They don’t make ’em like that any more – and it’s probably just as well…

Tooled spine, decorated with gold leaf

Tooled spine, decorated with gold leaf

Yesterday I was looking at the window display of a shop specialising in vintage cameras and equipment, and was surprised to see this book among all of the camera-related items, which included vintage movie, cine and still cameras, as well as photographs, postcards and photographic accessories.

I used to collect books from the 19th century on big game hunting, and recognised it as a classic, written by the renowned explorer, hunter and adventurer Sir Samuel White Baker. The price was more than reasonable, and I bought it.

Marbled boards

Marbled boards

It’s a beautiful book, and is the second edition, published in 1891. (The first edition of 1890 comprised two volumes). It was originally presented in 1900 by A. D. Denning, then headmaster of Rugeley Grammar School, to A. D. Denning, presumably for excellence in nepotism.

Thanks Dad!

Thanks Dad!

But that’s just the covers; it’s the content which is truly remarkable by today’s standards. In the Preface, Baker makes a distinction between the “true sportsman” (himself, obviously) who “…studies nature with keen enjoyment and shoots his game with judgment and forbearance upon the principles of fair-play” and “The gunner…his one idea is to use his gun, his love is slaughter…to swell the long account which is his boast and pride”.  This brings to mind scandals involving game farms and hunting ranches of recent years. Whatever your opinion of big game hunting (and public opinion has changed hugely over the 125 years since the book was written) Baker wasn’t driven around in a truck and presented with a target: he learned about his quarry, tracked it on foot, and repeatedly put his life on the line.

The remainder of the book consists of a chapter on firearms suitable for game hunting, followed by twenty five chapters, each devoted to the hunting of a specific animal, and a Conclusion.

It’s that first chapter on firearms, however, which, for me, provides the most revealing clues about the man himself:  he was obviously a man of significant wealth, because he had rifles made for him by top gunmakers; he was intelligent and inventive, because many of these rifles were made to his design, and flew in the face of accepted design limitations; and he was evidently of above-average physique, because he routinely carried and used heavy rifles which fired huge bullets powered by massive powder charges.  A high-quality twelve bore shotgun of his day weighed less than 7 pounds; he recommended for elephant hunting  a 22-pound rifle with a 36 inch barrel, firing a half-pound shell containing a half ounce bursting charge of gunpowder, propelled by 16 drams (1 ounce) of powder.  By way of comparison, the standard twelve bore charge was 1 1/8 ounces of lead shot, propelled by 3 drams of gunpowder.

This advice seems rather ill-considered, bearing in mind that his own largest rifle, christened “Baby”, weighed 20 pounds, and fired a half-pound shell propelled by only(!) 10 drams of gunpowder. The recoil of this gun, according to Baker in another of his books, “…was so terrific, that I was spun round like a weathercock in a hurricane”.  To recommend a similar gun carrying a powder charge weighing half as much again, when Baker, who was of great physique and had had extensive experience using powerful rifles, admitted dreading firing his own rifle, seems curious, to say the least.

That notwithstanding, Baker as a man was almost a caricature of the Victorian adventurer: his exploits included rescuing a 15-year-old girl, who became his lover and then his second wife, from a white slave auction in Bulgaria; taking her on an expedition in an attempt to find the source of the Nile; leading a mission to the southern Nile to suppress the slave trade, again accompanied by his wife; being appointed Governor-General of Equatoria; and winning great renown as a hunter.

Makes today’s “celebrities” seem pretty feeble, doesn’t it?

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It breaks my heart but…

Seems a shame but they have to go.

Seems a shame but they have to go.

I promised to clear our loft, which is so full that it’s difficult to move up there. In the first load of stuff for disposal are these vintage tyres, British made, some of which may date from the 1930s. Some of them are unused, but all are now unusable, having deteriorated with age.

