Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Stephens Bicycles of Southgate, London

Here is a Stephens from 1942.
And here's how it looks after restoration.
Stephen was a small manufacturer based in Southgate, North London. When the company closed (1956) its spares and transfers were kept in boxes. So it was possible to use original transfers in the restoration.
A very satisfying project, don't you agree?

As at February 2015, at least 25 Stephens bicycles are known to exist (including all those mentioned below), but they appear to be in the hands of just nine owners.

The most recent of these 25 to be publicised is a lady's touring model from about 1944. It belonged to an 'elderly lady originally from Southgate', according to News and Views, the magazine of the Veteran-Cycle Club (June 2012 edition, page 18).

Here is one of the other 24.
And another is a 1947 Stephens that Graham Wilson acquired. He has sent me the following photos. As you will see, it has an extraordinary seat tube (presumably intended to help shorten the wheelbase).
I was also contacted both by an anonymous gentleman who said he had a Stephens tandem and also recently by Peter Bowen, of Dorset, England, who acquired a Stephens tandem in 2002. It had previously belonged to an elderly Dorset couple.

Peter had thought it dated from the 60s or 70s but now knows it was a good deal earlier.

Peter and his daughter rode it in a time trial back in 2003.

Peter has sent me the following 2012 pictures of the tandem.
Peter says 'I expect it has been upgraded at some point due to 5 speed derailleur gears and Mavic wheels.  .... The tandem is a mishmash of bits and pieces added over the years....I think!  ....Serial number on the front shows B85.  ...Has been fitted with Suntour gearing but had to replace derailleur with a Shimano..   .... Front seat stem/rear handlebar stem is stamped  D.TAYLOR.  Perhaps pillion rider...'.

Peter would be pleased if anyone can supply further information.
And (on 7 June 2012) I was contacted  by the 1st Aldershot Scouts Group. They had acquired this Stephens for auctioning in order to raise funds for a good cause. (Its frame number appears to be 12652.)
But who was Stephen of Stephen's Bicycles?
Thanks to the researches of Roger Bugg, I now know he was Stephen Mitchell. After leaving school at about the age of 13, he worked for the Grandex Cycle Company in Gray’s Inn Road, London and then had a portfolio of jobs, including plumbing, before (with a loan from his father) he opened his first cycle shop. This shop was in Newington Green Road, Islington. In the mid-1920s, having maried a lady named Beatrice, Stephen manufactured B&S Cycles (Beatrice and Stephen). Stephen specialised in lightweight machines.

The Mitchells moved to premises in Chase Side, Southgate (North London) in 1938. Stephen personally designed and built all the Stephens machines (really they ought to be called Stephen's, not Stephens), each one virtually unique.

The range included tandems and tricycles.

Throughout his career, Stephen was also a cyclist and much involved with the local cycling club.

Stephen’s shop in Southgate was actually the converted ground floor of a large double-fronted Victorian house: toys were sold on one side of the main entrance and bicycles on the other. Mrs. Beatrice Stephens managed the toy department.

They sold other better-known brands of bicycle as well as Stephens, right up to 1956, when Stephen Mitchell retired, following a steep decline in sales.

Over about 30 years, Stephen had produced on average one bicycle every week, though considerably more at his peak in the mid-1930s.

Stephen retired to Sussex and died at the age of 71 in 1973.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Groupsets: What You Need to Know

Note: This was written and first published early in 2014, so some of the information may be a little out of date.
Groupset was not a word we used when I started cycling. But today cyclists talk of their ‘groupsets’; and the selection of a groupset for the perfect bicycle exercises their minds a great deal.
A groupset seems to comprise at least the derailleur gears, the levers to operate them, the chainwheel and rings and often even the braking system. A groupset may go all the way and include the hubs, pedals and chain - pretty well everything except the frame, forks, wheels, tyres, saddles and handlebars.
A Modern Groupset
Companies produce complete packaged groupsets, though the component parts can be bought individually; and very often parts are incompatible with those made by other manufacturers, so the idea is to keep you loyal to one brand.

I have no personal experience of the expensive modern groupsets, so all I can tell you is what I have discovered from reading about them.

There seem to be three principal manufacturers. These are:-

SRAM (American-based, and including Avid brakes and Truvativ cranksets). This was the company that in 1988 introduced the 'grip-shift' ('twist-shift') option for gear-changing. This company produces at least these groupsets: the Apex, (cheapest), the Rival, the Force (medium-price) and the Red (top-price); and it has separate mountain bike groupsets.

