Friday, June 20, 2014

Gone Postal

Pashley Postal Bike
When the postman stopped by with today's mail, I doubt he expected to find a two-wheeled ancestor of his delivery machine in my yard. Yet that is exactly what happened.

"Ever ridden one of these?" I asked.
He shook his head vigorously. "How old is this thing anyway?" 

Pashley Postal Bike
The machine - a rescue bike that found its way to me - is actually not very old by vintage bicycle standards. But its condition is rather dire - from the heavily rusted frame and components, to the missing original front wheel. Whether it can be revived I am not yet sure, but it is an interesting historical specimen regardless. 

Pashley Postal Bike
Since the late 1970's, Pashley Cycles have been the main supplier of bicycles for the Royal Mail, and it is only this year that the practice is ending. Over the decades, there have been several iterations of the Pashley Postal Bike, and the one in my possession is a "Millenium" model from the mid '90s. 

Pashley Postal Bike
The lugged diamond frame with a slight upslope to the top tube is built around 26" wheels with fat tires. A carrier rack bolts onto the lower and upper head lugs and holds the plastic mail delivery basket. At the time this bike was made, the Pashley postal bicycles came in "male" (says so on the decal) and "female" versions. Later these were replaced by the unisex welded MailStar model

Pashley Postal Bike
One thing I've wondered about the postal bikes, is why they did not use the smaller front wheel design, so that the basket and load capacity could be made larger. However, the 26" front wheel design seems to have been standard with UK postal bicycles, even before Pashley supplied them.

Pashley Postal Bike
Until some time in the 1990s the postal bikes were built as single speeds with rod brakes. The Millennium model was introduced in response to the Royal Mail's request to improve the bike's handling and durability. At this time, the bikes were redesigned to have all-weather braking capacity, as well as to be sportier an more lightweight. Plastic mudguards, hub gears and brakes (3-speed SRAM - as Sturmey Archer was having production difficulties at the time), straight handlebars, and other small updates were introduced during this period while keeping the traditional lugged construction. In 2000 Pashley developed the altogether new welded unisex design, which they called the Pronto and  the Royal Mail dubbed the MailStar, ending the era of the classic delivery bike. 

Pashley Postal Bike
Since the Millenium postal bikes were designed specifically to be hardy and survive all-weather conditions, the excessive wear on this one suggests that it was left outdoors in the rain for prolonged periods of time - possibly after its  life as a postal bike had come to an end. 

Pashley Postal Bike
I am told a few people around here used to own decommissioned postal bikes and use them as farm bikes and pub bikes. Seems pretty consistent with the state this one is in.  

Pashley Postal Bike
Too bad, as it could have been a lovely surviving example of the mail-by-bike era, as well as of the classic delivery bike.

Pashley Postal Bike
If I can get it ridable, I would love to know what this bicycle feels like on the road - especially with the amount of weight a postman would typically carry. Assuming the frame has not rusted through, as far as functionality the bike requires a new front wheel, new tires, new saddle, possibly new handlebars, and a front brake system. 

Pashley Postal Bike
But everyone who's cast their eyes on it so far has suggested restoring it from scratch - sandblasting and respraying the frame, sourcing period-appropriate decals, and so forth. It is an excellent idea (and Pashley is willing to help, judging by the conversation I've just had with them). And though I am not sure I am the right person for such a daunting project, I'll try to find someone who's into it, and see what can be done with this bicycle. 

Pashley Postal Bike
The era of the postal bike may be ending in the UK. But, according to Pashley, the Royal Mail operated the largest carrier bike fleet in the World - and so, for a while at least, the postal bikes from decades past will find their way into civilian use, both local and distant. And in various states of alteration and refurbishment, the bikes will live on and ride on, their baskets filled with groceries, work bags and supplies, sometimes even with letters and parcels. 

32 comments:

  1. That bike is supremely hott. Definitely worthy of some time and attention, and a few bucks to get it functioning.

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  2. Right now seems a strange time for the "era of the postal bike" to be ending. What has changed? The houses etc. are in the same place. The same mail has to be delivered. People don't want to ride bikes anymore? I beg to differ.

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    1. The road.cc article linked in the post sheds some light on this, explaining differences in the way mail is delivered now from before.

