Saturday, January 31, 2009

Racycle Production Years

When were Racycles built? It’s a valid question given how long they have been out of production, the dearth of Racycle information, and the confusing later introduction by Westfield of normal-looking bicycles with a Racycle head badge.
Racycles were built by the Miami Cycle Company of Middleton, Ohio. The company identified 1896 as the first year of Racycle production. That much is certain and is consistent in a variety of the factory’s own publications.
But determining when Racycle production stopped is more difficult. I have seen Racycles and Racycle catalogs from 1913, so it is safe to say that they were in production that late. But the trail would seem to go cold at the end of 1913.
Enter Fred Fisk, who wrote a brief history of the Miami Cycle Co for the May 1989 issue of “The Wheelmen.” For his history, Mr. Fisk’s research included the resources of the Middletown Public Library, at least one collection of ephemera, as well as information from a Middletown historian who had written about the town's industrial history and the Miami Cycle Co. in particular. Mr. Fisk’s article included a photograph of catalogs from Miami and Racycle for 1916 and 1918, so maybe production continued through 1918 and perhaps even later. Mr. Fisk concluded that Racycle production ceased in 1924, but he did not cite his source for this conclusion.
Even if there is some uncertainty about how late the Miami Cycle Co. produced the Racyle, what is certain is that they had given up by 1925. In that year, Westfield Manufacturing Co., makers of Columbia bicycles, published a catalog advertizing “Racycle” bicycles built in their Springfield, Massachusetts, factory. The Racycles in Westfield’s catalog illustrations look like standard bicycles without the large sprockets and widely-spaced crank-hanger bearings that had characterized the Ohio-built Racycles. I will leave it to others to research and report on the Westfield-built Racycles, but various sources suggest that Westfield used the Racycle name periodically from 1925 into the 1950s.
If I had to keep it short, and it pains me to do that, I’d say that Racycles were built from 1896 to about the early 1920s, perhaps as late as 1924. By 1925, it appears that Westfield Manufacturing had bought the Racycle name and was using it to sell their products, which had no obvious connection to the original Racycles built by the Miami Cycle Co. in Ohio. These conclusions are subject to change as more information becomes available. Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shelby "Cadillac" circa 1938, Pt. II

In an earlier post about this same bicycle, I introduced it and mentioned the various influences for the color scheme and paint pattern. This is my artful project, and it was very refreshing after so many projects where the main objective was to make a machine look factory fresh with all the original parts, finishes, and colors. The only objective here was to produce something interesting using influences and parts that were contemporary to the bicycle. I'm posting this little story because I hope it might inspire someone to build a road-worthy mongrel out of a bunch of disused parts.
This project took shape over the cold months of 1998 and '99 from a series of swap-meet finds. It started with the pre-war Shelby frame, which came with a seat post and crank set and a long history of abuse and neglect. Rust was blistering an old coat of grass-green house paint, and the middle frame tube had broken free from the seat tube. Clearly no one would complain about what I might do to this mechanical corpse. The fork was also a pre-war Shelby item, but had come off a girl's bike, so it had a longer steerer tube than would fit in this boy's frame, but I could cut it down to size. The wheels came complete with an old (circa 1940s or '50s) set of Western Auto middleweight tires. Compared to typical balloon tires, middleweight tires are narrower (1.75-inch wide) and run at higher pressure (45 psi), so they roll easily and make for a much faster bike.
I tried to keep the total purchase price as close as I could to $100. Even after the pedals and stem, I wasn't too far over until I had to have those very cool flat handlebars.
The repair work was fairly straight forward. To repair the broken frame, I ground out all of the brass and welded the joint. It wasn't pretty, but it was nothing that some time with a grinder wouldn't fix. The stem was rusty and gouged from crashes and pipe wrenches, but what I couldn't grind or file out I was able to fill with silver solder. A fabricated brass bushing took up the wear in the horizontal pivot of the sprung fork.
Compared to other sprung forks, Shelby's "Shock-Ease" hardly looks like a sprung fork at all because the design hides the spring inside the steerer tube. It's an interesting solution that is visually elegant but not particularly good. To absorb impact, the lower portion of fork moves forward. This action compresses the hidden spring, which returns the fork to its original position, but it's like leaning into a punch. When assembling the contraption, I cinched the spring down nice and tight so there is minimal easing of the shocks. That suits me fine.
The finish on the fasteners is dull chrome. From what I know about electroplating, this is essentially hard chrome applied like decorative chrome but at a higher temperature and amperage. The appearance has a dull sheen like you see on micrometers, and it makes for a very tough surface that wrenches don't mar like they will cadmium or zinc plating. This was the fastener finish used by Norton on its motorcycles from around the late 1930s until the early 1950s, and I thought its understated, function-over-form sophistication suited this project well.
The black-painted wheels and the absence of fenders are meant to give the impression of a light-weight machine built for performance, not glitz. But without fenders, where do you attach the pretty red rear reflector? (Irony intentional.) I tried out some arrangements at the seat-post clamp before settling on hanging it off a fabricated bracket that I attached to one of the original drop-stand pivot holes.
The cranks, sprocket, and seat post are gun blued. The only difficult part of the process is getting the metal clean and smooth enough for the process to work. Rust had already stripped the chrome, and sand blasting, grinding, and sanding took care of the rust. I bought a bottle of gun bluing solution for less than $10 from a gun store. The guy behind the counter (at the gun store) said he had yet to sell gun bluing to a gun owner--only hobbyists buy the stuff. I would have laughed, but I didn't want to make any sudden moves.
I found it can be cheap and fun to make a usable old bicycle from cast-off parts. I even learned some new skills.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How to Disassemble a Racycle Crank (1896 through 1910)

