Monday, June 2, 2014

Once There Were Vikings

Viking Superstar
Over the weekend my pal Bryan visited from Donegal, and he brought along his current daily rider - a 1970s Viking. Chances are, you've never heard of the rather obscure Viking Cycles. But around here they are not uncommon, as they were once produced in Derry, Northern Ireland. This reminds me of a request I've had from bicycle enthusiasts with an interest in the Emerald Isle: to talk about Irish-made bikes. Were there any local manufacturers back in the day? 

The short answer is that Ireland does not have a rich history of bicycle production. There was a handful of framebuilders active in Northern Ireland who made machines to order, and I've been gathering information about them with interest. But as far as manufacturers, large scale or small, my understanding is that there weren't any native to the island. At some point Raleigh opened a factory in Dublin, but they were a huge company with facilities all over the world. Viking Cycles, with their production exclusive to Derry from the 1970s until their demise, might be the closest thing to a local manufacturer. 

Viking Wolverhampton
Originally an English company, Viking was formed in 1908 (though this is debated) by Alfred Victor Davies in Wolverhampton. By the 1930s they were focused on "lightweights" and began sponsoring racing teams. 

Viking Wolverhampton
The beautifully lugged race bikes from this era were, by all accounts, of excellent quality, if not especially unique. "You're behind the times if you're not riding Viking!" the adverts from this period proclaimed. 

Viking Debbie
This went on successfully until the 1960s, when Viking began to decline and eventually folded, its remnants sold to Lambert/Viscount (UK/USA), then Trusty (USA), then possibly to a man named Roy Clements. What happened during this period precisely is not known, but by 1977 Viking Cycles re-emerged as a new company, with production facilities in Northern Ireland. 

Viking Debbie
Over the course of the year I've been here, I have seen perhaps a dozen NI Vikings, some as part of collections and others "in the wild." The description of these machines as "competent but uninspired bicycles" seems pretty much spot on. A couple of high-end, handbuilt models existed during this period as well, but examples of those show up very rarely.

Viking Debbie
The Vikings I've seen have been low to mid-range 10-speeds from the late '70s and '80s. The diamond frames and mixtes look well ridden, and by their owners' accounts were decent, no-frills bikes.  

Flourescent Viking
When exactly the Derry-based Viking folded is unclear, but production probably ended by the 1990s and officially the company was dissolved in 2012. Though the brand was hardly legendary, to local bicycle enthusiasts it is significant as a remnant of bicycle manufacturing in Northern Ireland.

Viking Superstar
The bicycle Bryan brought along is a Viking Superstar 5 - 

Viking Superstar
- a basic lugged road bike with a single chainring 5-speed drivetrain

Viking Superstar
operated by a single downtube shifter. 

Viking Superstar
This bike was rescued from the trash some years back, and Bryan nursed it back to health with some used replacement parts, including a Brooks Competition saddle, a rear wheel to replace the damaged original, and a set of 27 x 1 1/4" tires.

Viking Superstar
He replaced the original 46t chainring with a 40t to lower the gearing, and fitted some nice blue fenders. I thought these were Bluemel mudguards at first, but they are in fact a lower end alternative -  made by a Scottish company called Bantel. The rich vibrant blue adds some lively accents to the all- silver bike. 

Viking Superstar
In truth, to come up with much of interest about this machine other than its place of manufacture would be a struggle! But that's all right. It is a handsome bike, and a very ridable bike according to Bryan. He enjoys it as an everyday "user bike," as much as he enjoys knowing it was made just 20 miles from his house. Not many cyclists in Ireland can say that about their bicycle. 

For more information about Viking, visit the V-CC-affiliated Classic Viking Cycles site, as well as this history page from the Transport Museum. Bryan's photos of his bicycles and other things can be found here. The other Viking frames shown in this post come from this collection

32 comments:

  1. That Wolverhampton frame is nice. I like the paint scheme and the curve of the fork.

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  2. Was the single chainring common in UK and Ireland? I do not recall 70s era bikes available in the US setup this way.

