Sunday, 4 September 2016

Bike restoration

We live in a little terrace house in inner-Melbourne. The size of the house and lack of storage space means that I have pared back my bicycle collection to a small number that get ridden regularly. But there is one exception. A bike that I've held onto for decades in a completely unridable condition. It isn't even my size (it's quite small, and I'm quite tall). The reason I've kept it is because with its fancy lugs and distinctive brazed 'H' head badge, it's always felt like something of value. But perhaps the bigger reason is that it has some personal stories attached to it. In my mind, it's an heirloom of sorts. And the time has come to tell the stories and make it ridable again.

I've already noted that the bike is too small for me. Fortunately, there is someone who is rapidly growing into it. My almost-8-year-old son started racing track bikes on the velodrome a couple of years ago at the junior summer clinic held by Brunswick Cycling Club. His older brother had a go too but it never really caught his imagination. But the almost-8-year-old got a competitive spark in his eye when saddled up on the track. He counts down the sleeps to the next clinic. He is very keen.

Brunswick Cycling Club own sets of track bikes in different sizes that the kids use at the clinic, but he'd been asking about getting a track bike of his own. I pulled the old frame out of the shed and he was  immediately smitten. He threw his leg over, which proved it was still too big. But within a year or two it will be perfect. So the restoration project that has been sitting on the back-burner for many many years now has a deadline.

There was a previous restoration effort. Rewinding the clock back to when I was only a couple of years older that my kids are now, my dad started riding a funny old fixed-wheel bike the couple of blocks from our house to the school where he taught. He'd been given the bike by my maternal grandfather, who had a big shed at his house in Yarrawonga that was full of interesting things. He enjoyed tinkering with things that he found at garage sales. This bike was one of them. The story he'd been told when he acquired the bike was that it had been ridden by a female racer from Yarrawonga.  Oral history being what it is, this could be fact, speculation, or a figment of my teenage imagination. My grandfather passed away a few years ago, aged 90. The place where his wonderful shed and orchard of fruit trees once stood is now a supermarket car park.

A bike race had come past our house when I was still in primary school and it had left an impression. I'd had a 'racing bike' since my tenth birthday, but it wasn't racy enough. I was eying off the bike my dad was riding, which I'd heard had been a proper racing bike. At some point my dad bought himself a new bike with gears and brakes, and I quickly laid claim to the old one. I spent many evenings sitting on the back verandah sanding off the old (but not original) mustard-coloured paintwork by hand. I re-painted it. White on the lugs, blue on the main tubes and a transparent blue gloss over the lot. It was done with all the professionalism of a teenager. Which is to say it wasn't very good at all. But I spent a lot of time with that frame, dreaming of riding it.

But I never did. I started to explain to my father about how I was going to turn this old frame into a magnificent road racing machine. He looked at the old frame, with its horizontal drop-outs made for a fixed wheel set up, and various other bits of antiquated technology not compatible with any parts we'd be able to buy at the local bike shop. He could see that my dream and this frame were incompatible. Instead we went into the bike shop and compared the brand new and shiny bicycles to my savings account. I walked out with a Repco Olympic 12. It even came in blue and white, just like the racing bike I'd imagined for myself. The old frame went back to the shed, but stayed in the back of my mind.

In recent years, now that the internet puts information about obscure topics at your finger tips, I've learned more about the bike. The H doesn't stand for my grandfather's surname, Howden. It stands for 'Healing', named after Alfred George Healing (1898-1945) who originally started his bike shop in Richmond in 1898 and made frames in Melbourne until 1959. There's lots more information about him and the company here:, including this snippet:

The brazed H (compared to the models with attached head badges) are regarded as superior builds with rare fancy cut lug models noted as supreme lightweights and top of the range custom built for pros.

I posted some details about the bike on an internet forum thread devoted to Healing frames ( and the vintage bike aficionado Warren Meade guessed that it was late 1930s vintage ('say 1936 to 1939'). He also had a name for the lug shape: 'keyhole lugs' he called them. And sure enough, looking at images of vintage bikes on the web, the handful I've found with keyhole lugs are mostly from that period (such as this 1930s Arrow, and this 1939 Schwinn, or this 1940 bike made by Lance Claudel This 1954 Schwinn is the exception

My almost-8-year-old and I spent a few hours together pulling the frame apart on day one of the restoration project (which happened to be father's day 2016). My partner's father came around later in the day for dinner, and we talked about re-chroming and period details. It's something he knows a little bit about. He raced bikes on the track during the 1950s. He never rode a Healing frame, but he raced against others who did. And he's been a regular spectator at the Brunswick velodrome for the junior track clinic these past few years. It's not just the kids who have sparks in their eyes.

As we pulled the bike apart, it dawned on me that the last time these ball bearings saw the light of day was in my grandfather's shed under his watchful eye. In a few years time, I'm looking forward to taking my son and the bike to Yarrawonga, where on a quiet Sunday morning when no-one is around, he can do some laps of a certain supermarket car park. I think they call it closure.

The brazed 'H'

The frame has a number stamped near the seat post clamp.
The steerer tube has a number as well.
The bottom bracket and fancy lugs.
The chainring and seat post seem to be original.
Not so sure about the aluminium head stem.
Hints of the original colour scheme on the steerer tube. 

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