Monday, June 20, 2016

Hercules? I'd Say It's a Hercu-More!

Hercules Folda

One of the wonderful things about vintage bicycles, for me, is the wildcard factor. Because, more so than with off-the-shelf modern bikes, we never really know what to expect. We may think that we are familiar with a particular bicycle's manufacturer and history. Or with what bicycles of its construction style/pedigree/tubing/era are generally like to ride. And then we try the (really quite unremarkable, unassuming looking) thing and Bang! What? This bike is awesome. And I mean like, unusually awesome. That is to say, awesomer than the sum of its parts, or awesomer than it "should" be considering the type of a bike it is.

Now, I am starting to develop a theory (and I know it sounds nuts, but hear me out here) that Ireland - or at least Ulster - is, for some strange and mysterious reason, a dumping ground for such machines. Because I have tried just one too many of these bicycles here to believe it can be pure coincidence. Take for instance, this vintage Hercules Folda - borrowed from a lovely local man called Raymond - whose paintings and restored 1970s Whitcomb I introduced you to earlier.

Hercules Folda

At the start I thought the Folda (heh) would be interesting to show here, if only for its vintage adorableness and resemblance to the Italian Dudebike I test rode a few months back. What I didn't count on, was its fabulous performance.

"Performance?!" you might ask, glancing skeptically at its hefty U-frame and chunky components. And I know, I know. When it comes to vintage small wheelers and folders, I don't think anyone expects much. With the exception of the Moultons and, later, Bromptons, they were generally heavy, clunky, slow-rolling things. And about as handy to fold up and transport as a camp bed. But while the latter holds true for the specimen here, once I unfurled it and took it out for a spin, I was blown away. For it rides like a formidable little rocket.

Hercules Folda

But firstly: What is this little beastie exactly? Those familiar with the history of the Hercules brand might naturally assume it is English. And they will certainly be forgiven for such an assumption. Founded in 1910, the Aston-based Hercules Cycle and Motor Company produced a variety of bicycles and cycle-components, until it was absorbed, in the late 1930s, by Raleigh to become one of its budget sub-brands. But the "Nottingham England" decals are a little deceptive on this particular bike. For a look at its components reveals something surprising: The markings are Italian.

Hercules Folda

Consider the hinges, stamped with "Sicur Brevettato." And the headset, with "Movimenti Thun."

Hercules Folda

Stem clamp: Guizzardi (ignore the Huret cyclo-meter, as that is the owner's addition).

Hercules Folda

Even the grips are not just any ol' platic grips. They are "Pastiche Cassano" (a manufacturer that, apparently, still thrives today!).

Hercules Folda

Taken together with the curved frame construction and integrated rear carrier which resemble other English folders not in the least, it begins to look suspiciously as if we have an Italian stallion on our hands. Well, okay, more like an Italian miniature pony.

Now, to make matters more confusing still, there is also a German bicycle manufacturer called Hercules. Originally the Nurnberg-based Hercules Werke AG and now Hercules Fahrr├Ąder und E-Bikes (!) they too made folding bikes through the '60s - '80s. There is no relation between them and the English Hercules whatsoever, though. And the decals on the Folda clearly indicate a Nottingham affiliation.

Hercules Folda

In fact, the Hercules Folda is likely a rebranded Graziella - the iconic Italian folding bike maker which first appeared in the 1960s, the heyday of the small wheel/ folding bike craze. This is also, in my understanding, the origin of the (later, much imitated) U-shape folding bike frame. When they first came out, the Graziella bikes were synonymous with urban glamour. Models and actresses were often photographed riding them. And, rather famously, Salvadore Dali was a fan and owned multiples.

Hercules Folda

By the 1970s, however, the folder/mini obsession (which had extended to cars, as well as bicycles), had waned - enough so, it appears, for the Italian maker to eventually sell off its frames to be rebadged by an English, Raleigh-subsidiary budget brand by the year 1980 - which is when, according to the stamp on its Sturmey Archer hub, this Herules Folda was made.