Tread patterns

Tread patterns

 

The front three tyres are John Bull Safety Speed, “with the safety ratchet tread”. The front two are unused. Harry Hill (no, not that one – the one who represented Britain in the 1936 Olympic Games, won a bronze medal, and had to cycle and then hitch a ride home on a lorry after he returned to England) used a pair of these tyres when he became the first man to cycle 25 miles within the hour in England in 1938.

It seems a shame to throw out tyres with this pedigree, but I can’t imagine who would want them. The amber walls have deteriorated into the typical sticky, and in my opinion, rather beautiful condition of tyres of this age, and they’re going to get worse as time goes by.

Sticky as a stick dipped in molasses

Sticky as a stick dipped in molasses

This is just an hors d’oevre for my next job: sorting out my twelve foot long run of vintage wheel rims. New Westrick rims anyone?

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When and where was this hairstyle ever acceptable?

Mmmm fashion.

Mmmm fashion.

Just bought a camera manual from the late 1970s/early 1980s, and this photo from the manual illustrates, for me, the difference between style and fashion.  Style is enduring, fashion ephemeral.  This guy almost certainly changed his hairstyle, and, hopefully, shaved off the moustache, although he might get away with it now if he waxed the ends.

Fashion is fine, as long as it IS ephemeral; back in the 1920s, a well-respected cycling journalist wrote that one should have as little bicycle as possible, by which he meant that it should incorporate no unnecessary weight.  This was misconstrued, and for some years thereafter, the fashion for riders of lightweight bicycles was to ride as small a frame as possible, with some six-footers perched atop a ludicrously-long seatpost, with a plunging drop to the handlebars.  Some manufacturers even limited the maximum frame size to 21 inches centre-to-top for some of their models.  Fashion changed, of course, and by the end of the 1930s a style of bike was established which changed little over the next 50 years.

However, it’s a bad idea to adopt something on-trend which isn’t easy to change as fashion changes. When the glow of looking cool turns to burning regret for many people in a few years’ time, I predict a roaring trade in tattoo removal.  My hot investment tip for today.  You’re welcome.

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And now for something completely different.

My interest in fine things mechanical isn’t limited to bicycles.  During the 1980s and 1990s, I collected, used and competed with firearms of various types until it was considered politically expedient to effectively ban the ownership of pistols and rifles by law-abiding, responsible private citizens, leaving them instead in the possession of criminals, terrorists and the police.  If anyone is interested in the effect this ban has had on firearms-related crimes, I would refer them to House of Commons Firearm crime statistics Standard Note: SN/SG/1940, dated 30 January 2012.

Before anyone decides to have a pop at me (yet again) on the grounds that banning them is  fully justified, since private individuals shouldn’t be allowed to possess potentially lethal instruments which can cause death or injury through incompetence or deliberate or negligent acts, and which may be stolen and used to commit crimes, I will say just two words: motor vehicles. Having got that off my chest, I want to make a couple of (light-hearted) complaints: First, when a person in a film opens a revolver, and swings out and spins the cylinder, why is it considered necessary for it to make a whirring noise?  I owned Webleys, Colts, Smith and Wessons and various other breech-loading revolvers dating from the 1800s through to the 1990s, and not one made any noise when doing this.  It’s as bad as the “Hollywood Sit-up”, which you must have seen many, many times.  This is when the character supposedly wakes from a bad dream, and immediately sits bolt upright in bed.  Not only does this not happen in real life, it’s become so cliche as to be laughable.

Second, will authors please do their research before writing crime thrillers, and stop confusing revolvers with automatic (strictly speaking, semi-automatic) pistols?  In particular, please don’t refer to someone releasing the safety catch on a revolver, as I’ve read many times.  They don’t have a manual safety catch, because (unlike automatics) their design makes a manual safety unnecessary.  See Handgun Basics for an excellent comparison of the two types in layman’s terms. Of all the revolvers I’ve seen, handled and owned, none had a manual safety catch.  Except for this one:

