Sunday, July 22, 2012

Vintage Sunbeam Bicycle

Bicycles were an integral part in our house.  My uncle's Robin Hood, my father's Raleigh and my grandfather's "Royal Sunbeam" decorated the veranda.  Let me share something about the oldest of them all, the Sunbeam. I will save stories about the other two for another post.

My grandfather Subba Rao was very fond and proud to show visitors his prized machine [the bicycle was also referred as 'machine'] and mention "1914 Royal Sunbeam".  It was a present from his father Mylar Rao in September 1914 for his marriage that year, when he was 18.  I can precisely say 'September 1914', because his father has recorded a total payment of Rupees 232 towards purchase of that bicycle, in two installments in his account book.  See his entries shown below.  


[See red-marked lines]

Sunbeam was a very famous English company. Click on Sunbeam.

Subba Rao rode his Sunbeam every morning to his office.  He disliked keeping it idle.  He never let it to be ridden by others, except when he went out of town for a few days. In that event, he would ask my father to take it for work or ask me when I was old enough to ride some distance and keep it back.  He gave such fine attention to his machine that it was always in top condition.  He knew his machine so well and had such a sensitivity to its feel that if I stealthily rode it, he would come to know that it had been ridden by 'someone'!

I can vouch that Sunbeam was the smoothest of the three bicycles at home.  All the bikes were fitted with Dunlop-'Rickshaw' tyres. They were expensive, durable and 'heavy duty'.

[Sunbeam taken out of second retirement, 2012]

Sunbeam was the tallest of the three at 24 inches.  The other two were of 22 inches.  Searching the web for some stuff for this post, about this particular model machine, I found this. [click]. The model has the most similarity with ours.

I really know not about the lamp used on it because no old bicycle lamps were found in our attic, junked.

Only once Subba Rao met with an accident while riding one morning on the way to his office.  It was not his fault.  Some scooterist [rare one in the late 60s!] had hit his bike.  He had fallen and sustained minor injuries. Fortunately, his head had not hit the road side curb stone. The Sunbeam also had been hurt and required some repair.  Perhaps that was the only time Subba Rao rested at home for a week!  Subba Rao rode his machine almost till the day he died in 1976 in his 81st year.

Soon after his death, it had to be retired to the attic for the main reason that its funny gear mechanism [2-speed] had been almost completely worn out to the extent that it was neither usable nor repairable.  Mechanics dreaded opening the complicated looking system.

I was now using the Robin Hood, which had become 'mine'.  The bicycle mechanic Shivaram whose shop was just 200 metres away used to do all the repair and maintenance of all our bicycles for many years. He was often pestering me "Why don't you sell your grandfather's bicycle?".  Since we had the lucky advantage of storage space in the attic, I never paid any heed to his pestering.  I knew it would be handy some day, besides having sentimental attachment.  

In the meantime, my father who was using his Raleigh bicycle died in 1981.  Around 1984-85, my maternal uncle once borrowed this Raleigh for some short errand and returned on foot with the bad news that it was stolen. I was also using the Raleigh in between. So I was now left with only the Robin Hood.  I thought, since the place in the veranda was now vacant, why not take out the Sunbeam and use.  I was also now in a job.

Never had this Sunbeam been kept idle and that too in an attic!  Despite good maintenance, rust had begun to attack its wheel rims even before it was put away 5 years before.  Now when I took it out in 1982, it had worsened.  Its 'mud guards' were rickety, "oil bath chain casing" was shaky and rusting, tyres and tubes needed to be replaced and its original leather 'Brooks' saddle had become brittle.  On the whole, this machine had started crying for serious service!

This machine is a unique model.  The width of the handlebar is a wee bit short, having its front brake lever on the left while the right was for the rear wheel and a special 2-speed gear mechanism at the sprocket.  Only now I came to know about 'oil bath', looking for some information for this post!  See image below.  It was probably dry for many years, hence worn out.


The tiny steel balls had rolled out out of it.  Both replacement and repair were out of question.  So a new idea was required to make it work, without the gears.  The two separate plates needed to be attached permanently.  So I got 4 holes drilled and put nuts and bolts to fasten them.  The mechanic at the workshop was amazed at the quality of that steel!  It was so hard to drill!  After this, it worked again without the original mechanism.