The Racycle is one of those rare bicycles that warrants attention for its technical interest as well as its sleek looks. The principal technical feature of the Racycle is its unique bottom-bracket bearing and crank assembly. “The Racycle crank represents the only mechanically perfect crank construction that has ever been used on a bicycle….” So claimed the Miami Cycle Company in their 1908 Racycle catalog. Future posts will discuss what the perfection was all about, but here we are concerned with taking that mechanical perfection to bits to inspect or repair it.
Below are instructions directly from the Racycle catalog, in this case 1904, but the basic procedure appears to have been the same from 1896 through 1910. At the end of this post is a little bit about the thoroughly redesigned crank hanger that appears to have been first introduced in 1911.
Before you put this information to use, please read it at least twice and study the pictures, because the instructions are not entirely easy to follow, and there is the potential to get it very wrong and break an unobtainable piece: the connecting bolt. This square-headed bolt has a LEFT-HAND (reverse) thread, which means you have to turn it clockwise to loosen it. If you turn it counterclockwise like a conventional bolt (or if you know only digital clocks, so you are flipping a coin to see which way you’ll turn it), you are going to break the bolt. This will get the crank apart, but you’ll have to do some careful drilling and fabrication to get it back together.
Here are the manufacturer’s instructions, circa 1904:

“The machine should be turned upside down, so that it will rest on the handle bars and saddle. In dissecting the crank hanger, insert the pointed end of the crank bolt wrench (from the tool box) into the two holes in the cover nut on the right hand side and turn to the left, the nut being screwed in with a right-hand thread; this will loosen the cover nut. After taking out this nut remove the lock-nut on the opposite side, in the same manner; then place the socket end of the wrench on the bolt which holds the cranks together and turn to the right (not left). This separates the two cranks and they can be removed without taking the chain apart or interfering with the ball cups.
“On all Racycles both the lock and the cover nuts must be taken out before the improved connecting bolt can be removed. This connecting bolt has a left-hand thread, and must be turned to the right, otherwise the head of the bolt may be twisted off and would have to be drilled out.
“To remove the ball cups, loosen the clamp bolts on the lugs of the bottom bracket, and then unscrew the cups; this will expose the copper oil tube and the cone sleeve.”
Regarding the 1911 and later crank hanger, it appears that the connecting bolt was done away with in favor of an axle shaft to which the crank arms were attached in more or less the post-modern conventional way. I have very little information about this late-production revision except this page from a 1912 catalog.

Each crank arm appears to have been located to the crank axle with two short pins. Each crank arm is retained with a lock nut that had a conventional right-hand thread. In the center of the lock nut is a lock screw that the catalog says is LEFT-hand (backwards) thread. Thus, it’s still possible to tighten the parts that you want to loosen. Viva la difference!

The 1913 catalog does not describe any backwards threads. Indeed, from the 1913 illustrations, it appears that a spring lock washer was used under each lock screw, and perhaps this was done in order to finally abandon left-hand threads.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

