Aye, Claudia! Fast Times with an Early Claud Butler Mixte
"An unusual design of particularly rigid type and pleasing in appearance," boasts the 1936 Claud Butler Catalogue about their new mixte framed bicycle. Judging by earlier catalogues, a Lady Lightweight model had been on offer for at least three years by this time. However, its initial and rather unremarkable step-through iteration must have proven less than fully satisfying to the manufacturer. Enter this new "open-frame machine of rigid design" offering "strength in the right places, but with lightness and easy running." Indeed, this Lady’s Machine had "all the advantages of the Gent’s diamond frame type" whilst being "specially designed to be suitable for both rational costumes and skirts, absolutely rigid and comfortable." Amazingly, all of this was achieved “inside 26 lb."
There are several things that make this early Claud Butler mixte remarkable - starting with the very fact that it is an early mixte, and an English one at that. While no one can pinpoint precisely when mixte designs (which are thought to be French in origin) began, the earliest known examples date back to the 1930s, making this bicycle one of the earliest of its kind.
More interesting still is the kind of mixte this Claud Butler is. As lovers of this breed of bicycles know, there are, broadly speaking, two types of mixte frame construction: The classic type, where in leu of a top tube, a pair of twin parallel stays runs from the head tube all the way to the rear dropouts (for example, see here). And the alternative type, where a single dropped top tube splits into two parallel stays at the seat tube, these stays then extending to the dropouts (for example, see here). It is commonly assumed that the "classic" twin stays design came first, and the alternative design was developed later, as a means of improving frame rigidity. However, Claud Butler's early use of the alternative design contradicts this, indicating instead that the two methods of mixte frame construction must have existed simultaneously from the very start. And, if I may indulge in some speculation: As the word "mixte" appears nowhere in Claud Butler's literature, it is possible also that the construction we see on this bicycle may have been developed by English builders, whereas the twin-stay construction was developed by French builders - and that, as the years went on, they simply began to use each other's methods. This is my working hypothesis at least...
But gosh, I am forgetting myself. Forgive me for plunging into this technical discussion so quickly! To take it down a notch, let me tell you about Claud Butler and how I came to possess his super cool bicycle.
Before its cruel resurrection as a modern-day budget bike warehouse brand, the name Claud Butler was known mostly to collectors of Classic English Lightweights - early bespoke roadbikes, made, often quite exquisitely, by a handful of skilled UK frame builders. Despite his name's suggestion of Frenchness, Claud Butler the man was English - the son of a silk industry worker, who rejected the family trade to pursue his interest in bicycles. He first opened a bicycle dealership in London, then progressed to having frames of his own design manufactured in-house.
Fairly quickly, Claud Butler bicycles became known for a fashionable sort of aggressiveness. While competitors promoted elaborate lugwork and "flamboyant" finishes, Claud Butler bicycles were among the first to adapt lugless (fillet brazed) construction. In their catalogues and marketing literature, a sleek "racy" aesthetic with restrained flourishes was accompanied by references to lightness, rigidity, short wheelbases and low bottom brackets. All bicycle models, including the Lady Lightweight, were made to order and could be purchased in a standard size and build, or made to measure and in a bespoke configuration. The bicycle in my possession was, most likely, a custom order, as the frame size is in between the sizing advertised. Luckily, it is a size that suits me very nicely!
...Speaking of which: How on earth did this rare darling of a bicycle make its way toward these thatched cottage-ridden banks of the Lough Foyle? Well, funny story. My buddy Bryan from County Donegal brought it over during a vintage bike meetup we organised last summer, so that I could have a look and photograph it. Then he suggested that I ride it. Ten miles later, we had a VGA (Velo-Guardianship Agreement) in place. When Bryan left, the bicycle stayed with me.
What is a VGA, some of you might be wondering? Ah. Well, okay: Say you have a bicycle that's really cool and special in some way. You do not ever intend to sell it. Yet you also never ride it (this could be because the bicycle is the wrong size for you, because you're moving away, or for any number of other reasons), while at the same time, being of the belief that bicycles - no matter how rare and special - should be ridden. So when you meet someone who you think will ride this bicycle, and will appreciate its specialness like you do, you can make an agreement to "sell" them the bike for a token price, with the understanding that, should this person not want the bicycle in the future, they will sell it back to you for this same price, as opposed to selling it on the open market or giving it to anybody else. So in a sense, the bike is still yours. But the other person can be its guardian, as long as they ride it and take care of it. Several of my former bicycles are out in the world under a standing VGA, and it's great - I love seeing photos of them out and about, being used as intended. Similarly, considering that Bryan is around 7ft tall and his Claud Butler was made for a lady of my size, I imagine he gets some satisfaction from the bicycle living an active and happy life in my care. At the same time, I do not really think of this bicycle as truly mine. But I am certainly happy and grateful to have it under my guardianship for the time being! Oh, and in case it's not obvious, I have called it Claudia. Very creative, I know.