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    2. Hmm... looks like you could ship your rusty bike to Malawi, if you wanted to.

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    3. Oon, The post has changed remarkably in the 20 years since this machine was on the road. WalkSort junkmail didn't exist, the majority of the load was letters. The majority of delivered mail is now small packets as we shop more online and our communication is almost exclusively electronic. There are also a lot less staff in RM. Vans are now positioned in key places and staff deliver to the local area from these vans.

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  3. It's not end of an era. I live in London, and regularly see the orange TNT bikes (They look like this.)
    delivering post.

    When I used to ride on my orange bike a tiny fleet of TNT posties thought I was one of them, yelling at me in Regents Park to follow them...

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    1. Nice. Looks like these bikes are rebranded Pashley Prontos as well. Don't remember seeing these around when I lived in England.

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  4. I was in a bookshop recently and was flicking through a book called "My Cool Bike" and there was a chapter about someone who had come across one of the Royal Mail post bikes shipped out to Africa, so they shipped it over to the US where it appears to be a big hit with NY hipsters...

    I can't recall if they needed to do much restoration and I'm not sure I could recommend buying the book as it was all too achingly hip for me, but maybe worthwhile reading that bit if you come across the book.

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  5. Ten seconds search finds this: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Pashley-Post-Office-Cycle-Bike-Vintage-Restoration-Project-Royal-Mail-/121363446124?pt=UK_Bikes_GL&hash=item1c41d3396c

    Much better condition. First look says it only needs basic TLC. Patinated as opposed to worn out. Other post bikes show up on search. Yes, these will usually be collection in person only. Travel time and expense would be small compared to effort and cost of restoring one that is expired.

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    1. That is a fine bike for someone who lives in Cambridge, England. And as you note, there are other postal bikes from different eras for sale in the UK as well.

      Personally I was/am not looking for a postal bike; this one found me.

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  6. Dang, the rear stays on that thing look like it was dredged out of a canal!

    Your friends in the airframe maintenance and motorcycle/bike collector fields can surely point you the way to budget blasting and painting services.

    If the frame tubing isn't perished...

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    1. "airframe maintenance and motorcycle/bike collector fields…

      One of my friends, who is into all of the above, does this stuff himself and may want to refurbish it. I'm half sure the thing is rusted beyond salvation, but we'll see. Would be nice to find a used but functional spare wheel & brake parts though to at least ride it down the road a bit.

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  7. Interesting how the load carrier is bolted to the frame and not the fork. I wonder how it handles with a load -- please report.

    How heavy are typical mail loads on these bikes? Probably pretty heavy; I pick up my mother's Post Box mail a couple of times a week (rear loading, though) and, thanks to endless junk mail, even a week's worth for one person is sizable.

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    1. According to the frame decal, the max front load is 16kg (35lb). That's actually not a lot; a typical Dutch bike rear carrier is rated for 40lb or more.

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  8. Another vote for restoring the bike! I am so happy to see posts like this one return to your blog as a regular feature.

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  9. A couple of 'ifs':

    If this bicycle was made in 1999 or earlier, the gear hub manufacturer's name would still be Sachs, as SRAM only took over the bike parts production of Sachs in Schweinfurt/Germany in 1999 (the hub production there was finally closed down in 2011).
    If the drum brake actuation lever is stamped with 'SRAM' this may be an indication of a later replacement (in German postal service typically the complete brake unit was (and is) changed out when the brake pads are worn).

    If you decide to have this bike restored, I may help out with a used Sachs front drum brake of the same silver-greyish apearance as the rear hub if you (or the person in charge of the refurbishment) would cover delivery costs from Germany. The drum brake hub in question is mechanically in a good condition, the grey-silverish paint is not perfect but acceptable I guess.

    If Pashley used stronger spokes on the front wheels of these bikes I could offer a set of 2,34 mm spokes suitable for a 26" drum brake front wheel (255 mm long) from a German postal bike of the same vintage in good condition which I am ready to donate for a good cause also. ;-)

    Matthias

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    1. The rear hub activation arm is stamped SRAM. The shifter, on the other hand, is a Sachs. As you say, the rear hub may be a replacement. Please email me at filigreevelo at yahoo.

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  10. A great project! And I love the shot of the dog playing ball in the background of one photo, very cute!