Hercules Folda

Whether that is a shame, or a fortunate twist of fate, depends on one's perspective I suppose. But regardless, I wanted to draw your attention to another interesting aspect of this bike a  - which is, the sloppy frame construction. When I reviewed the modern production retro-Italian Dudebike a few months back, a couple of readers suggested that the brazing looked messy, in response to which I wondered whether they had ever examined a mass-produced vintage bicycle frame with the same eagle eye. So, dear readers: Case in point.

Hercules Folda

But clearly the messy looking joints don't stand in the way of the bicycle riding fabulously. Nor of its resilience over decades of abuse and neglect.

Hercules Folda

Consider the owner's tale of how the Hercules came into his possession:
This little one was rescued by me from a very miserable end - it was condemned to a skip with all sorts of other scrap metal objects of every kind, and when I said to the site man that it should be saved - by somebody, anybody but me of course!, I really did not want it - the bemused chap said to take it now or its going to be crushed with everything else. I rather reluctantly did and arrived back home with his horrible looking thing, thinking I should take it straight to the skips to dispose of it! It was black with coal dust, dirt, grime, oil, and red with rust, and dangerously cracked tyres. 
After consigning it to the 'we'll see' pile it lay awaiting its fate for six months or so. Then after a quick, basic clean I found it actually quite sound, totally original and became more curious about it. Partly to see what it was like while deciding its fate it was fairly quickly totally stripped down to the last ball bearing, then re-greased, paint work done with T Cut, the chrome work was nearly all covered with light surface rust which polished off, and gradually over a couple of days all the parts were ready for re-building.  

Hercules Folda
... New tyres were bought, wheels trued, Sturmey hub stripped, cleaned, relubed and rebuilt and my old Huret Speedometer from the early-mid 70s, along with the Miller Dynamo which I'd kept from my first bike, was brought out again after nearly 40 years and the whole lot rebuilt to what you see now! 
Whilst it's not Colnago Master with Super Record groupset etc, I suppose it must be among the relatively few very original examples of this bike in such condition that still exist locally at least. I did develop a kind of irrational soft spot for it as you can tell, which for bikes is OK in my books.
Small Wheel Friends: Raleigh Twenty, Puch Pic-Nic, Hercules Folda

Indeed, it is more than "okay," I should think! If anything, the restoration of the Hercules to its original gleaming, champagne-and-crome sheen, is in keeping with its equally sharp ride quality.

The combination of its speed (the speedometer is ever-ready to register 20mph, though I suspect it flatters me quite a bit!) and its cushy 20x1.75" tyres, makes for a ride that - to me - feels leagues above its more iconic rivals - such as the veritable Raleigh Twenty and the adorable Puch Pic-Nic, both which I had ridden in the past without feeling much of a "wow factor," and had the pleasure to briefly try again on a recent vintage small-wheel meet.



There is something about the Hercules Folda (the fit, and the fat tyres perhaps?) that I even prefer over my Brompton, at least for shorter rides over rough farm lanes and grassy fields.



In short, dear readers: When you come across a seemingly unremarkable vintage bike, look closer. Look closer, regardless of pedigree or any obvious signs of "specialness." For you never know what gems might hide beneath the layers of dirt, beneath the rust, beneath the seemingly unremarkable decals and badges.

Hercules Folda

Hercules? Clearly, this bike is a Hercumore. And should you ever get the opportunity to snag the Folda, I hope you go for it - and enjoy the result as much as I enjoyed borrowing Raymond's skip rescue - for the beautiful restoration of which, I congratulate him heartily.



34 comments:

  1. HA! If it looks like that bike wasn't brazed very well it's because it wasn't brazed at all! Thet thar is 'lectric wire weldin! Just like yer better lawn furnicher an porch railing.

