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The 1930 Rudge-Whitworth: An Adventure

by David Kamp

I dropped in at one of the garage sales late last summer, and the single-speed Rudge-Whitworth caught my eye. Jack said it had been donated and that he may have the business card of the donor who knows the provenance of the bike, which apparently had been stored in a garage for several years or decades.

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I was taken by the vintage look of this machine: a single speed hub, very intriguing-looking cantilever brakes, and rims with an intriguing paint job. The rims had a wide black center stripe bordered with gold pinstriping. The problem was gunk and rust. This vintage bike became my next homework project and a window into a bygone era.

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This vintage Rudge-Whitworth turned out to be a larger project than I envisioned. I was clued into the age of this bike from a seat tube decal that read: "Assembled in the Irish Free State". The Irish Free State, the result of the independence movement, was created in 1922 until 1937 when it became "Ireland". No longer was painting an option but rather the new mission was to clean only and preserve all the decals and detailing from this gilded era gem.

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I surveyed the situation and decided to clean first, remove rust second, then restore the degraded tires, and possibly brake shoes and cables.

I set about cleaning. First came the wheels. I became a gunk removal expert, removing decades of gunk and unsticking this bike from the past. Park brand cleaner was effective in removing years of sticky lubricants from the hubs, spokes, and rims. The bearing surfaces in the hubs were in good mechanical shape, so I cleaned hubs and replaced bearings. Unfortunately, the cone locknuts were missing, but luck was in the favor of history and a couple of correctly-threaded nuts were in a parts bin at BikeX. This was truly lucky as the locknut threads on this bike are not that common, nearly the British standard of 3/8” - 24, but not quite.

Around 1853, the British military contracted the Whitworth Company for 90 engines for gunboats needed in the Crimean War. To get the contract done quickly, Whitworth disassembled the engines of two boats, farmed out the production of parts to machine shops in England, and got the boat engines built in record time. A standard for machined threads for all the parts was created to ease the repairs with parts made at different shops. The Whitworth Company basically invented the British standard for machine threads. Additionally, Whitworth wrench sizing was equally unique, not English or metric.

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As bicycling took hold of the world in the late nineteenth century, many bicycle manufacturing companies started, with the creation and merging of mechanically-inclined companies occurring at a dizzying rate. The Rudge-Whitworth company was no exception. In 1894 the Rudge Company, a manufacturer of bicycles, and the Whitworth Company, by then a manufacturer of motorcycles, merged and subsequently made the Rudge-Whitworth bicycles along with motorcycles, "knock-off-hub" spoked car wheels, saddles, and other products. The name was sold to Raleigh Bicycles in the early 1940s.  So why my axle nuts were not exactly 3/8-24, the British standard that the Whitworth Company helped to standardize remains a mystery. Luckily, I had found lock nuts in the bin.

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Clean and adjusted hubs in hand, I addressed the spokes: "Hello, spokes. Do you want to be cleaned or replaced?"  The wheels were true and round, so I decided to clean rather than replace, to maintain as much vintage character as possible. Removing the years of surface corrosion required fine steel wool, rust remover, and lots of elbow grease.

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I experimented with rust removers. There are pages and pages on the internet on rust removing formulations and most of them were tried. For the spokes and chrome parts, I found the best cleaner-restorer was a phosphoric acid-based cleaner we had at BIKEX plus fine steel wool, so I scrubbed away with decent results. The BikeX go-to penetrating fluid “Kroil” was used in liberal amounts on this vintage beauty and stripped bolts were kept at bay.

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The chrome rims were badly rusted. I used "Evapo Rust" obtained from O'Reilly Auto Parts, a formulation that needs to be heated to 80C with the parts immersed, a tricky maneuver with 26" rims because only a few inches at a time can be immersed. Rust removal also caused the paint to flake off, so after the lengthy process of cleaning the rims, I repainted the black center stripe on the rims, leaving the gold pinstriping alone, with gaps where the paint flaked off.

Tires were another adventure that make the threading even more mysterious. 26" bike wheels have three different standards in the industry: Schwinn 26"; 650c; and English. One needs to measure bead seat diameter (BSD) to get the right tires. The Rudge-Whitworth rims were 590 mm BSD, the old English standard, so I bought two tires (we luckily had at the shop where I work part-time, Campus Bikes at Stanford), 26X1-3/8 (which is not the same as 26x1.375 inch!), and they fit nicely.