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    1. Cute, unless you're trying to take photos and he seems to feel the ball will be helpful in this situation and insists on putting it next to the bike again and again : )

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  11. It's actually a remarkably elegant bicycle. It's so laid back and stretched out, if you get it fixed up mechanically, I'll bet you hardly feel the road. It would be a lot of work to restore; I wish I was over there to help you. Some of the replacement components will cost next to nothing, especially compared to what you've used on your other bikes, although as a project it still won't be cheap, assuming it's possible. But Matthias sounds like he could be a great help with particular parts.

    It will turn out awesome if it's restorable, and especially since it's Irish, its name is a no-brainer (although you might have to explain why to your American friends): Patrick. Or Pat, for short... :) "Postman Pat, Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his black and white cat..." You could teach the cat that was skulking around Lady Huck in your previous post to ride in the basket – and call it Jess! :)

    If you don't restore it 'as is', you could still paint it Post Office Red and put the Irish for Royal Mail – "Rioga Phost" – on the downtube, in yellow Celtic lettering... I figure that would look rad.

    This is still the ultimate post bike, though, built by Biria (Matthias will have seen these 'in person'):

    http://cargocycling.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/picture-1.png

    Someone could live on that bike!

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    1. Leaving aside the pesky matter of having no money at the moment, I have to admit that I've rather enjoyed *not* buying bicycle parts or taking on any projects over the past year. Funny enough, I've spent the past several weeks renovating every room in my house - from lifting rotten carpet and refinishing the floors to peeling ancient wallpaper, and plastering and repainting the walls - and this has been a lot of fun. But the mere thought of restoring a little bike exhausts me. Just never got into bike DIY I guess, though I love photographing and showing others' work.

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  12. May I offer another voice of encouragement for restoring the bike? Even if a stay is rusted out, a competent frame maker can replace it with a new tube. The sandblasting is not hard to do, and the painting and decals should be doable given Pashley’s willingness to help out.

    I recently bought an old (mid to late 70s, I think) Masi from a neighbor’s estate, and took it to a bike shop in Seattle that specializes in old bike restorations. It was rusty, although not as badly as your postal bike, so needed to be repainted with new decals. It wasn’t cheap but it was a heck of a lot less than a new Masi would have cost! And I’ve always wanted a Masi, ever since I began riding seriously back in the 70s.

    I hope you either restore it or find someone who can. Those old bikes are worth the effort.

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  13. If you let the rusty ones follow you home they will breed in the shed.

    At different times I have been the town dump for old bikes. I have the boxes of interesting parts to prove it. I have boxes of useful parts too. And useful bikes and exciting bikes have come my way. Let them all in -- no one has that much storage, no one has the time to fix them all. Most scrap metal is just scrap metal.

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    1. Yeah. When a local friend told me people leave old bikes outside his house, since they know he is into them, I thought he was joking. But now the same is happening to me. I've redistributed a few already and am keeping others until they find the right owner. But I'm hoping it won't get out of hand!

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    2. That's started for me, too. It got out of hand very very quickly when I found myself making new replacement pawl springs from scratch for a 70s Sturmey Archer SC3 3-speed coaster brake hub.
      I have already said Enough.

      Your Postie might be younger than the newest bike here, which was made in 1982.

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  14. I have an earlier pre-Pashley Post Office bike made by Elswick possibly 1960's or 1970's which I've owned sine the mid-90's. Clealy they were manufactured to a standard pattern as it's practically identical to the 1983 Pashley.
    Given the single speed, rod brakes and a frame which feels, quite possibly, filled with lead, I have to say it rides far better and more comfortably than it has any right to do. The sheer weight flattens the road and the low gear makes for a surprisingly easy ride. I regularly used to commute 14 miles on it without fatigue. I've carried heavy loads on the frame mounted rack, which in raising and shifting the centre of gravity forwards induces a peculiar handling sensation that is tricky to put into words but actually makes for quite a fun ride; you must try it!
    Although it's as conventionally English in design as you can possibly get the westwood rims are Dutch, the chain West German and the handlebars and front hub Japanese. This perhaps suggests a rolling maintenance and replacement programme which sourced (presumably) cheaper foreign components at a time when the giants of the British cycle industry were beginning a terminal decline.