    Where even a poor brazing job gets at least some of the filler flowing and filling the gaps and crevices, wire welding just feeds an electrically charged wire onto the surface of the metal where a big, more or less, controlled short circuit instantly turns everything around the wire molten and sparky hot. If you know what you're doing it's nice and strong but tough to make really pretty, especially if you're sort of in a hurry to crank out a bunch of folding bikes or if you're welding thin stuff like that wire cable clip or that mystery tab dangling off the bottom of the offside seatstay. If you put enough wire in the weld for it to lay down and smooth out a bit, it just blasts those little parts to oblivion. So you get those scabby splatter joints that look like metal Lichens clinging here and there instead. A good welder CAN make wire welding look as good as B+ level TIG welding but if you need that, just get out your TIG and be done with it.

    I like wire welding for bikes that don't have snooty pretensions and I often tack nice stuff like racks and stems together with my wire welder before I braze them up. For stuff that needs to look prettier I get out the TIG welder or Fillet Braze it but if it needs to be 10 out of 10 for strong but only a 6 out of 10 for looks I'll 'prolly wire weld it...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Oh wow, really! I'd assumed the messy joints were a function of having been shoved in and out of an oven too hastily. But of course wire welding makes more sense, it just never occurred to me.

      {new custom bicycle branding idea: Lichen Cycles}

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    2. Yes those look like MIG tacks holding on the rear stays - the little bobble where the wire has melted but not melted the parent metal is a giveaway. If I had made it I wouldn't be comfortable with that in the long run, but it seems to have held together till now. It's much easier to make holes in thin-wall tubes with the MIG.
      I have been wondering, given your interest in various sorts of small wheeled bicycles, if you had had a chance to test-ride a minivelo at any point?

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    3. I have never seen "in the flesh," let alone tried a minivelo, though of course I'd love to. I suspect I would like the new Bobbin Metric quite a bit. But the diamond frame ones would not be of much use to me.

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    4. Interesting; I hadn't seen the Bobbin Metric. Minivelos are notably thin on the ground outside East Asia, I looked at a lot in Japan and was quite taken with them, and test rode the Tokyo Bike version in New York and in Melbourne; it was fun to ride - more rigid feeling than a Brompton, but fast to accelerate with fast/squirrelly handling. They seem like a good urban bicycles, but unfortunately they don't offer month-long test rides to really see what they are like. I would really like to try one of these Bruno bikes

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    5. That Bruno bike - wow.
      Jeez!

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  2. io personalmente avrebbe cavalcato l'inferno fuori di esso!

    I had no idea that Hercules/Raleigh/TI did anything like this, though I have pondered why there were u-frame folders in the model line to go along with the Twenty analogues.

    My former Yugoslav-made Graziella-clone folder exhibited welds that were as bad, and worse- before I filed them smooth, you could cut yourself on the latch plate for the folding mechanism and also the burrs on the bottom bracket. These things were made in a hurry.

    My only complaint about the ride was the extended stem on my personal example tended to flex a bit. Of course, I weigh about 50 lbs more than you. It was crazy nimble at low speed and would straighten right up and almost plane around 15-17 mph. I would bet this Hercuzella is even better.

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    1. Ooh eccitante!

      The handling strikes me as ideal for urban cycling and for trails with twisty bends.

      Hercuzella! Of course, why didn't I think of that : )

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  3. Great find, great dialogue on your (and Raymond's) part! I always love digging the small details and finding plot-twists like this. The world of vintage bikes is so colorful because of these. Also, it should be noted that while Raleigh was winding down production of the Twenty, I think, or maybe after it was over, they also started using these U frames on the "Safari" model. Exact same bike as the one you have here. I never looked into them and therefore never noticed their Italian origin, but maybe they really were trying to use up those frames quickly.

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    1. The Safari indeed looks very similar, except that it lacks an integrated rear rack. An attempt to lighten it, maybe?