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    1. I don't know about the 1970s, but when I toured Europe in 1967, most of the British cyclists I saw had a single front chainring and 5 gears in the back. I had three chainrings in front which caused the British cyclists endless amusement. "Hey, come here and look at the triple banger!" they would yell to each other.

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    2. Maybe it was. Certainly the 1970s bikes I've had here in the UK were all originally single chainring with 5-cog cassette... on bikes that otherwise remind me very much of the 10-speeds my brothers had in the 1970s in Oregon. I had no trouble sourcing a double chainring replacement for one of my UK-market Puchs, of exactly the same model/groupset as the original single chainring, so suspect both were readily available, just sold into different markets.

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    3. Anon 10:47

      In US market the most obvious would be Schwinn Collegiate and Raleigh Sprite. Plenty of others. The other obvious (if you were there and remember) fact is that while current single chainring drivetrains require layers of special purpose integrated finicky and quirky rigmarole all you had to do in the 70s was hang the parts on the bike and expect them to work.

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  3. "There was a handful of framebuilders active in Northern Ireland who made machines to order, and I've been gathering information about them with interest."

    Oh I look forward to that.

    Also, does this mean you are only interested in builders from Northern Ireland, or were there none South of the Border?

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    1. The latter. Although just because I've not found any, doesn't mean none existed.

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    2. I own a Gordon made in Hillsborough, the bike workshop I used to work in has a Eddie Rafter (Belfast) and a 1950's stone special track made in Belfast. There are also Donaldson's an a few others. I think the Gordons are the pic of the bunch.

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    3. This reminds me I have photos of a nice Gordon mixte that I keep meaning to upload.

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    4. Since the '80s, the only framebuilders I'm aware of in the Republic were Rapparee in Meath, named after an erstwhile highway man. They may still be on the go, but I'm not sure. They chiefly made racing frames, including many Softride beam bikes, but the odd touring frame escaped from time to time. Here's a racing example:

      http://thecyclingblog.com/2012/10/28/the-dream-machine/

      The other was Di Zecca, made by a German in Bray, IIRC. His output also mainly consisted of racing frames, and I saw a fair number of beam bikes from him too. Irish roads, sure don't y'know?

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  4. British builders often produced bikes in Northern Ireland because labor costs were lower and, because NI was part of the UK, there were no tariffs.

    I saw a few Vikings when I was in England. They are perfectly decent bikes but, as you said, not exceptional. It was rather ironic when they became Lambert/Viscount, as they were one of the few builders to make fillet-brazed (rather than lugged) frames.

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    1. This makes sense logically, but - and not to put you on the spot, but - which British builders? The ones I know of were all Raleigh sub-brands, and their production was in the Republic, not in NI.

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    2. Because of the protectionist nature of the economy in the beginnings of the Irish Free State right through to the 1980s, most imported goods were hit with high import duties to protect local businesses, many large companies had assembly plants in ROI. Raleigh did this, as did Elswick and I'm sure other bike manufacturers. Having a factory in a nearby and "friendly" neutral territory also allowed Raleigh to supply the home market after the Nottingham factory was commandeered for military use.

      It extended far beyond bike manufacture as Ford, British Leyland, Fiat and Renault (and probably others) all had vehicle manufacturing plants. The Irish Post Office used Renault 4 vans as they were built in Waterford under agreement with Irish government. CIE had their own coachbuilding workshops to build buses on Leyland and Albion chassis. The list of things built in ROI is endless and mostly forgotten nowadays.

      I am not aware of this having happened in NI to same extent. As part of the UK, there would have been no duties on goods imported from mainland Britain anyway and the NI market would have been very small.

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    3. The above was my understanding as well. According to the local collectors I know, there were no bike manufactures active in NI other than Viking and maybe a half dozen independent framebuilders.