SHIMANO (Japanese-based). Its range includes at the lower end the Deore (available under £250) and rises through the Tiagra, the 105, and the Ultegra, to the expensive Dura Ace (over £1000). I may be wrong, but my impression is that Shimano prices tend to be lower than those of their rivals. According to the advertising, the a 105 groupset (at a little over £300) would be a good buy for many people: it claims to be durable and to incorporate the best technological and design improvements of more expensive groupsets while keeping the price lower by using more economical materials.

CAMPAGNOLO (the Italian-based company with a long history). Its groupsets include at the cheapest end the Veloce (over £300), and rise through the Centaur, the Athena (over £500), the Chorus, and the Record to the Super Record (over £1500).

New groupsets are appearing and others being phased out at regular intervals, so do not take my lists above as definitive.

And it is possible to 'mix and match', though it is wise to do so within the same brand, to stand a better chance of compatibility.

No doubt these groupsets have reached a remarkable stage of development and efficiency. You have only to watch serious cycle racing to see how reliable, light and slick they are.

Racing bicycles usually have brake levers and gear shifters integrated into a single unit. This is fine for rapid easy shifting, but the mechanisms are – I have read – expensive and hard to repair.

But – as a person who uses bicycles only for shopping, gentle riding and occasionally small-scale touring – I have to say that the groupsets seem to me to be far too expensive, almost throughout the ranges and certainly at the top end. As with so much advertising, I think there is a lot of ‘talking up’ of these bits of gadgetry in the cycling press.

If you bought just ONE groupset from the top of the price range from any of these three manufacturers, it would cost you so much that you could buy EIGHT complete new adult basic bicycles of the classic city type for the same money. Doesn’t that statistic make you think?

In my own case, I have three bicycles. The cheapest of them (my Halford’s 2004 Apollo) has Shimano equipment from the cheapest end of the range; and I can assure you it is very efficient. My 1966 Claud Butler Torino has an ancient Simplex front changer and a rear mechanism by Gian Robert. Both companies appear to have ceased production long ago, but the gear changing on my bicycle works very well. Here's the Gian Robert part.
Finally my 2006 Dawes Galaxy has sundry Shimano parts (with a range of reference numbers) comprising its groupset, though the rear mechanism (and therefore the general level, I presume) if the Deore, from the more modest part of the price range. It all works very well.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Beeston Canal and Beeston Marina

Me enjoying a picnic by the Beeston Canal.

What a lovely place for a cycle ride!

This is the Beeston Canal, which you can pick up right in the centre of Nottingham, by the Railway Station. And that's me taking a coffee break after riding only a short distance. Do you blame me? What could be more pleasant?

You can cycle the entire length of the Beeston Canal in 40 minutes. At its western end, it leads into the Attenborough Nature Reserve.

These are the sort of spots you pass through.
Canal on the right; Marina on the left.

Near the City Centre.
Even if there is a bite to the wind, what could be better than to head right out of Nottingham City Centre on Easter Sunday, using a traffic-free route alongside the River Trent?
The daffodils are in bloom and the Mighty River Trent is serene.
This off-road trail is very popular with cyclists, as you can see from these tyre marks.
After a time, we reach the Weir.
And then Beeston Lock.
A narrowboat is making hard work of it.
After this entertainment, we make our way to Beeston Marina, very popular with boating people, walkers and of course cyclists.
Once there, we head straight in to the excellent Boathouse Café, which has been our intended destination all along.

There, we can enjoy one of the best meals within a radius of 50 miles - the 'Marina Big Breakfast'. It's well cooked, well balanced and reasonably priced. And it's served by the hard-working, ebullient and ever-cheerful Tony and his staff.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Where the Raleigh Bicycle Factory Once Stood

Here is a an aerial view of the great Raleigh Bicycle Factory in Nottingham seventy-five years ago.

In the early 1950s the company was producing a million bicycles a year, for sale all over the world.
At its peak, the factory covered 76 acres and employed 7000 people. It must have contained hundreds of tons of powerful precision machinery.

Here's a frame being assembled.
Even the Design Section of the factory was a busy place.
But by the 1990s there were just 700 employees. At the end of the Twentieth Century, there had been a massive decline in sales and production was moved overseas.