1911 Webley-Fosbery .455 calibre semi-automatic revolver.

1911 Webley-Fosbery .455 calibre semi-automatic revolver.

I apologise for the quality of the photo; it’s from a photograph I took about 25 years ago with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera.  This was one of two Webley-Fosbery semi-automatic revolvers I owned.  This one was the long-barrelled Target Model, and the other was a six-inch barrelled version which was the personal sidearm of an officer during the First World War.  (To digress, this officer gave the revolver to his son, Peter Bannister, who drowned when the newly-commissioned submarine HMS Umpire was accidentally rammed and sunk by a British trawler in July 1941).  I believe that the manufacture of these revolvers ceased shortly after the First World War. The Webley-Fosbery was designed by Lieutenant Colonel George Vincent Fosbery V.C., and manufactured by Webley.  You will see that there are zig-zag grooves in the cylinder.  A fixed stud on the lower frame (the lower frame being everything below the barrel, cylinder and trigger assembly) locates in these cylinder grooves.  The barrel, cylinder and trigger assembly (“the upper assembly”) can slide back in the lower frame against spring pressure, and as it does so, the stud rides in the grooves, rotating the cylinder for the next shot, and the hammer is also cocked in readiness.  The cocking process is done either manually, by pulling the upper assembly back, or by the recoil from a shot.  If the pistol needs to be carried so that it is cocked and instantly ready for use, then the safety catch can be engaged.  The safety catch is the lever which can be seen to the rear of the trigger, partially covering the upper part of the wooden grip.

These revolvers are capable of fine accuracy, and the great marksman, Walter Winans, performed some impressive feats of accurate, rapid-fire target shooting in the early 20th. century.  I used my target Fosbery with some success for competition shooting at club level against modern revolvers (I read many years ago that if you don’t blow your own trumpet, someone else will use it as a spittoon) and one of my targets dating from April 1987 is photographed below.  I have included a one pound coin in the photo to give an idea of scale.  This target shows a perfect score of 120 points out of a maximum of 120 from 12 shots.  This would have been from a distance of 25 yards, if I remember correctly.  I see from my annotation of the time that I was using ammunition that I had hand-loaded myself.  I used to buy coils of large-diameter lead wire, cut it into appropriate lengths, and pressure-form (swage) these lead slugs into bullets in dies which had been made to my own specification.  The term “HBWC” stands for “Hollow Base Wad Cutter”, basically a flat-nosed bullet with a hollow base, which cuts neat round holes the calibre of the pistol  in the target, making it easier to establish the score.  Round-nosed bullets make smaller holes than the actual bullet diameter, surrounded by tears in the paper, making it difficult to calculate scores.  The “265gr” refers to the weight of the bullet in grains.  9mm bullets for police and military use generally weigh between 115gr and 147gr, so the .455s are a substantial lump of lead.  The “3.3gr no. 3” refers to the charge of 3.3 grains of Number 3 nitro powder.

12 shots, perfect score, with Webley-Fosbery Target Model in April1987.

12 shots, perfect score, with Webley-Fosbery Target Model in April1987.

The photo is of the centre of the target used for “Police Pistol” competition, a mixture of static and turning targets from varying distances and times allowed to shoot the required number of shots for each stage of the competition.  The complete target is a representation of a criminal pointing a pistol directly at the shooter.  Because the figure in the target was wearing sunglasses, we used to refer to the target as “The advancing holidaymaker”. To illustrate my point about round-nosed bullets versus wadcutters, the following photo is of a target I shot with six rounds of the same calibre of bullet, .455, but with round-nosed ammunition.

Target shot with round-nosed .455 calibre ammunition.

Target shot with round-nosed .455 calibre ammunition.

I owned various revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, dating from the 1870s until what was then the present day, including three Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnums, but none compared with the beautiful workmanship and engineering and finish of the de luxe Webleys, as built for wealthy target shooters or officers who wanted something superior to the service-issued revolvers.  For those officers who could afford them, Webley made super-de-luxe models to The Wilkinson Sword Company’s exclusive specifications, which Wilkinson would retail under their own name to wealthy officers buying their swords and other equipment from Wilkinson.  When I was carrying out research into Webley revolvers, the Wilkinson Sword Company very kindly allowed me to view their collection of pistols and examine their sales ledgers in their sword museum in Acton, and the ledgers revealed sales to some very illustrious characters indeed; in a future post, I intend to write about a couple of them.