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  4. So cute! And like you I love my Brompton in most ways, but my old Puch folder fits me better.

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    1. They do make the Brompton rather long. And because the handlebars don't sweep back, the reach can be too much for some riders. The interesting thing, they used to make them shorter (see here, for instance). So if you ever get the opportunity to buy an older Brompton (2004 or earlier) that could be your perfect bike.

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  5. Where is this, V? That looks like quite a hill in the first photo. Did you climb it on the Hercules? What is the gearing like?

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    1. The urban shots were taken in Derry. It is a small, compact city with some very steep hills. And yup. I did climb the one pictured on the Hercules - though not straight up that grassy slope, of course! The gearing... forgive me, but I didn't count the teeth, so can't tell you the exact gear ratios. But it's reasonable, not overgeared like so many English 3-speeds tend to be.

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  6. I sold dozens of these, and their cousins, in the early 80's. They were popular, but the small wheel craze was over, these sold well for two reasons. 1) They were at the cheap end of of Raleigh TI's range, and b) at a time when cycling was not cool unless you were into BMX bikes these sold well to girls from 11/12 up. It wasn't the girls, more the parents thinking last bike ever.
    Raleigh sold the Hercules brand, along with Phillips, in the UK as an answer to the imports that were just beginning to take off, primarily from Europe. They tended to be sold in mail order catalogues, or through the Raleigh only dealer network.

    The same bike was also sold under the Raleigh name, but had a higher quality paint finish, colour co-ordinated bags/baskets etc. These did get some very female specific colour ways.

    The Raleigh 20 was still being sold, at a huge premium, but wasn't, from memory, sold as a folder.

    I can't agree with anything you state about the ride quality. Yes they were better than the horrible imports, for not a lot more money in the Hercules case, but the 20 was way ahead, but even that was not a patch on the original Moulton that started the revolution.

    Before my time, but Raleighs answer to the Moulton was the inferior RSW16, the Twenty replaced that, but, I believe Raleigh had acquired the original Moulton company, and effectively replaced the better design with its own.

    If you want an amazing small wheel ride in a vintage cycle, try to find the original Moulton.

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    1. Thanks for that firsthand account, very interesting.

      I have tried a few Moulton F-frames over the years (the first encounter with one is documented here, but there have since been others) and indeed have liked them very much. The Raleigh Twenty (again here is a very early post that shows my first one)... I don't know. I've tried a good half dozen now, of various eras, and they just don't pull at my heartstrings. Others have included mainly the Puch Pic-Nic in various iterations (when I lived in Vienna, Austria, it was a very popular beater-bike among the young people), which for some reason is more up my alley. While I realise it is technically inferior in many ways, I prefer its handling to that of the English folders. And I have to say the (slightly, but noticeably) lower step-over of the U-frame is more convenient - which is also why, I should think, these bikes were popular with women.

      I don't know whether all the Hercules Foldas/ rebranded late Graziellas ride the way this one does, very possibly Raymond's bike is a lucky anomaly! But then, that is exactly what I mean by the wildcard factor of vintage bikes.

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  7. this design is still being made

    http://www.lagraziella.com/

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    1. The bicycles pictured on that site are in fact quite different. But the design you see on the Hercules is being made today (again, rather than still) by Dudebike in Milan. See here.

      While the original Graziella has stopped production decades ago, the name has recently been acquired by Bottechia, and they have attempted to re-launch the brand.

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    2. I'm curious how this compares to the Dudebike, since you tested that so recently. It seems that the Folda has a little extra magic for you that the Dudebike didn't quite capture.

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  8. Thank you for that ridiculous, and ridiculously cheery, post title. All day I have been picturing two vintage folders canoodling in an alleyway...

    Oh how I herc you, my dearest!
    No, I herc you more!

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    1. {rubs hands together}

      My job here is done.

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    2. In my head it chimes with Hercule Poirot.