1966 Honda CB450 Super Sport

When I picked up this machine in 2006, it had not turned a wheel since about 1974. The seller told me that it had been given to his father, who had since passed away. The seller’s late father had been a heating-oil salesman in Bremerton, Washington. He spotted this Honda sheltered under the eaves of a customer’s garage, and when he asked about it the homeowner said he could have it.
Further discussion revealed that the bike was not exactly the homeowner’s property to give away, but the guy who DID own it, the guy who had crashed it in the intersection in front of the garage, the guy who had said he would come back and get it, never did come back, and now the bike had leaned against the garage for most of three years. The homeowner had had enough, so the heating-oil salesman took the CB450 home gratis. The seller remembered that his dad got it running once using the bike’s electric starter hooked up to a car battery, but it had not been ridden since it was dropped in the intersection and left for dead.
The years that this bike spent dormant had been relatively kind to the machine, because both parties had the presence of mind to store it out of the weather. However, whoever it was that walked away from the bike in 1974 had certainly thrashed his money’s worth out of it. On the rear tire, only traces of tread remained on its outer edges. The chain was so worn that it dragged on the swing-arm pivot, and one of the rollers had broken. Consistent with this treatment were the custom touches: lopped-off fenders, tall handle bars, and lots of road rash. This motorcycle had been thrown down the road more than once. Here is a photo of my friend Chris trying it on for size on the day he helped me bring it home.
Getting the engine running involved some disassembly and a lot of checking, adjusting, and cleaning, particularly the carburetors and fuel tank. It was running in a month.
Riding it around the block, I discovered that second gear was shot. It would not stay in gear because the gear-engagement dogs were worn. I bought a spare engine and gearbox assembly from a local wrecking yard ( and swapped over the necessary transmission parts. Having the crankcase apart provided the opportunity to clean out the old oil sludge and bits of metal.
Finally it was back on the road and running well. I took it to a local race track (Pacific Raceways, Kent, Washington) to watch the vintage motorcycle races (Sounds of the Past racing series). At lunch time they let older bikes ride around the course following former AMA champion Gary Nixon, who was riding a vintage (and borrowed) Triumph triple. So it was that three days after the machine was licensed for the road, I was caning it around a road-race circuit. Foolhardy, yes, but terrific stuff.
Six weeks after that thrill, the CB450 was back where it started--crashed--when an elderly woman turned her Buick left in front of me.
That event put a damper on the rest of the season’s motorcycle riding. The woman’s insurance company was very good about the incident, and even compensated me for my new Arai helmet that got scratched up, but it took most of two months to get the settlement. During that time I had to leave the bike in its as-crashed condition. Once the settlement was reached, it was just a matter of a new headlight, a fork rebuild (with used fork stanchions from Bike Salvage), and a few evenings spent fixing the dented tank and the various bent up levers and foot rests.
The bike is up and running again. I have a good set of fenders and side covers that are ready to paint when the weather gets warmer.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Racycle Models

The Miami Cycle Company typically produced six different Racycle models each year. The information I have suggests that the company denoted models with letters (for example Model P for the Pacemaker in 1898 and Model R for light road racer in 1899) before switching to numbers in 1900.
The Pacemaker was the top-of-the-line model from its introduction, which I believe to have been in 1898. The Pacemaker is instantly recognizable by its gigantic 40-tooth (1-inch pitch) front sprocket. A variety of rear sprocket sizes was offered, but the standard gearing was quite tall. (I intend to investigate Racycle efficiency claims and engineering in future posts.) Second in line in the catalogues was usually the Racycle racer, at least until about 1913.
In the product hierarchy, the Pacemaker and racer were followed by variants that all carried a 30-tooth (1-inch pitch) front sprocket and had apparently identical frame geometry. These other Racycles—that is, the other four models that were neither Pacemakers nor racers—were differentiated mainly on the basis of their equipment, such as hubs, handlebars, and saddle.
However, sometimes there were fairly significant differences among them. For instance, in 1904 an improved crank hanger was introduced, one that the catalogue noted was not available on the three lower-ranked Racycle models. Although the next year’s catalog announced that the company had decided to include the improved crank hanger across a broader range of models, it remained unavailable on the least-expensive model. Similarly, when the Pacemaker crank sets were forged from vanadium-steel alloy in 1908, the material was offered as an option in only the next two lower-priced models (the racer and the Racycle roadster). Vanadium-steel cranks were not available in the women’s model or the two least-expensive Racycles.
I have very little information about 19th century Racycles, so this next bit pertains only to those constructed in 1900 and later. Some Racycles had a model-number badge affixed to the head tube above the head badge, but it seems that others did not. The model numbers contained either two or three digits. The last digit denoted the position in the model hierarchy, with 0 (zero) the highest (the Pacemaker) and 5 the last in line. From my review of several catalogues, it appears that the preceding one or two digits of the model number denoted the year of manufacture—not the calendar year but the number of years since production commenced in 1896. Thus, the 1900 models (built in the fifth year of production) were numbered 50 through 55, the 1905 models were numbered 100 through 105, the 1910 models were 150 through 155, etc.
If you have information about Racycle model numbering prior to 1900, or can shed light on whether Pacemakers carried model number badges above the head badge, please feel free to share.


