A long-overdue project on my docket is to restore a vintage bicycle that belongs to my fiancée's grandfather ("Ba"), so I decided to get to it in time to make it a Christmas gift.
Ba's bike is a Gazelle Sport A, made by Royal Dutch Gazelle which was established in 1892 and remains the largest bicycle company in the Netherlands. Ba tells me he purchased it in 1968, when he was posted to Brunssum while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces; the bicycle's serial number indicates that it was manufactured two years earlier in 1966, making it just over half a century old. Afterwards, the bike relocated with the family to Ottawa for a time, hence the license plate dated 1974. As a side note, bicycle licensing is a municipal matter, and while I wasn't able to find more on Ottawa's historical by-laws, I learned that Toronto mandated licenses from 1935 to 1957, and other Canadian cities including Calgary and Regina had similar regulations (the latter didn't officially repeal their by-law until 2015, but had ceased enforcing it years ago).
Having sat in Ba's basement for a number of years since, the bicycle was in need of some work, though I can't call it a full restoration (a term some will reserve for a comprehensive effort to return a vehicle to its condition rolling off the factory floor). I passed over a few elements, including re-wiring the connection between the generator and the front and rear lights, and replacing the chain case (more on that later). And instead of the original cream-coloured tires, I opted for a pair of Michelin World Tours with white sidewalls against black tread, which I thought lent a sharp "tuxedo" look.
The biggest task in this restoration was to re-polish and wax the frame. Since the bicycle was manufactured in the 60s, its paint application would have been a single stage of enamel or laquer (unlike modern two-stage applications with a coloured base coat and a clear top coat). This older method of application was softer and more prone to oxidation, and it was certainly the case here—under layers of greasy dust was a paint finish that had a cloudy, hazy appearance and even a slightly gummy consistency.
Many automotive restoration techniques apply similarly to bicycles, the main caveat being that the layer of paint on a bicycle is less substantial than on a car. In the refinishing process, rubbing and polishing compounds work by actually removing an outer layer of paint, so it's important to tread even more lightly here. I was particularly concerned that some of the details in gold—which look hand-painted!—would wear off with even the lightest of rubbing; luckily, a bit of polish only made the lines shine brighter. I also shined up the chrome components with Brasso and jeweller's products, although I stopped short of sanding down any deeper scratches or gouges, which are especially apparent on the part of the handlebars that would normally rest against a wall.
There aren't many broad surfaces on a bicycle, so the most satisfying areas to polish to a mirror-shine were the metal fenders, and the headlamp housing
The other major mechanical task was to overhaul the bearing assemblies. There were crushed bearings in both the headset (which allows the handlebars to turn) and the bottom bracket (which holds the spindle for the cranks), a sign that a lower grade of bearings was used, where different grades reflect the roundness of individual bearings, and the consistency in size between multiple bearings. Ball bearings serve as the interface between two surfaces (called "races" because the bearings run along them), so when some bearings are larger than others—even by a fraction of a millimetre—the larger balls lodge the races further apart, preventing them from making full contact with the other bearings. Instead of a load distributed amongst as many as 24 balls in an assembly, it's carried by the few that are largest until they disintegrate.
While any bearing surfaces gradually wear down over thousands of kilometres of riding, crushing failure can happen fairly quickly, and not necessarily from extended use. As such, the races were surprisingly smooth—they weren't perfect, but the bearing fragments hadn't had a chance to wreak too much havoc. I repacked each assembly with fresh grease and new Grade 25 bearings (in any batch of this grade, the maximum variation in diameter is 0.0006mm!) which is standard for all but the most exacting of bicycle applications.
On the other hand, the Fichtel & Sachs Torpedo rear hub was in very good condition. A coaster hub is one where you brake by backpedalling—they're such elegant mechanisms and always a pleasure to rebuild.
There were some casualties, namely the original chain case (along with the integrated rubber rack straps, and those annoying leather "hub shiner" strips on the wheel hubs). Royal Dutch Gazelle invented the fully enclosed chain case, which goes by the term lakdoek kettingkast ("laquered cloth chain guard"), although it looks to me like a kind of vinyl. It has a rather intricate system of attachment employing clips, snap buttons and a wire along the bottom, but at the end of the day it's a slip cover that has to be lightly stretched over the armature. Unfortunately, the material had become cracked and brittle, making it impossible to remove intact unless something drastic was done (like unstitching and restitching the top and sides!)
Replacement cases are still available, but I opted to forego it completely. I'm not a huge fan of chain cases--as a mechanic, I think the most beautiful part of a bike is the drivetrain, and I like to see it! Instead, I compensated by installing what I think is the prettiest single-speed chain around, the fully nickel-plated Wippermann Connex 108. It looks a bit quirky for the chain case armature to remain attached, but I see no reason to remove more original parts from the bicycle than necessary.
It was all ready to go by the tree on Christmas morning.
As a testament to its timeless styling, Gazelle still makes a version of this bicycle all these years later, the Tour Populaire (https://www.gazellebikes.com/usa/bikes/tour-populair/). The intervening years have introduced several substantial changes: the wheels have increased in size from 26" to 28"; the drivetrain is available with a 3- or 8-speed internally-geared rear hub; a front dynamo hub replaces the "bottle" or sidewall-driven generator of old for powering front and rear lights; and both front and rear hubs contain hand-operated drum brakes within.
Do you have a bicycle you'd like to give another life? Feel free to get in touch with Jack at Roundabout Bicycles for a chat. At Roundabout's, you can always expect complimentary advice in a friendly environment, so you can learn about your options, consider them freely and make decisions that work for your interests and budget.