The chrome parts like the handlebar, stem, brake levers, and various chromed parts were cleaned up using a non-abrasive scrubbing pad and chrome polish, giving a satisfactory finish.

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The brakes were interesting. After cleaning up the rust, I decided to service the cables. On the Rudge-Whitworth the cables are not removable from the cable housings, and further, the end stops or "caps" on the cables are not the same as those on modern brake cables. The cables are not removable because the cables were made to the exact length, inserted into the housing, and "capped" using either a crimped or soldered end, with different shaped caps for the brake lever end and the brake end. Boldly, I cut the cable and assured myself I could find some sort of cable terminals to set the length. The rear brake needed new housing, so I replaced it, then inserted a modern brake cable. Some filing and trial and error were needed to get the modern terminal to fit into the brake lever (which had been disassembled for rust removal), and then turned my attention to the brake end connection. I could not find an appropriately shaped cable terminal, but eventually found an "adjustable cable end" that was adapted as a replacement for the original. I subsequently found a frame builder in Portland, Rob English of English Bicycles, who will machine a perfect solution to the cable terminal problem, a barrel-shaped part that will fit nicely into the brake straddle mechanism.

The Rudge-Whitworth brake uses a solid straddle mechanism in place of a straddle cable that is used on modern cantilever brakes. The cable end is anchored on the brake frame, so the straddle mechanism is pulled downward rather than being pulled upward to activate the brakes. Modern brakes have the cantilever housing stop attached to the frame and the cable moves by pulling up on the straddle cable. On the Rudge-Whitworth, the place where the cable end is inserted is fixed on the brake frame, so the solid straddle mechanism floats and the housing and straddle is pulled downward to activate the cantilever mechanism, which of course has a more complex arrangement of levers than that of a modern cantilever brake.

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After solving the rear brake cable and housing problem, I decided to thoroughly lube the front cable and thus not have to disassemble or replace anything. It works fine. The fabric wrapped steel housing looks vintage with a distinctively different feel from modern, plastic-covered cable housing.

Two beautiful details have survived history, rust, and the process of cleaning to remind us all that this bike is a Rudge-Whitworth: the red hand adorning the steering tube and the similar hand image on the crankset.

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After this long and intriguing project to restore a beautiful relic of history, I am left with two things that stand out as favorites.

First, the brakes. They presented an interesting cable challenge, but with the solution came beauty. These brakes represent beautiful mechanical ingenuity developed in the early 20th century, allowing the use of rim brakes. Recall that mechanical brakes up to that time were "rod brakes" that used a friction plate that pressed down on the outside tread of the tire, activated by a brake lever and rod, not a cable. The Rudge-Whitworth brakes are cable activated rim brakes similar to what we see on mid to late 20th-century mountain bikes, nearly a century later.

Second, the history. The Rudge-Whitworth company-sponsored Billie (Dovey) Fleming in 1938 when she set the world record for the most mileage on a bicycle in a year. She rode a Rudge-Whitworth every day for 365 days to accumulate 29,603 miles, a record that stood at her 100th birthday in 2014, the year she passed away. She did not carry a water bottle or food, only a saddle bag with clothes, and stopped for nourishment.

Kajsa Tylen set the new women's record in 2016 at 32,326 miles, 78 years, and many bike technology advancements later. The overall (women's and men's) record today is 86,500 miles set by Amanda Coker in 2017, surpassing both Fleming's and Tylen's records as well as the men's record of 76,076 miles set in 2016 by Kurt Searvogel. Coker went on to set the 100,000-mile record in 423 days. Englishman Tommy Goodwin held the annual mileage record of 75,065 miles, and the 100,000-mile record in 500 days, set in 1939. So those pioneers held the women's and men's records for 78 and 77 years, respectively, on vintage steel bikes with just three-speed hubs.

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Today, we ride a century and rest the next day. We ride on beautiful bikes full of modern advancements in bicycle technology. And yet, as wonderful and exciting as these modern bikes are, few if any can bring us on such a fascinating journey through time.