went to work on bikes, factories had racks to park a hundred bikes as a matter of course. In the country side they were ubiquitous. So "local and regional demand" was enormous. This was a country with a population of about 4.5 million (1960) and four major bike brands and about 50 local makers. These bikes were made to be used and used for decades. I have my wife's father's bike, bought in 1936 that is all in good shape and fully roadworthy. It has never been "restored", just maintained like any bike.

    An awful lot of these old bikes have survived because they are so tough. My winter bike is one. Built in 1957, it has a wheel base (axle to axle) of 115 cm and takes 45 mm wide tires, weighs about 21 kilos (45 lbs), and 9.5 cm of track. It will go over anything, snow, glare ice, mud in the spring... I have three others, a woman's swan frame model built in 1952 and another men's model from 1956. My "light" summer bike for back roads and gravel is a Swedish Crescent from 1966 that weighs only 12 kilos. It was a racing model here in the 60's, very expensive and exotic. You see them all over the place here and are sort of the default bike. They can be stored in snow banks with no harm. They are not granny bikes, but are the default bike for young people too. You might get a new aluminum bike for in town, but for vacation out on the road, you take one of the old toughies. They are not "vintage" or "classic": they are good old solid bikes. Maybe "iconic" is a better concept. I don't think I have ever seen a Finnish bike over 30 years old that was not roadworthy or able to be made so in a short time.

    My stable, which includes two PX-10's, a Swedish road bike from the 60's and now the Somec, is rather unusual. There are six of us fanatics in this town of 45,000. But then, I am not really Finnish.


  3. Leo,

    During the first bike tour I did in Europe, I couldn't help but to notice how many people were riding older bikes like the ones you describe. I saw people old enough to be my grandparents who rode bikes that seemed to be as old as they were. Those bikes were tough. So were the people.

    As you say, those bikes were what people used to go to work, school, the market and just about every place else, and were made to last. How many of today's bikes will be in use fifty years from now?