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  15. The dog appears to be excited about this week's England vs. Costa Rica match in the World Cup. Finally, my own inventory of bikes to be fixed-up/restored is shrinking. Four have gone out the door since last summer, and only one "new" acquisition within the past year. Oh, wait. My wife just bought a beautiful Litespeed Ultimate with full Dura Ace bits. She's really taken a shine to road cycling.

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  16. Wish the bike was here in the colonies. Have a local shop called Groody Brothers Bicycle Restoration project that could fix it up. The sandblast, and powercoat the metal. Get period pieces and decals, etc. They do great work. People from all over the states send them projects.

    https://www.facebook.com/GroodyBros

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  17. Here's my son and bike after having Groody Brothers repaint an 80's Bianchi. He found the bike in a thrift store and rode it for years until an accident bent the chain stay. Had the stay replaced and then the bike repainted.

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  18. forgot the link.
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152236487789919&set=pb.185783299918.-2207520000.1403635731.&type=1&theater

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  19. I have a few of these bikes (it's a bad habit). I have one with sturmey archer gears and steel wheels, one with sturmey archer gears and aluminuim wheels, and a step through - my favourite - with steel wheels and sachs gears. I tend to stick big apples on them and such like.

    I would love a 3 speed double top tube one which you rarely see.

    The funny thing is that most of them have a very bad paint job. I assume they are liberated from the Post Office and then disguised.

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  20. I have a couple of these. One I was given by the local Royal Mail sorting office as they were about to throw it out. (They had a policy of dumping them after 7 years' use.) The other I bought recently - a double top tube 3-speed version. As Anonymous says, they hardly ever come up, so when one did appear for sale I jumped on it.

    These 3-speed Millennium Royal Mail bikes ride OK with the front basket, and that basket will carry a good heavy load, although the load tends to bounce up and down. It is a bit weird to turn the handlebars and the basket not turn with them, but it makes for a solid carry.

    So, they do work OK with the basket and frame attached, and if you have a need to carry heavy stuff then they're useful for that. But with the front carrier attachments removed these bikes ride very well indeed. They are still quite heavy but they don't feel it. Properly serviced and set up they are responsive and nippy, and ride almost completely silently. No rattles, no squeaking brakes. A very solid and secure-feeling ride. Very rigid frames I guess. They feel 'quick' rather than 'fast', if that makes any sense. If you are not happy with the gear ratios then that can be changed easily and cheaply by swapping the rear cog. (You can use a a 3/32" chain rather than 1/8", as both chainwheel and rear cog are 3/32".) And they ride off-road very well too, with their wide tyres and hub brakes. Best to remove the front mudguard for off-road use to stop it getting broken.

    I loved the smaller single top tube bike, but it was always too small for me really, and my wrists would ache after a few miles due to the flat handlebars being too low, so I was excited to find the double top tube version. That fits me much better and rides very well. It needs a bit of a service but it will soon be a fine machine.

    I completely stripped and rebuilt the first one (single top tube and steel 26"x1.5" Westwood wheels), found one worn bearing in the rear hub, totally failed to find a replacement bearing for it, so packed it with grease and rode it. It still rode perfectly.

    Finding spare parts for these things is the biggest problem. Especially cables. I am going to strip down my old single top tube bike for parts so I have some spares, and I shall be dumping the frame. Not sure where in the country you are but you would be welcome to have the frame. It is in better condition than yours, although ten years of daily use by RM Posties is always going to leave its marks. The forks are slightly bent so the bike doesn't ride straight with no hands but otherwise rides very well. Probably easy to straighten the forks. Steel is very forgiving.

    Generally speaking, rust on the outside of bike tubes is not a problem. It's the rust on the inside you need to check for, especially at the bottom bracket area, and also apparently on these bikes just below the joint between the top tube and the seat tube. (The bike mechanic at my local Sorting office told me they had to check for rust there after a number of years.) If I ever strip a bike down again I will spray the inside of the tubes with Waxoyl or Dinitrol to protect against rust, and possibly use a 2-part epoxy paint like Jotamastic on the outside. (Rustbuster.co.uk sell it. It works very well on steel that can't be 100% de-rusted before painting.)

    Anyway, best of luck with the project.

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