Saturday 27 June 2009

The Latest Tin Donkey: Heron Out of Junk--or A Phoenix Arises!

The Raleigh Heron

As someone not immune to the collecting mania, I have tried to limit myself but have not been too successful. From stamps as a child to classical CDs and cycling books as an adult, if there is space I will fill it. However, I was able to limit myself in terms of bicycles and actually sold several over the last year. But I was always attracted to classic steel and since my current road bike, a Specialized S-Works Tarmac E5, is pretty close to state-of-the-art, I thought that perhaps I would go backwards rather than forwards in terms of new bikes.

A real Marinoni/fake Raleigh

My steel Marinoni still remains a favourite and when a bike purporting to be a 1985 Marinoni frameset as used by the Levi’s-Raleigh Racing USA Team showed up for a laughable sum on E-Bay, I was particularly interested. There were only around 26 of these frames built, and they were painted as Raleighs and marked as having Reynolds steel tubing, when in fact they were built out of Columbus tubing. These “disguised” Marinonis were ridden with great success in North America by Levi’s-Raleigh, a team that included Andy Hampston and Roy Knickman and was the only domestic team up to competing with the vaunted 7-Eleven Team of the 1980s. As well, Connie Carpenter scored a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics on one of these bicycles.

The frame did not seem to be in bad shape from the photos. It had a braze-on for a race number, something seldom seen on consumer bikes but invariably on pro ones. The fork, a unicrown Tange thing, was clearly not original, but I was puzzled by the seatstays, which looked nothing like any Marinoni I had ever seen before. In addition to contacting Marinoni, I was able to find an e-mail address for Mike Fatka, who had managed the Levi’s-Raleigh team in its heyday and is still selling bicycle stuff. He was kind enough to check with a mechanic from the team, who was a bit discouraging:
It appears that one of the custom frames in the 1985 Raleigh catalog may have similar fastback stays? I can't remember anything about "real" Raleigh's from back then, but 1984 was an Olympic year, and Raleigh had all those Olympic "superbikes" built, and this frame seems much lower quality than any of those bikes or the Marinoni bikes. I don't know what it is, but it looks fake to me, or just very low quality. Perhaps not junk, but collectible? I don't think so.
The owner of the frame had gotten it from a former Raleigh employee and still believed that it was a Marinoni, although the team people didn’t think so and neither did Marinoni, since they stated it was definitely not one of theirs. The owner said it was a very good frame, and the filework was even better than on his Waterford. He said it had been raced with a Dura-Ace build-up as that was a team sponsor, but a better Campagnolo Super Record rear derailleur was used, with the Campy markings scratched out!

Framebuilding at Raleigh SBDU

I was becoming very intrigued by the frame. Marinoni said that they could refinish it for me and build me a correct-style fork. The owner was able to provide a serial number and with this the mystery was solved. The frame was indeed a Raleigh, but a very special one. Mike Fatka was able to explain that the frame was built in a small 12-man factory in Ilkeston, near Nottingham at Raleigh’s Special Bicycle Development Unit.

Unable to resist, I put in a bid for the frame and soon afterward Raleigh Professional #SB6032 was mine. It actually cost more to ship the frame from its owner in Kansas City to me than I paid for the frame, but I was about to discover that the frame was only the first and nowhere near the most expensive part of my project! The owner had packed the frame so well it took me an hour with a very sharp knife to free it from its shipping box. The frame actually looked better than it had in the photos and my wife, who had been appalled by what she thought was going to be a piece of rusty junk, was highly impressed. The decals were quite good, as was the paint (unlike the notorious quality of Italian and French finishes from the 1980s) and the only rust, which was very minor, was to be found on the under-tube cable guides. The bottom bracket and headtube were very clean and the frame looked to be quite straight.

SBDU in action, 1980s

The Internet, that source of all information, good and bad, yielded a great deal about SBDU and its bicycles. Here is one reference I found:

Headed by Carlton’s Gerald O’Donovan, Raleigh Specialist Bicycle Development Unit, was created in 1974 and housed in its own standalone factory in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, which was once part of the Rolls Royce works. The SB unit is best known for pioneering and proving the new Reynolds 753 lightweight tubing in 1974 although it made Reynolds 531 framesets as well. Initially, almost all 753 production was for the TI Raleigh Team (which was equipped with 753 frames from the 1975 season onwards) and other European teams with each team member of the Raleigh squad getting two or three frames per season.

From 1974-77 it bought out most if not all of the 753 tubing from Reynolds (both Raleigh and Reynolds being part of the TI conglomerate of course) making it exclusive to Raleigh. Production increased to the point of offering framesets to the general public by 1978 at a cost of $475 in the US market including an Edco headset. The 753 was offered in track, roadracing and special time trials frames in the famous team livery, midnight blue or champagne. Initially Ilkeston turned out about 25 753 tubed frames a week c. 1977 and produced approximately 9000 framesets in both 531 and 753 for individuals and teams until its closure in 1986.
The piece went on to say that due to their lightweight nature, 753 frames in particular were prone to damage but that a good SBDU frame was a high-quality one, and, indeed highly collectible since never more than 700 frames per year were built at SBDU.

