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.
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.
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.
Consider the hinges, stamped with "Sicur Brevettato." And the headset, with "Movimenti Thun."
Stem clamp: Guizzardi (ignore the Huret cyclo-meter, as that is the owner's addition).
Even the grips are not just any ol' platic grips. They are "Pastiche Cassano" (a manufacturer that, apparently, still thrives today!).
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 Fahrräder 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
... 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.
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? 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.