Thursday, April 30, 2009

Racycle Frames

“There are two things in the make up of every Racycle frame that are not always considered in the manufacture of bicycles—honesty and common sense.” --Racycle catalog, 1901.
The following discussion of Racycle frames is offered as an example of the high quality build of Racycle bicycles and as a means to summarize some of the production changes and unique features of Racycle frames.
Frame Tubing and Construction
Racycle frames appear almost svelte compared to the heavy frames of most bicycles of the late 1800s. The catalog illustration at the top of this post is a cut-away view showing the method of pinning the frame tubes to the intersecting joints, which reach far down the inside of the frame tubes. The joints were then brazed.
To illustrate the effort and fine materials that went into constructing a Racycle, a narrative description of the manufacturing process was included in the 1905 catalog. The frame department occupied an area 200’ by 50’ in the basement of the three-story Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company factory in Middletown, Ohio. “We shall start in at the further end of the basement on Grand Avenue where peculiar machines cut the 1-inch, 20-gauge seamless tubing into proper lengths. Proceeding along the north side of the building, we pass a long row of benches where busy workmen are putting the head, seat post, and other connections into the tubing, which, when rough shaped, are carried over to the forming machines to be drilled, wired, riveted, and made ready for the noisy, sputtering brazing tables on the south side of the room. Here brawny artisans ladle molten brass around the red-hot joints, turning and twisting their work to make sure that the brass penetrates to the end of each reinforcement.”
In 1897, a wide variety of frame configurations and styles were offered. By 1901 the line was standardized with respect to frame geometry (only the Racer and the ladies’ models were obviously different), and the tandems had been discontinued. The frame geometry of the 1901 models was described by the maker as “practically the same as they were last season, with not quite so much drop to the crank hanger.”
The Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company continually improved the Racycle frame. The 1901 catalog lists 1 and 1/8-inch (1.125”) diameter, 22-gauge tubing on all models except the Racycle Racer, which was built of 1-inch, 20 gauge tubing. By 1904, all Racycle frames were constructed of the smaller-diameter (1 inch) and thicker-walled (20-gauge) tubing that had first been introduced on the Racer. At some point between 1905 and 1908, slightly thicker 19-gauge tubing was introduced throughout the Racycle range, but the diameter remained at 1 inch.
Seamless English tubing was introduced in top-end models in 1908 but appears to have been quietly dropped in favor of tubing that retained the same specifications without the cache or expense of English tubing. The 1908 sales literature described “weldless English steel tubing and drop-forged heads, fork crowns, and seat-post clusters.” As testimony to the strength of its frames, the same brochure includes photos of ten men on a single Racycle and America’s heaviest bicycle rider with his Racycle roadster, which was a standard production model.
Catalogs from 1910 and later do not mention English tubing. For instance, the 1913 catalog describes the frame material as “19-gauge cold-rolled seamless steel tubing. All joints are heavily reinforced with extra long reinforcements of the fishmouth design and are carefully brazed together by the immersion process, which unites the frame as nearly as possible into one piece.” “Frame connections are made of extra-heavy gauge stock.” The Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company claimed that the use of these materials in the manufacture of Racycle frames “…Represents a new era in bicycle frame construction that has never before been approached.”
Frame Colors
We usually see Racycles in black, which was the standard color for most all of the production run, but it appears that they started out much more colorful. For instance, black paint was not mentioned in the 1897 advertising. Instead Racycles were supplied in carmine (red), with royal blue supplied on a couple of the lower end Racycles. By 1901 (and perhaps a couple of years earlier) black was the standard color.
The 1901 catalog mentions that other colors and striping were subject to a two-week delay. However, custom colors were available on only the top-end Racycles; the Roadster (Model 64) and the Taper-Head Chainless (Model 67) were available in black only. (Yes, there was a shaft-drive Racycle for a few years around the turn of the century.) Similarly, the 1905 catalog indicates that you could order your Racycle in whatever color you wanted if you were willing to wait an additional two weeks and if you sent in “a piece of silk in the desired shade…attached to each order as a guide for our enamellers.” It seems there was no extra charge for the custom color, but an extra charge would be levied for “full nickel frames, combination colors, (on Model 105 only) gun barrel blue, or rims enameled to match.” This seems to have been the company policy from about 1900 to 1910, after which catalogs did not refer to custom colors but instead offered one or two selected color options.
From about 1908, the Pacemaker and other top-end models were standard in “gun blue” or black. Catalog descriptions suggest that “gun blue” was probably a paint color that looked similar to a gun-blue metal finish like on firearms. For instance, the 1913 catalog description for the Pacemaker lists color “No. 1 translucent gun blue” as the standard color on this top-of-the-line machine. An option was No. 4 black.
