Monday, October 22, 2012

Echoes of Bikes Past: Yamaguchi Mixte

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
At a gathering of vintage bicycle enthusiasts last week, I spotted this unusual machine and made my way toward it through the sea of French constructeurs. "Aha!" said the owner, "I brought this one especially for you to look at." Yamaguchi Bicycles, Japan. Year, model, and history unknown. Not collectable. Not worth much. Not of interest to many. But what attracted me was its surprisingly elegant combination of design elements not usually seen on the same bike: a mixte frame, roadster geometry, 26" wheels, rod brakes, full chaincase. The colour - straddling the border between beige and mauve - reinforced the theme of blending.  

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Despite its obscure pedigree, the Yamaguchi was a hit with the vintage collectors; there was just something about the way everything harmonised. It also "looked light" despite weighing over 50lb.

Shimano Trigger Shifter, Yamaguchi Bike
From a historical perspective, an interesting feature of the bike is the very early Shimano 3-speed trigger shifter. I have never seen one of these before, and could not find examples online allowing me to establish the date of manufacture.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
As far as frame construction, it is neat how they kinked the right lateral stay so that it would clear the massive chaincase, then routed the shifter cable and dynamo wiring along that stay. 

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Another interesting thing is how thoroughly branded this bicycle is: Every part of the frame, many of the components, and even the bolts used sport the Yamaguchi name.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Yamaguchi fender ornament.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Yamaguchi cranks, including dust caps.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Yamaguchi saddle.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Noticing a decal that mentioned motorcycles, I incorporated that into my search and found mention of a company that went out of business in the late 1950s. This could be them. Later a reader posted a link to a Japanese blog showing some photos of Yamaguchi "Gold" roadsters, which is the only other significant mention of the brand I've encountered so far.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Over the decades, bicycle manufacturers all over the world have come and gone. Some of them have left a mark in history and others disappeared without a trace. The Yamaguchi roadster-mixte is in the latter category, which makes its elaborate branding and unusual design all the more intriguing. Did the manufacturer have plans for this bike to become popular, or was it merely a promotional item for their motorcycles? How many of these were produced? How did this one make its way to the US? These things we may never know.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Recently a friend and I were talking about all the new bicycle brands popping up on the market today, and speculating which of them will last. History suggests that most will not. But maybe now - with all the forum chatter and other electronic traces of things - we will be left with more detailed records of the brands that disappear. Stories of failure are just as historically significant as stories of success, and it's a pity these stories tend to get lost. Trying to reconstruct them is one reason I like finding obscure vintage bikes.

31 comments:

  1. OMG I want that bike!!! Is it for sale?

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  2. I just discovered Japanese bicycles through this blog Mama Bicycle -- there are some amazing, unique bikes designed for carrying children, made by Bridgestone, Panasonic, and other companies you might not have known make bicycles! http://mamabicycle.blogspot.com/

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    1. The "mamachari" culture in Japan is fascinating. Basically these can be any sturdy step-through bike with a childseat or two attached.

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    2. Mamacharis, for what I see, tend to have a longish wheelbase, longish tt for the upright seating position, short short stem, hi rise very swept back bars to accomodate the child's seat mounted in between the grips and out of the knees' way, and longish chain stays.

      But that's just what I see in virtual-land, what do I know.

      I wish this were 650b...it'd be so much more suitable for d2r2...

      Also this Yamaguchi is not to be confused with the other famous frame guy Yamaguchi.

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  3. I understand the advantages of better documentation, but I think the future sea of digital records will also create a loss. In my opinion, a big part of the appeal of the Yamaguchi is the mystery that surrounds it. Lacking information, we can only know it through its form, and I find that very comforting and attractive.

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    1. "...a big part of the appeal of the Yamaguchi is the mystery that surrounds it. Lacking information, we can only know it through its form"

      That too!

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  4. You are so lucky to live in a part of the country that is awash with these bikes. Thank you for taking the time to document them.

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  5. It's definitely a 1950s design, earlier in the decade I would say. Seems influenced by American cars of that decade to me, a lot of Japanese design was post WWII. It's gorgeous!