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The Joys of a Bespoke Bicycle (3)

So, we’d agreed on my broad requirements, and now it was time to discuss the project in detail, starting with the basic frame design.  The primary issues here were twofold: the type of steel to use, and whether it should be fillet brazed or lugged.

I had seen Darron build frames using both methods, and produce a beautifully cleanly-built frame in each case.  I love the elegance of a finely-finished lugless frame, but in this instance, I decided upon lugged construction, for which Darron would use silver solder.

As for materials, both Darron and I admired the chrome-plated Rene Herse bicycle on the front cover of Jan Heine’s “The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles”, and while neither of us wanted the frame to be chrome plated, we decided that a similar, but more modern finish could be achieved using highly-polished stainless steel tubing, and Darron proposed that he use Reynolds 921, which is easier to work than the top-of the range 953.  It would remain in bare metal, which, apart from aesthetic considerations, would display Darron’s framebuilding skills.

 

For the lugs, I proposed Fleur-de-Lys pattern from  Ceeway Bike Building Supplies, but Darron was reluctant, because he wanted to display my completed machine at Bespoked 2015, along with two others traditionally-influenced bikes for which he would be using the Fleur-de-Lys lugs.  He was prepared to use whatever I wanted, but in the event, we found some arrowhead lugs which I actually preferred, and we agreed on these.

Having considered these plans for a few days, we both came independently to the same decision, i.e., that polished stainless steel would be too flashy, and that a painted finish would be far more to our taste. The choice of tubing was amended to Reynolds 853 Pro Team for the main triangle, with Columbus seat- and chainstays because Reynolds don’t supply the profile Darron  wanted to use.  Fork blades would be Kaisei “Toei Special” from Compass Bicycles, because they are inspired by the Reynolds “Super Resilient” blades (no longer available) used by the top French Constructeurs, and are, in my opinion, much more elegant than those currently available for modern bicycles.

We then proceeded to consider components and accessories. (To be continued).

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The Joys of a Bespoke Bicycle (2)

Having decided to proceed with the project in Autumn 2014, we then needed to establish what form the bike would take.  I already had a brief list of essential requirements, which follows. 1.  The bike should be comfortable, with steady steering; I didn’t want something which would respond to the slightest input, as required in a peleton, but rather something which wouldn’t require constant micro-corrections to the steering, which I find fatiguing on a long ride.  I didn’t specify wheelbase, frame angles, bottom bracket height, weight, etc.  As far as I was concerned, I would trust Darron’s experience and skill to produce the riding characteristics I required. 2.  The top of the handlebar should be level, or nearly level, with the top of the saddle, because this was to be a bike for leisurely rides, not a racing machine, and because an accident 30-odd years ago had made me particularly prone to neck-ache if my head is tilted back for any length of time. 3.  The steering should be stable with or without a moderate front load, since I intended to use a large Gilles Berthoud handlebar bag. 4.  It should be built to take mudguards (fenders). 5.  It should be built for 42mm section  tyres, with ample clearance between the tyres and mudguards, to minimise the risk of mud and debris building up under the mudguard and jamming the wheel, something I’d experienced on other bikes with close clearances. 6.  It should be built for derailleurs, with 10- or 11-speed indexed gearing and double chainwheel.  Bottom gear should be around 27 inches. 7.  It should incorporate a rubber chainstay protector.

Rubber chainstay protector, AKA "chain slap guard".

Rubber chainstay protector, AKA “chain slap guard”.