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  9. What would you or your readers think of a folding bike as a children's bike? I had in mind something more like the Dudebike you posted about a couple of months ago. So many kids bikes are surprisingly heavy and pricey, and a folding bike would seem to have the dual advantage of being able to grow with the kid and being a little peppier than some of the kiddie clunkers.

    The particular kid I have in mind is my tall-for-her-age eight year-old niece. According to charts, it seems that 20" wheels are recommended for kids 6-8 years old, so theoretically, a folding bike with that wheel size could work. But I don't know how a bike like that would ride with the seat and handlebars slammed way down. And of course, there is the x factor of whether a bike that is aesthetically pleasing to an adult would be as exciting to an eight year-old. If what would really inspire her to ride would be something that would make me shudder, like a Ninja Turtles themed bike, maybe that is still unfortunately the way to go.

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    1. I think it depends on whether you can get the reach right. While both the seatpost and stem collapse quite dramatically, I am thinking the reach to the handlebars might still be too much for a 6-8yo. Swapping the handlebars for more swept-back ones would solve this problem, of course, if you do not mind it affecting the fold.

      And as far as aesthetics being an issue, you got that right. My stepson, at as early as age 10, rejected my Brompton outright for looking uncool (I was thinking he could borrow it when visiting us). He loves BMX bikes, but sees folding bikes as being of a completely different ilk. Kids!

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  10. At a friend's house for a sleepover many years ago, I got a chance to ride his younger brother's cherry three-speed. Having so many gears at one's disposal, and hand brakes to boot, was quite a revelation. Besides, it had an awesome speedometer much like the one on this lovely Folda. It was great fun watching that red needle register faster and faster speeds. Suddenly, I heard an awful "clank" and the needle dropped to zero. I immediately leaned the bike up against the house and strolled away whistling softly as if nothing had happened. "Hey, let's go read Mad Magazine," I suggested to my friend.

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  11. Have you tried a Dawes Kingpin which IMHO is a little more refined than the Twenty and great fun to ride?

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  12. I have a similar Hercules U-frame folder:
    https://flic.kr/p/6miSth
    I had worked out that it was Italian in origin, but now I know the exact make.
    Also have a 'genuine' Italian Lygie folder:
    https://flic.kr/p/fmhnPb
    Both are quite fun to ride!

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    1. Whoa! No seat stays on the Lygie folder. Would love to try one of those! Thanks for sharing.

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  13. Just rebuilt a mid-1960s French folder marketed under Jacques Anquetil's name (and likeness) but likely manufactured by Gitane around 1966/67. It has a three-cog Atom freewheel with Huret Svelto derailleur and Mafac cantilevers. I too was very, very surprised at how well it rides. Downright zippy. I built it up mostly for pub crawls, but now find that I ride it a lot (and not always to pubs!).

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  14. I actually have the darker brown version of this bike (rode it to the shop today in fact!) that's in dire need of restoration like Raymond's has had. Interesting read, thanks for posting.

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  15. I had one of these. I got it on e-bay and while wheeling it home in its very sorry looking condition, if I had of passed a tip, I would probably have considered leaving it there. Resisting the temptation to dump it, I cleaned it up and bought tyres etc and got it going. Just like you say in your blog, I was amazed at the ride too. While not recommended to stand up and pedal on it if the going ever got tough, it just flew along the flat. I took it along the local lycra speedway training run and wound up a few road bikes by leaving them for dead on it.
    I'd just got newer more efficient brakes on it and all was travelling along nicely until one day, I went to pull away from the lights and the weld at the bottom of the U gave way and that was that for the Hercules. I'm of course happy this happened then and not at some speed in the 40-50km/h range!
    I miss that crazy little bike. It didn't look much but I kept choosing to ride it over some of the other bikes in my stable.
    It was a very interesting and enjoyable read about your experience with the Hercules and nice to learn about the background info of the brand too.

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