From 1910, a few colors followed translucent gun blue onto the Racycle pallet, but black endured as the standard color. Garnet and blue were listed as options on the Tourist and the ladies’ Pacemaker, and color options on the Rideabout and the Roadster were limited to blue and garnet, respectively.
To its credit, the Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company made a real effort to build high-quality frames for the Racycle line. The design, materials, and construction techniques were first rate for the day and probably did much to help legitimize the maker's claim, “buy the Racycle and you will have the best; there are no cheap Racycles.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Norton Model 7 Restoration Part 2: Return of the Dominator

The story is set in a steel industrial building, a shop I share with friends next to Seattle’s Interbay rail yard….
Restoration Plan
My 1950 Norton “Dominator” is only my second motorcycle, and it was my first attempt at restoring a motorcycle. So I’m in no position to offer advice about how to undertake such a project, but I have read that you should have a restoration plan. My plan was not to restore the bike at all. I just wanted to get it running but could not.
Once it was obvious that Plan A had failed, I resorted to Plan B, which was to restore the machine as a number of major assemblies so that I wouldn’t have too much of it apart at any one time. First up was to finish a rolling frame including the suspension, wheels and brakes. Next would be the engine and gearbox, then the sheet metal, and then everything else.
It might have been quicker to restore the whole thing at once, but it would have been significantly more difficult to afford. Parsed out over three years, the cost of the restoration was easier to take. Plus it would have driven me nuts to have the bike completely apart all at once. The world already has too many boxes of greasy parts that would be viable machines if not for their well-meaning owners having disassembled them into their constituent molecules.
For the most part, I followed my secondary plan of restoring the machine as a series of major assemblies, but there were plenty of excursions. For instance, I started restoring the fuel tank (part of step three) long before even disassembling the engine (step two). In the end, my timing was good; I started the engine the day after I got the tank back from the plating shop. But that coincidence says more about the slowness of the plating shop than it says for my ability to see the future or plan for it. The second picture here is from the night we first lit it off. The drain pan was needed to catch oil from the crankcase breather as the bike had wet sumped a bit in the two weeks or so since I had installed the oil tank.
A Few Mod Cons
I restored the old Norton to ride it. So, with reliability an issue, a few modern conveniences crept into the restoration. For instance, I installed a solid-state voltage regulator for the charging system, figuring that the solid-state unit would be less apt to melt the generator or boil acid out of the battery. I upgraded the crankshaft main bearings to a Commando-type roller bearing on the drive side and a ten-ball main bearing (replacing the original eight-ball bearing) on the timing side. But I really cheated when I installed a belt primary drive inside the “Norton Oil Bath” primary-chain case. It’s quiet, will seldom need adjustment, and eliminates one oil leak. There’s no oil under it because there’s no oil in it.
There were other items that I returned to their original specification for the sake of what I consider the sport of the restoration. It might be easier to buy a wiring harness than it is to make your own, but it’s a sporting challenge to research what were the original materials, procure them, and build the whole thing yourself. Plus, only you can make it all fit just so. I even fitted the unusual KLG spark-plug leads and spring-wire retaining clips that Norton used to supply. The brass ends of the high-tension leads are clipped to the plugs—completely exposed—like a Frankenstein motoring accessory. There is no provision for keeping out rain or any other source of incidental shorting. Returning after the inaugural ride, I reached down to shut off the fuel, fumbled around, and mistakenly found one of the KLG terminals—I nearly jumped right off!
It would have been simple enough to use later parts to improve performance with greater engine displacement, an alloy cylinder head, and bigger brakes, but that approach would have subverted one of my goals, which was to learn what this motorcycle was like in 1950, small brakes and all. So the old Dominator still has only 500 c.c.s and 6.7:1 compression under its original cast-iron head, and it still relies on 7-inch single-sided brakes. Surprise, it gets along just fine.
I suppose that with any British bike, fasteners are a challenge. Not only is the Dominator held together with the usual mixed bag of thread pitches (Whitworth, British Standard Fine, British Association, and British Standard Cycle), but they were all originally finished in satin chrome, not cadmium. It took me ages to research what the metal finish was, how to replicate it, and to finally prepare all the parts for plating. I suspect that Norton used satin chrome because it’s almost bullet proof (if done correctly), and since wrenches don’t mark up the fasteners, they are less likely to corrode than if they were cad plated.