The factory site, pictured above, was sold off.

What remains of the Raleigh brand today has been internationalised: the links with its Nottingham origins have been broken.

As I have lived in Nottingham for only eight years, I never saw the factory. But I love the bikes well enough to feel nostalgia for this once-great local industry. So I pedalled around the site to see what had become of it. I took the photos below.

The site is two miles due west of Nottingham City Centre.

A fair amount of housing has appeared, but much of the land is still derelict.
The only part of the Raleigh works still standing appears to be the formerly-grand front entrance (bottom left in the black-and-white photo at the top of this article) which now looks like this.
These engineering-related friezes and the 'R' symbol were Raleigh's way of impressing the visitor.

Heres' how the building was depicted in a Raleigh catalogue of the 1930s.
New uses seem to have been found for the building; and some small businesses have been set up behind it.
The view today from Lenton Boulevard
All this is at the eastern end of the site. But the western end (the top third of the black-and-white picture) has been bought by the University of Nottingham. It has been well landscaped and has become the site of some futuristic buildings; and - I'm pleased to say - it has included at least a small memorial to the Raleigh past.

I must say the University has made a good job of landscaping the area and erecting some interesting buildings.
An atmosphere created by pleasant walkways, waterfowl, birdsong, lakes and fountains must be conducive to study.
Dominating the landscape and visible from far away is the sculpture called Aspire (= A spire). This is 8 metres taller than Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, and three times taller than The Angel of the North. (For overseas readers, the Angel of the North is a remarkable sculpture in the north of England, visible to thousands of motorists every day from the A1 trunk road.)
'But what is the point of this public work of art?' you ask. It seems to me to serve various purposes. Firstly, it commemorates the 60th anniversary of the University's receiving its Royal Charter. Secondly, its patterns symbolise (some say) the intricacies of lace. (Nottingham once had a great lace industry.) Thirdly, it is said to encapsulate predominant local colours (of the university buildings and of Nottingham's sandstone rock).

Fourthly - and this is the explanation I prefer - it pays tribute to the Raleigh bicycle company that occupied this land for more than a hundred years. It does so by using wheel and spoke motifs.
The sculpture cost £800,000 and the money was provided by an anonymous benefactor.

I was pleased to discover the landscapers have also provided a cycle track by means of which students and staff can move between this campus, the lovely Wollaton Park and the central buildings of the University which are a mile away on the other side of the Middleton Boulevard (the A. 6514). The cycle path is tucked away on the western boundary of the old Raleigh site and this is the view from it as you head away.

The University of Nottingham, which was founded in 1881, indeed has its main premises in landscaped parkland a mile away. The University has 36,000 students.

Nottingham University calls what it has created on this part of the former Raleigh site the Jubilee Campus. This campus also contains the 12-acre Innovations Park, designed to attract high-tech companies.
The lakes have been incorporated to lighten the landscape and attract wildlife.
And respect has also been shown to the former cycle industry by the retention of this frieze. It was recovered from the demolished wall of one of the original buildings.

And here's a little curiosity of history that I discovered when I was privileged to be taken on a tour inside Nottingham Council Building.
In one of the chambers, I was shown this table:
I was told it was a gift from the Raleigh Factory. This very table was the one used by the company's directors in their boardroom at the factory.

Obviously they had acquired it some time after 1900, because this 'boardroom' picture taken in 1900 clearly shows a different table.
What has become of the twenty acres or so left in the middle of the former site?

Linked with the University developments, there has been a good deal of housing construction (principally student accommodation in a 'student village', it seems). We cyclists must be pleased to see how the 'Raleigh' name has been retained.
But much remains to be done.
In the distance, you can see the Aspire sculpture over the University part of the site.

It's good to see the area's history still reflected in the names of back streets.
And through the railings can you spot that spire yet again?
I shall make an appropriate exit from this topic at Heron Drive and by showing you (from the Coventry Transport Museum's collection) some of the most characteristic bicycles made on this site. The heron, you may recall, was chosen to be Raleigh's logo.
A few years ago, what survives of the bicycle business was taken over by a Dutch company - Accell (makers of Batavus bicycles).

Yes, the whole Raleigh business was sold for a paltry £62 million - a sum of money that would scarcely buy 100 half-decent houses in Nottingham. Hard to believe, isn't it?