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  6. Sure looks like a fun bike.

    I have several Italian fender ornaments from the late 30s onwards. It would really be look neat to get some Japanese ornaments. Hard to find in the U.S. though.

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    1. The bike I rode in Austria had an awesome 1950s fender ornament. A driver once commented that it made the bike look "important."

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  7. So, what should one do with these old bikes? I've got a Lambert, which went out of business in the 70's and I'm not sure what to do with it anymore....Thinking of giving it to the local used shop which will strip and powder coat it and fit it with usable components for lower income city residents. Gone will be all the great decals and pride of showing it off, but on the flip side is the thought that it has a new life and use....

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    1. Quite the dilema.

      On the one hand, it is sad to think only those bikes from the day produced in massive quantities or sold at astounding prices will retain posterity.

      On the other hand, with no place to store them the clear need for repurposed bikes is certainly hard to pass up.

      Perhaps just take a lot of pictures, throw them out into the internet and hope enough people notice and save the pictures the Lambert will retain some piece of posterity, however obscure.

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    2. Matthew, indeed! My twenty years of riding this has produced lot's of thumb's-up from those in the know...I'm trilled and fortunate to make use of this lovely bike. But I'm also happy to know that it will be made available to someone new who has no clue of it's history.

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  8. I've not seen a crank like that before, is it just a cover over a cotter pin?

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    1. Yes, it's a decorative cover over the cotter pin.

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  9. Some cool ideas there on that bike!
    If you look closely, the front brake is a kind of hybrid between a rod-brake and a cantilever- it uses the big stirrup as a spring, rather than two little coil springs on the brake arms. I've seen some Sunbeam bicycles made before WW I that had brakes like that. The rear is the typical band brake you see on a lot of Mamacharis.

    Some of the Japanese city bikes of this era were just amazing.

    CK

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  10. Love the fender ornaments. All bikes should have them. I mean ALL BIKES with fenders. I especially like the ones that look like zeppelins.

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  11. I've got a shovel. It does it's job but won't last long because I leave it out in the weather. I should have taken better care of it since it was so wonderfully useful in my gardening efforts and it will be a bummer to replace. Some of those massive plants would not have come out without it and, oh, I especially love the red handle. The lug work is simple. Oh well, I'll find another.

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    1. It's heartening to know that the lugwork is simple. Too many shovels these days are over the top IMO.

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  12. Equally interesting from my perspective is the fact that all the branding type appears to be in western lettering, whereas there seems to be a kanji-based decal on the front fender with some instructions.

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  13. It's really amazing, to me, how much difference it makes that the Yamaguchi was well taken care of, has good paint and seems to still have all it's branding detail. The same bike without it would look like a junker, to be casually discarded with trash on the curb.
    When I was taking bikes apart for recycling at a local bike co-op I was struck by how many of them (heavy department store bikes with one-piece cranks, steel wheels, etc.) were still perfectly rideable, though heavy as sin and twice as ugly. Bikes, even cheap bikes, last a lot longer than we need them to.

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  14. Hi Velouria, sometime ago I saw this youtube video of some gorgeous Japanese roadsters http://youtu.be/ngzXfK7YZH8. The one at the beggining has the same ornament on the front fender than this rare lady beauty. Looks like it was a registered detail of Japanese bicycles. Greetings from Santiago, Cris

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    1. Hello,Cristián et al. The same person-who posts those youtube videos- has a blog, and also recently posted pictures of a Yamaguchi bike. http://chikutakurinrin.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2012/07/photos-from-fel.html.

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    2. Wow thanks! Interesting that this did not show up on the search engines. I will link it up in the post here.

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    3. Thanks for the site link! and thanks Velouria for your wonderful blog. I'm the proud owner of a Pashley Roadster Classic thanks to your review! Cris from Chile

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  15. Great post. Beautiful bicycle, love the color.

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  16. That grey pink is the only pink I really like. Gorgeous bike!

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    1. Secure in my femininity, I choose bold: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8453/8028073760_648169ee11_z.jpg

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  17. I didn't know if you had seen this, so I pass it along: https://cabinetcardgallery.wordpress.com/category/bicycle/

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