The 'oil bath chain casing' was replaced with a new one, but this is just a simple open system.  The mud guards were replaced with the ones from Robin Hood and Robin Hood was fitted with the new pair.  Brake shoes had worn out and I found 4 pieces of hard rubber for replacement.  Its pedals were good and so it remains.  I had to change the rusted rims and spokes.  The original hubs stayed.  A new saddle was fixed, handle bar holds which were wooden were replaced with plastic ones.  It was once again in riding condition.  Shivaram, did all the work.


This is the worn out gear.


One of the four nuts can be seen on the left side.  These pictures were taken before I cleaned the machine, hence very dusty. 

I had not looked at this head badge closely before.  So I was under the impression that "Royal Sunbeam" was printed, because Subba Rao was always mentioning 'Sunbeam'.  But for posting here, after I wiped it clean to take a photo, bafflingly, it showed "The Empire.. Extra Special Model"!  

Printed Head Badge.  

What is this? I thought.  He was saying it is Sunbeam and now it is Empire.  Since my web-searches took me nowhere, I contacted one Jim Langley in the US, a bicycle collector of 25 years standing, through his website.  He promptly responded guessing that this could be a model name by Sunbeam.  I tried to match the frame number also, but to no avail. But I'll keep looking.

Some pictures now....


Frame Number 119776 below the saddle.


Remnant of the rusted front mudguard.  See original 'gold lines'. 


Two 'Sunbeam' tools that have survived.  Screw driver and spanner.


Chain Lock.


Two-speed gear lever on the bar. High and low.


Rear brake at the rims.


Pedal and crank.



Rear and front hubs.


See the replaced mud guard and dynamo I have fitted.  Lamp clamp is missing because it broke off due to severe shaking of the lamp, in my time. Now I have again taken it out of its long retirement.  
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A wee bit off 'Sunbeam' before I close, let me tell a bit about Mylar Rao's bike, which I wildly guess was also a Sunbeam.  Let me show a few letters and his diary entries.  Keep a close eye on the dates in them.  There were no bicycle mechanics on the streets a hundred years ago. The machines had to be sent to the 'authorized centre' for any attention.  They would send the quotation for the work.  The following reproduction of the quotation letter from The Indian Cycle and General Engineering Co., Bangalore shows how much repair it required! The machine must have been in 'unrideable' condition!  Read the description.


Mylar Rao was posted at Kadur at that time and it appears that a certain T.A.V.Iswaram at Bangalore [most likely an acquaintance] coordinated in this job. 

After repair, it was sent back to Kadur from Bangalore, by train [see the R/R of Southern Mahratta Railway bill from 1906].


The following is the letter to the above. Very prompt.


This is Iswaram's letter to my great grandfather, written beautifully. Read and appreciate.  It is simple and legible. Click on all the images to enlarge.


My ancestor had also fallen from his machine once and he records it in his diary that day in 1899. What he writes is amusing.
"Beware of borrowing things from others. Had a fall from Cheluva Iyengar's machine.  The brake was a little bent."


Another mention of the bicycle.


'Bicycle out of order.  Repaired as nicely as I could.'


Read the next one!  He was on 'census leave'... miles of riding.. blisters...fever ....


This is the pump I have taken out of retirement.  Made of brass and in England by Dunlop. 


Hope you enjoyed the read-ride!
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2 comments:

YOSEE said...

It brought to mind the bicycle my grandfather had and how he loved it and took care of it. ( though it was not Sunbeam brand)
I had almost forgotten the look of those locks and dynamo lamps. But reading your post brought back all memories.

Its wonderful the way you have documented everything. Someday, some youngster will be delighted to discover these and wonder at the past !

ER Ramachandran said...

We have had great attachment with Sunbeam cycle in our family.

T.P. Kailasam our uncle brought this from UK where he went to study Geology which he did along with bodybuilding, sing 'Nam thipparaLLI balu doora,' a song he composed extempore for a compeition on the stage itself and won a prize. He did half a dozen things each totally diffnt from other and became good in each.
This cycle was used by my eldest brother and being youngest and Eighth stopped with me. I used to ride kathri pedal on it. While wearing cheddi, I rode kathri style and later with pajama and shirt I had to use a clip to prevent pajama getting oil on it. It was fun all the way!
Thanks for bringing back my memory.
ERR