What is a Restored Bicycle?

What is a restored bicycle?  How do you define restore? It’s not nearly as cut and dry of an answer as you think it might be.  It is actually a fairly debatable topic among bicycle enthusiasts and other people that like to tinker and or admire old stuff.

The key to this debate is mostly found within how a person defines the term “Restore”.  And simply looking at the dictionary for a cut and dry definition doesn’t help much.  Because the two basic schools of thought on the subject are based on two slightly different definitions of the word.

Merriam-Webster defines the term restore as follows.


  • To put or bring (something) back into existence or use
  • Return (something) to an earlier or original condition by repairing it, cleaning it, etc

And from here the debate rages.

It might kind of seem like a subtle difference in definitions.  But one that divides the two camps of people who ride and fix up old bikes.  How historically accurate do I need to be in the project and still call it a restoration?  Are time period correct parts needed in this project?  Does improving the bike with modern better working parts like upgrading to alloy rims and shiny stainless steel spokes count? And the answer is different depending on who you talk to.

On one end of the spectrum are the people who say don’t touch any of it, Patina (ie rust and scratches) is good, and by altering the bike at all it loses its identity and soul.  They consider each dent and scratch part of the bikes story or history.  And that history makes the bike more authentic.

Often when working on the bikes I wonder what happened that caused that small dent or scratch.  And for the most part I know deep down that the patina was likely caused by something less interesting than the story that I make up.  Whose imagination can resist the stories that some of the old bicycle advertisements portray?  Boys out running lions on an  African tundra (or is it that he snuck into the zoo?), keeping up with fighter jets, and what not.

However, patina on bikes this old are likely from being banged up while sitting in storage.  More likely a box of christmas ornaments falling on the fender causing the dent, than little Mikey hitting a curb and knocking out his front two teeth.  The reality is most likely nearly always more ordinary than extraordinary, which is kind of a blow to the this line of thought.  Is neglect really worth preserving?

There is also the opposite extreme example of the Rat Rodders and Modders who don’t care at all about what the bike was, and they just build up their old bikes as they want, often going completely over the top with their choice of accessories .  For those that don’t know they’re the “Hot Rodders” and Big Daddy Roths of the bicycle world.

I don’t find their philosophy offensive either.  There is definitely something to admire both in hot rodded Model Ts and Schwinns.  And the amount of effort. attention to detail, time and money that goes into some of these projects is inspiring to say the least.

Most people fall somewhere in between leaning one way or the other.  Flippers don’t take any of this into account and part out and rebuild these bikes with little more in thought in how to generate the maximum profit.  Though I suspect most people just try to keep their bikes running – until they don’t.

The reason I bring all this up now is that this is the dilemma that I am currently going through with the Manhattan.  Bikes like this Manhattan require a lot of work.   Realistically it’ll cost much more money for a true historical restoration than it would probably ever be worth.   And with bikes in this condition, a true historical rebuild quite frankly isn’t possible, if for no other reason the fact that I can not likely find the same paint (very likely lead based) to repaint the frame that was originally used.  And even if I could, would I want to?  Paint has improved significantly (though some might disagree) over the last 60 years.

If the bike was a significant piece of bicycle or industrial history – (read that as rare – and not the I’m trying to sell you a bike on e-bay/CL “rare” – which 99 times out of 100 means that it isn’t rare), this question gets a lot easier to answer.  Of course you go for as historically accurate as you can.

But this is not the case of the Manhattan.  It’s just another three speed, and the closest it comes to being rare is the AG hub, the metal full chainguard, and perhaps the fenders – none of which are really all that rare, uncommon is probably a better descriptor.

The easy way out is to just strip it down, repaint it in black, build it back up and sell it.  I could actually make a few bucks off the bike, especially if I kept the few uncommon parts off the rebuild and sold them separately.  Though I admit if I omit any of it I’ll most likely keep them around here for future projects.  Especially the AG hub and lights , if it turns out that they are fully functioning.

Of course there are other issues as well which aren’t really about the bike which I have to consider as well.

For example, what is the focus of my blog right now?  Do I want to get into a complete historical restoration this early?   Or I am more interested in learning and teaching people how to take care of these bike themselves, and if that is the case – do I even need to do a full resto on it?  Does a complete historical restoration fit into that goal? , or does it just make these bikes look like too much work, and perhaps freighting  off potential riders.  I already kind of feel like I did that with my last post, where I started perhaps the most involved and most intimidating part of these bikes, and that’s the cottered cranks.

As for me, I  fall somewhere between the two camps.  My main goal is to keep the bikes road worthy, and make them enjoyable to ride.  And if that means that I need to replace something like the handlebars, I have no problems with obtaining new alloy north road bars or even moustache bars to replace the (most likely completely rusted out) chrome.

However there is a balance.  Hydraulic disc brakes would greatly improve the brake system,  but I would never even consider doing such thing to an old three speed.  Drum brakes?  Most likely I would not hesitate, even with the modern ones.  I think the idea of components within the hubs of the wheel to be very “three speedish” in concept, they increase durability, and greatly simplify the maintenance of the bike.  Carbon fiber would definitely be out, but like stated above quality alloy parts would usually be ok by me, but mostly because there isn’t much of a choice with new parts, not many companies do quality chrome anymore .  I’m more interested in the idea of “original in concept” than I am to “historical original”.