Fixing the chrome-plated fuel tank actually went fairly smoothly once I figured out how to start. I cut it in two along the welded seam where the bulbous outer skin joins the rest of the tank. With the tank cut apart, I had complete access to the rust and dents. I was able to sandblast the interior and weld up some cracked seams in the lower portion that forms a saddle over the top tube of the frame. I spent evenings and several weekends (perhaps six) knocking out the dents. Dents in curves are relatively easy to make look good; the difficult ones are those in the flatter areas.
After a friend TIG welded it back together, I filled most of the rust pits with silver solder, then sent it off for plating. I should have spent more time soldering the rust pits; in the end, I had the tank nickel plated four times (wet sanding each time with 400-grit paper) before the last of the pits was filled and it could finally be chromed.
I try to do my own work, but I also know to pick my battles. I turned to specialists for straightening the frame, rebuilding the generator and magneto, welding aluminum and cast iron, machining, and pin striping. I had the engine’s reciprocating parts dynamically balanced at Hill Machine in Ballard. Also, I bought a new reproduction of the original carburetor, instead of trying to repair the cobbled-together mess that came with the bike.
Every project has its setbacks. The first time I got it on its wheels, I wanted to test the patented Roadholder forks. So I leaned on them good, but they didn’t compress. Finally I leaned forward and pulled on the front rim while pressing my chest against the steering damper knob. That did the trick—the Roadholders gave suddenly, but I lost my balance and the bike and I went to the floor. I resolved to never again work past 1:00 AM. The forks were apart the next day to repair damage to the sheet metal gaiters, and when I put them back together I made certain the fork legs were parallel so they would not bind.
A few months later, the finished frame and suspension were on a rolling table when the Nisqually earthquake sent everything to the floor. On the way down, the Norton left a pretty good reminder of itself on the back of my friend’s Ducati Elite, narrowly missed his Facel Vega, and only nicked my old Sunbeam sports car. By the time I got to the shop to check out the damage, one of my fellow tenants had placed the frame assembly on a blanket on the floor. The bike was laid on its side in case there were any aftershocks. I’m sure that was the kindest treatment the bike had ever received. The forks had sustained cosmetic damage that was similar to what I had done to them earlier. They came apart again for repeat work on the sheet metal gaiters.
And then, from across the street, there was the old cabinetmaker: Coast Guard Dave. This was the character who had given me my first motorcycle, but the gift was contingent upon me getting it running. (There’s something about that deal that still seems strange.) The bike was a ’66 Honda Super Hawk that had been left under a bench for 12 years with a seized engine. Dave rode mostly Triumph, AJS, and Harley. The Honda was something he had bought for his wife, but that was before the divorce.
Coast Guard Dave figures into the Norton restoration for two reasons. First, Dave was a walking repository of archaic knowledge, which he shared freely. For instance, as soon as he saw the old Norton, he insisted that I borrow his 1953 edition of Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, certainly one of the world’s great literary works and a true asset to the project. He also insisted that I balance my wheels the old-school way by wrapping the spokes with solder. Dave was emphatic that I immediately drop everything and go over to his shop where he gave me the sacred remnants of a small roll of all-lead (no tin) wheel-balancing solder. To my untrained eye it looked just like any other old roll of solder.
Another time, after setting up his metal lathe to let me turn some half-inch rivets that would secure the rear brake drum to the hub, Dave proudly produced (and insisted that I use) an assortment of rivet mandrels and strangely-shaped bucking bars to finish the job. When Dave wanted to help, you had to let him. As it turned out, Dave’s strange rivet mandrels and bucking bars were just the thing, which was typical.
The second reason Dave figures into the restoration is because he would always come into the shop, pull up a chair, and proceed to distract me. Often several times a day. Whatever you had, Dave used to have two of them, only his were works racers. Blah, blah, blah. He told me about the time he crashed his Triumph Tiger, got the kick-starter through his leg, and how the muscle tissue looked like cooked vermicelli. Then there was the one about his alky-burning Matchless that would have been stolen if it hadn’t broken the leg of the poor bastard who tried to start it. In the lifeless world of the Interbay industrial area, Coast Guard Dave was omnipresent, whether you liked it or not—kind of like the help he offered.
Dave died a few years ago at the ripe old age of 53. Dave’s death was a tremendous blow. For a long time I could not take apart anything without leaving behind enough information for someone else to put it back together. And the solitude of the shop definitely has its down sides. Without Dave’s distractions and interruptions (“come over to my shop for a minute—I’ve got something to show you”) weekends at the shop became very, very, long indeed. The second half of the Dominator project felt very different from the first half.
Once the bike was together, I rolled it across the street and took a few photos of it in front of Coast Guard Dave's old cabinet shop. Now the building is gone too, but two of my shop mates salvaged some of the timbers as it was being demolished. And so the past lives on.