8.  It should have brazed-on centre-pull brakes, such as vintage MAFAC Racers.  Cantilevers work fine, but to me, they look inelegant.  Disc brakes are great, but wouldn’t suit the aesthetic I was looking to achieve, which is basically traditional French randonneuse with modern, but appropriately-styled componentry.  For the same reason, I waned to use traditional MAFAC brake levers, rather than modern STI/Ergopower types. 9.  It should be elegant and classic-looking, with delicate steel fork legs, curved to absorb road shocks. I find modern carbon fibre and aluminium bicycle styling brutal and inelegant by and large, and also dislike the current use of straight fork legs on modern steel bikes.  I imagine that these are chosen for reasons of fashion rather than function, although I stand to be corrected on this. 10.  It should be functional as well as elegant, with no embellishments solely for reasons of style. 11.  There should be no compromise on quality of materials, components and accessories.  This didn’t necessarily mean using the most exotic or expensive items, such as carbon fibre components, but rather high-quality materials and well-built, well-designed and  elegant parts which would be durable, and perform well and reliably. All other details were to be subject to discussion. Darron was entirely supportive of this; even better, this was a bike he was really keen to build.  Over the coming weeks, we met frequently to discuss the design in minute detail, and my next post on the subject will describe what I found to be a most enjoyable and fascinating process. (To be continued).

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The Joys of a Bespoke Bicycle (1)

In 2013, a friend who lives in Wales asked me to pick up a vintage frame he had bought from an eBay vendor here in Weymouth. I was very surprised to find that the vendor was a frame builder, Darron Sven of Sven Cycles, since I had had no idea that there was a frame builder operating in Weymouth.

This was the first of many visits; Darron and I share many interests, including steel-framed bicycles both old and modern, mechanical watches and vintage cameras, and he’s a very friendly and interesting guy. I found it fascinating watching him work, and grew to admire his creativity, skill and workmanship, particularly since I sadly lack the latter. (I took woodwork in school, and achieved eight percent in the final examination. Many of the items I made had bloodstains from saw and chisel injuries, and anything designed with four legs would only ever stand on three at a time…).

I saw collections of tubing and parts develop into beautiful machines which will give pleasure for many years to come, including the bicycle which won “Best Touring Bicycle” at Bespoked 2014 and the road racing bike, weighing, if I remember correctly, about 6.5kg complete, and which is now owned and used by Darron’s better half for various things ending in “-athlon”.

I used to ride down to Darron’s workshop on various bikes from my collection, and on one occasion, he offered to build me a frame in exchange for the modern Bates I rode as my main bike.

2000 Bates Volante Italia

2000 Bates Volante Italia

I declined, since I wouldn’t have been able to afford the components and accessories to build the frame into a functioning bicycle, and didn’t have another bike suitable for use as a hack.

On another occasion, Darron made the same offer for my 1936 Raleigh Record Ace, which has paintwork and transfers in superb, original condition.  Again I declined, for the same reason.

1936 Raleigh Record Ace in clubman's trim.

1936 Raleigh Record Ace in clubman’s trim.

However, over the next few months, I became increasingly tired of riding the Bates with the high-pressure 700cx23mm  tyres, which were the largest I could fit and still have barely-adequate mudguard clearance.  The Bates frame, with its “Cantiflex” cigar-shaped tubing, is very stiff, and with hard tyres, I found the ride to be harsh and uncomfortable over longish distances.  Having ridden Darron’s personal 650b utility bike, and having read Jan Heine’s articles in his blog “Off The Beaten Path” (https://janheine.wordpress.com) and in Bicycle Quarterly, I tried to improve this by converting to 650b wheels and 42mm Grand Bois Hetre tyres (which can be seen in the photo of the Bates above) but this was a compromise, and the handling, previously superb, didn’t seem as sharp.  Moreover, the 42mm tyres stretched with use, and started to rub the chain stays, so I had to replace them with 38mm Grand Bois Lierres to obtain adequate clearance, a further compromise.

Incidentally, it would appear that frame stiffness, previously believed to be essential for best performance, may actually hamper speed as well as comfort.  See Jan Heine’s article in “Off the Beaten Path”: https://janheine.wordpress.com/?s=frame+stiffness.

Finally, I had the bright idea of offering both bicycles in exchange for a complete, ready-to-ride machine, and Darron agreed, so the planning commenced.  (To be continued).

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