Though if given the choice, I’d stick with the original parts or original replacement parts if available at a reasonable price.

It’s not unusual to hear that some people have ridden 100,000 plus miles on them.  And to do so, one would expect there to be some adjustments and replacements of parts over that kind of lifetime.  And this is often confirmed by bikes that are put for sale with “period correct” parts (not original from the factory, but generally available additional parts at the time).  And why shouldn’t they be that way?  It’s your bike, make it comfortable for you.

And the final proof is that most the bikes I buy for parts are usually some kind of franken-bike. Which is why they make great parts bikes.  Since they’re often sold cheap, because there is little to no hope of ever doing a historically accurate restoration on them, and often things have been “fixed” or “upgraded”but not very well and/or not in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Under normal circumstances the Manhattan would have been a parts bike for me.  I would have likely, taken it apart, salvaged the better useable parts, and put them on another bike.  And scrapped the rest.  The frame is likely the only thing that would have been scrapped because I don’t typically do a repaint.  However, I have been itching to do one recently, I am constantly looking at expanding my skill sets. Likewise it will make for an interesting set of blog posts.

It desperately needs new paint, the patina is well beyond quaint or charming.  Most the red paint is worn down to the primer coat, but for some reason most the white is in ok shape, but would stand out against a new red paint job.  I’ve got the paint guns and compressor to do it right,  but what color do I paint it?  I like the red on white, but the seat is two toned blue and white.  Both colors were available at purchase, but the seats are all the same colors as the frame were painted from the handful of images I have seen.  Or do I even care if the seat is blue and the frame is red?  I could always repaint the seat too.  Of course I could also paint it something completely different too like hot pink and fluorescent green (not very likely to happen).

I do know that I’m reluctant to put the chainguard back on.  It’s a pain in the butt to remove, and it greatly affects the practicability of future maintenance.  But on the other hand, once I’m done with it, it likely wouldn’t need to be removed for at least another decade with proper care.  This would be a much more difficult decision to make if I had the complete chainguard, but I don’t.  So, for the time being I’m leaning on omitting it.

If I repaint, then I’ve got the question of what to do with the decals?  I haven’t been able to find anyone that currently makes reproduction ones for this model – which for most people would be problematic.  But though I’ve never tried it, I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to make some professional level replica water transfers of my own, and I’m quite eager to try my hand at it.

And should I decide to make the water transfers do I replicate the “Manhattan” sticker on the seat tube?  I actually like it quite a bit, but many don’t seen to appreciate it.  Some say it is too flashy for such a noble steed.  And if I’m looking at making more traditional three speed looking, getting rid of the two tones and painting say just one color and forgoing the transfers would save huge amounts of time and money.

The front fender of the bike is good shape and can easily be cleaned.  However, the rear fender is pretty much toast.  There is a large patch of rust that is through the chrome making it flake off.  I could probably eventually find a replacement fender,   The problem with finding this part is that the fenders are a fairly unique design.  How long do I wait until one comes up on ebay at a reasonable price?  How much time do I want to put into calling and emailing different bike shops and people trying to find one, where it might be likely that I might not find one at all.  Of course since it is an unusual fender I could probably sell or trade the front one for a nice set of not original chrome or more modern alloy ones in good shape which would wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone but the few three speed aficionados out there.

I will likely swap to alloy rims since most people prefer these rims to steel ones.  I still ride the steel rims on my Superbe and Twenty, but this project will most likely be put up for sale when it’s done, or if my kid likes it given to her.  And unlike her dad, she doesn’t have 35 years of bike riding experience, where most of it was riding on steel rims.

Truth is that I probably won’t make up my mind on some of this stuff until the day everything is cleaned up and ready to get put back together.  Some of the issues might sort themselves out by then, others might be more of a financial or practical decision.  And even when it’s done, if it sits around here for too long—-who knows what’ll happen to it?

And that is part of the fun too, this whole project as well.  It is going to end up being a surprise for me as well.




3 thoughts on “What is a Restored Bicycle?”

  1. I hear ya. Right now I’ve done quite a bit to my Raleigh Wayfarer and will be doing quite a bit more, so the whole period correctness has been thrown out the window. But at the heart of it, it’s still a British three-speed, even if it’s more “Rivved” out. However, i try to keep the Rudge Sports a tad more “period correct” since it’s older and somewhat rarer, though right now it’s dressed up like a Path Racer and I’m more concerned with “look” vs. “the part is from 1953.”

  2. I use the term ‘road-restored’ for the old Raleigh that I’m working on: my aim is to get it to the point of comfortable rideability. I have no desire for period-correctness.
    2 CCMs, 2 Raleighs

    With some of my other projects I use the term resuscitate, depending on how far gone it was when I got it. Salvage, rescue, call it what you will. If it keeps the embodied energy already in a built thing from being landfilled, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.
    VELOSport Boulevard

    I was thinking on the ride home from the university this afternoon that every bicycle (discounting “bike-shaped-objects”, perhaps, but not even necessarily) is a potential vehicle for transformation. Personal and societal. (See the things one comes up with after just half a day in that place?)

    Warm regards!

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