As I have already mentioned, there are many interesting things about Claudia. The mixte construction is one of them, and so I include some pictures of relevant lug p0rn for your enjoyment.
And here is a matching seat cluster for good measure. Black on black lugwork is really hard to photograph, by the way, so I hope you appreciate my dedication.
The head lugs have screws in them. I have seen this on frames from the same era before
But the really interesting thing about the head tube on this bicycle, is that it is teeny-tiny - in fact, it is slightly lower in height than the seat tube. That is to say, this bicycle's virtual top tube slopes downward, as it were. This type of geometry can be seen on time trial bicycles, but very rarely on ordinary roadbikes - let alone "lady's bicycles!" More typically, on a step-through or mixte we would see an extended head tube design, allowing the handlebars to be placed extra high (see: What Is a High Nelly?) to ensure an upright posture. But in 1936, Claud Butler saw fit to make the Lady Lightweight unusually aggressive.
And if that weren't enough, this little minx of a mixte is fitted with some crazily-deep drop handlebars, designed in a way that make them impossible to grip anywhere but on the drops. The handlebars currently on the bike are Stratalite Tour de France bars - which I do not think are original, as I cannot find any pre-war examples of this brand. However, the Claud Butler catalogue states this bicycle can be fitted with a variety of drop bars, so it is reasonable to assume the original owner rode it with a similar setup, perhaps replacing the original bars with newer ones along the way. Here, for instance, is a 1939 catalog that shows a later version of the same bicycle fitted with drops.
Originally the bike came with some ill-fitting 1960s city bike grips, which did not reach the brake levers. But thanks to Nick of the Three Speed Hub, I got my hands (ha!) on these period-correct New Old Stock long rubber grips in my favourite sage green colour. They are a perfect length for reaching the brake levers, and feel extremely comfortable. Under certain light conditions, the grips look a different colour, showing that the side that had been exposed to the sun (they must have lain on a store-front window sill I am guessing) had gotten yellowed over the years.
Also, the original price tag (39 cents!) is still on, and I haven't the heart to remove it.
Though the bicycle was built up as a single-speed, at some point the original owner had it fitted with a Sturmey Archer 4-speed FW (wide ratio) hub - made, oddly enough, in the USA, according to the inscription. Though these hubs were produced from 1945 until 1970, they are fairly rare, so to actually have one is a real treat - even if it does not exactly "work perfectly." The hub fickleness was something Bryan warned me about when handing over the bike, though I have managed to make friends with it more or less. Basically, the gears do not always engage during shifting, and you have to sort of massage the shifter just so to get it right (though the problem is the hub, not the shifter). In the long term, I should have the hub serviced at some point. But for now I am not unwilling to deal with its quirkiness.
My first impression of the Claud Butler Lady Lightweight was dominated by its low drop position and its speed. The term that came to mind when riding it was "gobbling up the miles." Especially on flats, this bicycle just wanted to go all-out! It is a funny feeling to be wearing a skirt and riding a bicycle so aggressively. Fun, too!
The original plan for the Claud Butler when I first got it, was to ride it now and again for fun, take pictures. I did not really expect it to have any functional benefit. However, I soon noticed that on windy days the Claud Butler made a lot of sense as a transportation bicycle. The 7 mile trip to the nearest town is comparatively flat, but along exposed roads that can be next to impossible to tackle in a serious headwind. The compact mixte with its super-leaned over riding position is able to cut through the headwind and resists cross-winds better than my other bicycles.
This bicycle also does very well off road - feeling extremely comfortable over rough terrain - allowing me to take all sorts of backroad shortcuts, as well as to go wandering around where I am not supposed to in pursuit of photo opportunities.
When riding for transportation, I fit the bike with an oversized Dill Pickle saddlebag, which is designed to fit a laptop and then some. I have also replaced the decrepit and much too wide pleather spring saddle the bicycle came with (not the original saddle, I feel safe in assuming), with a Brooks Cambium B17S, which I am soon due to review. It roadie profile and short nose design suits the Claud Butler very nicely.
If this bicycle remains in my guardianship for the long haul, it would be nice to replace some of its worn out and aftermarkert parts with period-correct ones, as well as to give it a bit of a cosmetic polish (okay, so it needs a huge amount of cosmetic polish, I know!). But really, the important thing - to me, and to is true owner Bryan - is that the bicycle kept "alive" - through being ridden as intended. And while I don't know much about this bicycle's original owner, often I picture her riding through a similarly windswept landscape, her head bent low, fiddling with the gear shifter, the cold breeze in her face - feeling exerted but happy. This early Claud Butler mixte is a living, functional piece of history. Whether in a skirt or "rational costume," I am pleased as punch to be Claudia's current keeper!