The $500 3-Speed: Possibilities Five Years Later
Today, the economic landscape is changed from what it was 5 years ago. Nevertheless, the $500 figure remains amazingly stable as the budget those looking to buy their first city bike quote me. Luckily, the bicycle industry has changed as well. More options for budget priced city bikes are available now than there were 5 years ago. Is it still worth it then, to attempt going the vintage route? Here are my updated thoughts on the subject.
In 2010, there were several 3-speed style city bikes on the market in the $500 price range. One factor that made me reluctant to recommend them, was the negative feedback I was getting from readers about these bikes. Complaints included everything from discomfort, to shoddy components and craftsmanship, to the bicycles rusting immediately if left outdoors. Behind the scenes, I had conversations about this with several bike shops and manufacturers - their reactions ranging from assuring me they were working to address the issues, to pointing out that their target market did not have expectations to use the bicycles as actual transportation (Erm, enough said!).
Today, reader satisfaction with lower-priced, store-bought city bikes seems to be considerably higher. In particular, I have had excellent feedback about the Brooklyn Bicycle Co. Willow, the Civia Twin Cities, the Pappillionnaire Sommer, and the Bobbin Bramble and Birdie - all priced if not exactly at $500, then at least "in the $500s" for the 3-speed versions; often including a rear rack. For those who can stretch their budget an extra $100, there is now even a US-made option from Detroit Bikes that is not too far out of range.
With choices for easy off-the-shelf purchase of decent low-priced city bikes available, there is really no need for the hassle of hunting down a suitable vintage 3-speed, then bringing it up to standards. Still, some might prefer to go that route for several reasons. There are those (myself included) who find the ride quality of vintage 3-speeds superior to anything of equivalent style on the market today. For others, it's about aesthetic preferences. Others still are attracted to the "character" and history of a vintage bicycle compared to anything modern. And then there are those why simply crave a DIY project! All of these are perfectly valid reasons to go the vintage 3-speed route. But will $500 still buy you a refurbished one in 2015?
In my original post on the subject, the $500 total price tag included outfitting the vintage bicycle with modern wheels (for the sake of improved braking power in the rain), modern tires (for puncture-resistance), as well as possibly a new saddle, and a rear rack if it did not have one already. According to vintage collector and dealer Nick at the Curious Velo/ Three Speed Hub, the same can be accomplished today. In fact, the bicycle pictured in the first and in the above photos (built out of this frame) is one he has fitted with a modern wheelset (Sturmey Archer S-RF3 hub at the rear) and a few other upgrades, as an exercise in whether it could be done within a $500 budget. His conclusion was that, while prices have of course gone up since 2010, it is still possible to buy wheels, tyres, new cables, and pay a mechanic to do the work, within this tight budget. In fact, he will gladly build up such a bicycle out of one of his English 3-speed frames for anyone interested.
There are issues to watch out for when building up a vintage bike with modern parts. Wheel compatibility is the obvious one. Be aware also that installing modern hub brakes instead of rim brakes on these bikes has been known to result in bent forks (the brakes are too strong!).
Personally, I have actually found it best to ride the vintage bikes with as close to the original builds as possible. In particular, the old wheels feel nicer to me than modern ones. But of course if someone feels unsafe with "vintage" braking power in the rain, you can't really argue with that. At any rate, the wheels, as well as most other components, can be upgraded.
Increasingly - and rather amazingly - shops all over the world are popping up that are not only willing to do this kind of work, but specialising in just that: refurbishing vintage bikes with modern components. There is now even one in Northern Ireland (Fellow Bicycle Co. in Belfast), which I hope to visit soon. Between this option, and the improved quality of "budget" bikes on the market, the quest for a lovely 3-speed city bike on a $500-ish budget is not as hopeless as it was 5 years ago. That's an update to my previous post I am happy to write.