The Internet yielded further gold: a Yahoo discussion group devoted to high-end Raleigh bicycles and I learned a great deal about my new acquisition. It would have been built in 1983/84 and sold as a special order frameset to a customer of Raleigh USA. A similar frameset, available both in Reynolds 531 or 753, is shown in the 1985 Raleigh catalogue. I have since acquired a 1985 dealer catalogue which shows a built-up version of the same frame, and which I will use as the basis for my rebuild. The Yahoo group experts told me that I could determine what kind of tubing was used by the diameter of the seatpost. I had my local bike shop check with an electronic caliper and they confirmed it was 26.8 mm, meaning that I had the high-end 753 frame.

Before bidding for the bike, I made sure not only that Marinoni would refinish it for me, but also that I had a source for new decals, one of the difficult points of any rebuild. I was able to source suitable decals from California, Australia and the United Kingdom, so everything was good there.

A Restored SBDU Bike

My purpose in buying this bike was to bring it back to life and get it on the road so that I would be able to experience a state-of-the-art 1985 racing bicycle. SBDU frames are supposed to be lightweight and highly responsive and this one was clearly very good-looking. And since I have wanted to ride l’Eroica, the Tuscan cyclosportif event that celebrates vintage bicycles and the heroes who rode them over the dusty unpaved roads, I thought that the Raleigh would be the perfect time machine. It turns out that now post-1987 bicycles are not allowed in the event, so my choice has become all that much better.

A beautiful frame deserves suitable parts but this meant I had to make a decision. I communicated with Greg, the very helpful owner of Bicycle Classics, which specialized in NOS (New Old Stock) parts from this era. Although I did not pay very much for the frame, I decided I do not want to spend $2000 to end up with a bike I could easily sell for $900 so I made the decision to go with lightly-used Campagnolo Super Record parts from the correct era. That said, I was not going to go insane trying to build a perfect period-correct bike–the fork problem alone would prevent that.

After attending Peter Weigle’s talk at le Cirque du Cyclisme, I decided that the Raleigh would be rebuilt as a safe and reliable bicycle meant to be ridden without too much obsessive worry about scratches (well, no more obsessive worries than normal). As a practical matter, I did not want to use tubular tires, although they would have been authentic but would have a new wheelset made using old Campy SR hubs and new silver Mavic Open Pro box rims. They would be hassle-free and in addition I would not have any worries about old parts failing. The other area of concern was the stem and handlebar. I did buy a nice used Cinelli Giro d’Italia handlebar but I had been eyeing new Japanese-made Nitto parts, which are certified for keirin racing and are beautifully made (although not cheap either). At Cirque’s swap meet I found a new Nitto handlebar and stem in the correct size and at an excellent price, so I went with these in the end.

It has taken a great deal of patience to locate nice Campagnolo Super Record parts but they have come in: from Virginia, Florida, Australia, Naples, Berlin and who knows where else. With the exception of a few small generic mechanical parts, almost everthing has arrived except a suitable seatpost. I have a great-looking Selle San Marco Regal saddle, a model that has been produced for decades and features big copper rivets at the back. I have brand new Super Record brake levers with hard-to-find amber rubber hoods in perfect condition. My hubs were overhauled and my new wheelset constructed. All the Campagnolo parts look really gorgeous.

A non-SBDU Raleigh in the right colour scheme

Once I return from my trip to Europe in August, I will deliver the frame and decals to Marinoni so that they can work their magic. With any luck, everything will be built up before the first snow falls and this reborn Heron (the long-time Raleigh symbol) will fly again.


Velomaniac said...

Love the Raleigh restoration project post! I'm sort of doing the same with a 1986 Grand Prix. I'm hoping to have it re-painted just like that 1985 Marinoni build... Please let me know how that goes.. where you get the decals, who does your re-paint, etc.

Sprocketboy said...

Hello, Velomaniac. The rebuild is essentially done now as I got the bike back on Thursday. All I need are black leather toe straps to finsh it off and then I can do some photos. I would be happy to give you info on the decal sources. I had the bike repainted by Cycles Marinoni in Montreal and they did a superb job at a very reasonable price. Send me an e-mail at so I can send the info directly.

Velomaniac said...

Any Raleigh project update/pics?
: )

Sprocketboy said...

Getting close. Yesterday I put in the freshly-arrived Raleigh-logo crankarm dust covers. I am still waiting for my leather toe straps plus the unexpected suitable Silca red pump. Photos to follow when everything is assembled!