In researching the Racycle bicycles of the Miami Cycle Company, the information I have available to me is limited to advertisements, brochures, catalogues, one Racycle, an extra crank hanger, and a few photos of extant machines. It makes for a fair stack of stuff, but it is not entirely comprehensive. Thus, there are sure to be factual errors on this web log. I will try to minimize these errors, but they are bound to exist, however unintentional. I offer my apology now.
Where the printed sources have conclusive statements, I will usually take the company at their word and accept the statements as facts. Examples of such statements include when production started, how many Racycles they produced in a given year, when certain improvements were introduced, what materials were used, what accessories were provided with which models, etc.
Where I state conclusions that are based on my own research, I will qualify these as less than certain. An example is my conclusion that the model numbers correspond not only to the hierarchy within the product line but also to the specific year of manufacture. Since a conclusion like this is based on my review of my available sources, be aware that it might one day be overturned by new information or ideas.
Fair enough?

1950 Norton Model 7 Dominator: Introduction

Not the flashiest machine, but a solid one that's well engineered and has good road manners and the excellent Norton pedigree.
This bike and two other Model 7s of consecutive serial numbers were dispatched from Norton's Bracebridge Street works, Birmingham, England, on March 20, 1950, and were sent to Brockhouse Indian Sales, USA. Brockhouse was an English holding company that had recently purchased Indian Moto Cycles and used the Indian dealership network in the US to distribute a number of English-built motorcycles, chiefly Norton but also Royal Enfield, Vincent, and AMC machines.
When I purchased the Dominator in 1998, it had last been licensed for the road in 1974 in Minnesota. From the machine’s thoroughly worn out condition, it was obvious that it had been kept in service by a dedicated owner despite several setbacks (repaired rod through the case and crash damage) and lingering ailments (badly stress-cracked sheet metal and a broken spring in the rear suspension). During the restoration I did most of the work myself except for electroplating, machining, and aluminium welding. When I was younger, I
worked in autobody repair; the other skills I learned as the Dominator project progressed.
I returned the bike to the road in 2002 and since then have ridden it more than 10,000 miles. Nortons of this vintage really are fantastic machines. They are simple, fast enough, and reliable, and they handle well if you’re fearless (like works-racer Harold Daniell) or reckless (like me). In my opinion, the original 6-volt electrics and magneto ignition are entirely adequate if you use a solid-state voltage regulator (for example a PODtronics unit) and have your magneto refurbished with new armature windings and a new condenser.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shelby "Cadillac" circa 1938, Pt. I

At a bicycle swap meet I bought a pair of old wheels and tires and this Shelby frame, crank set, and fork. Note the characteristic Shelby frame design splits the top tube in front of the seat tube. The fork is kind of cool; it's an internally-sprung device that Shelby called "Shock-Ease." The bike has a nice art-deco head badge that simply says Cadillac.
Although the finish is more art project than restoration, all the parts are old except the Brooks saddle and reproduction handlebar grips. The silver and orange I chose because the color scheme looked good on Lindberg's Lockheed Sirius float plane and the Pan Am Clipper flying boats, aircraft that spoke for all that was speed and adventure between the wars. The paint pattern itself was inspired by another airplane, the Travel Air Mystery Ship, which was a successful air racer in the late 1920s. The cranks, sprocket, and seat post I gun blued, which was an interesting process like photo developing on steel.

1908 Racycle Model 135

Racycle had some interesting (or weird) ideas about how to engineer a more efficient bicycle. The large sprockets reduce the turning angle of the chain rollers, which is supposed to translate to less friction, and the crank bearings are spaced very far apart (actually in line with the crank arms themselves) in order to reduce the leverage on the bearings, and thus the friction, when pedaling. It all makes for an interesting machine, but it's not quite effortless. Note the very relaxed frame geometry and the unusual shape of the handlebars (both features typical of the period). All plating is nickel, not chrome. The rims are Lobdell brand steam-bent maple. It's a thrill to ride, but I really need to get a better brake in it; the New Departure Model A coaster brake is hopelessly feeble.

Racycle Introduction

Racycle bicycles were built by the Miami Cycle Company of Middletown, Ohio, from 1896 to about the early 1920s, possibly as late as 1924. I hope to share here, in futute posts, some of the information I have about Racycles, so watch this space! This image is from the back cover of the 1904 catalog and features Racycle's top-of-the-line model, the Pacemaker. Future posts will describe the source of the Racycle name, whether these were racing bicycles, why the sprockets were so large, and the source of the claims "It's all in the crank hanger" and "Easiest running wheel built." Remember, "a Racycle differs from a bicycle."


This web blahg is a means to share and compare information about various old machines that are of interest to me. One day it also might include posts about subjects that are not old, or are not machines, or are neither.