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    4. When I first began working in bike shops during the 1970's, I saw some NI-maunfactured Raleighs. I also heard of Ulster-made Dawes, Elswick and other bikes with British marques.

      The explanation I gave in my earlier comment is one I heard from sales reps. I would also imagine that Raleigh might have turned to the NI because when the Bike Boom took hold in North America, the Heron as well as other makers struggled to keep up with the demand.

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  5. Belfast was a major manufacturing centre with ship building, aircraft and lots of other industry so it wouldn't be a surprise if this included bicycles but I can't say I've heard of any.

    One Irish link with bicycles is of course John Dunlop, inventor of the pneumatic tyre, although I think he sold out before the tyres went into mass production.

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    1. Today the Dunlop name is better known here in the context of motorcycle racing. At first I assumed it was the same family as the tyres Dunlop, but turns out there's no relation.

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  6. Replies
    1. Very nice.

      Viking seemed familiar to me when I stumbled on them on the "Classic Lightweights" site but I don't know how I would have heard about them. I know I've ever seen one for reals. I wouldn't leave me alone in a room with yours without making me empty my pockets first, I so covet that headbadge.

      Spindizzy

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  7. I had a Viking as a kid in the late 70's. It was a Severn Valley and was old when I got it, scavenged off the tip, built up with other tip scavenged partsand the odd new purchase like a Huret Svelto rear mech. 5 speed single chainring "race" bikes were very common.

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  8. Right hand controls the front brake and left hand control the rear: it's a clue of British assembly.
    I don't know if it's better or not.
    L.

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    1. Better sensitivity for some right handers, like me.

      Less chance of a brain fart going back and forth between motorcycles and bikes. After awhile, you don't think about it, it just happens.

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    2. It's not just British assembly L. Most vintage bicycles I rode in Austria were routed right=front, as well as Dutch bikes if I recall correctly. I set my own bikes that way as well.

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    3. Thanks! I've been reading in bulk these links and I will read another one with both my two eyes in detail, I promise.
      L.

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  9. Was Roy Clements any relation to Ernie; the British racer and later designer of Falcon bicycles?

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  10. The head badge on the yellow and white frame is in remarkable condition.

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  11. got I love bikes <3

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  12. I like the fact that your friend is riding that old bike around it's native landscape, it seems very correct that there should still be some of them working for a living in the area where they were made. Maybe the last one on it's wheels will be one that still lives around there.

    If the last Schwinn to roam the earth finally succumbs and collapses in the overgrown rubble that was Chicago, than all the misery and degradation of the last few chapters of Schwinn history will be redeemed( and a NEW CHROME wheeled savior of the AMURICAN BYSIKLE BIDNESS will arise and... well, that's probably too much to ask, but the old ones will likely outlast the Wal-Mart ones in any case...)!

    Long Live Viking.

    Spindizzy

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  13. An unspectacular but quality built bike can be your best friend. I never knew this brand existed. Thanks for bringing it to life

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  14. Hello Veloria,
    Viking used to have a large showroom in Victoria street in Wolverhampton. They were the largest bicycle manufacturer in the town for about 40 years from the late twenties. The showroom closed I think sometime in the late 60s.
    Wolverhampton had a number of bespoke builders at the time the most famous, Percy Stallard is the man credited with introducing Massed start road racing to England, at the RAF base at Cosford – 10 miles from Wolverhampton - in 1947.
    Percy built beautiful bikes a business carried on by his son until the middle eighties.
    Ron Clements, another bespoke builder owned a shop on the Dudley Road near the junction with the Birmingham New Road. I purchased my first proper road bike from Ron when I was thirteen in 1954, or rather my Dad did, classic 531 lugged frame in pale grey and red with Cyclo five speed gears and GB brakes.
    Ron's cousin Ernie Clements also built very nice frames. At the time, the mid to late 1950's there were at least 15 bespoke builders in Black Country towns of Wolverhampton, Dudley, West Bromwich, and Walsall.

    Philip in Narbonne

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