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In defense of the 70’s three speed, or, it don’t matter as long as it’s a three speed.

I frequently frequent the “For the love of British Three Speeds” thread over on Bikeforums. It’s been going on for ten years, and is now almost at 950 pages with 23,000 individual posts! There’s a lot there, and a good waste of a couple days if you want to dive in. Over the past couple of years it’s generally the same 6-10 people mulling over the minutia of three speeds. These guys (and it’s 95% men, as far as I can tell) can definitely be helpful if a newbie comes on to ask about some esoteric thing.

But spend enough time, and you’ll see where their preferences lie. The pattern I’ve seen emerge is more a concern for the specifics than the general. It’s more about geeking out over parts than having fun riding the bikes. And many of these guys have preferences in what era of three speed you get.

For example: On a recent post, someone asked their opinion on a bike they wanted to check out. It was a Hercules from the 1970’s in decent shape. The consensus quickly formed: The asking price of $300 was too much, especially since it’s a 70’s bike. Steer towards the 1950’s models, they say. They are of better quality. The OP opined that where he lives there’s a dearth of any three-speeds, and to find one in good shape that they didn’t have to travel that far for was more desirable than “holding out” for the “correct” one to come along, if it came along. Yet there was still more grousing about the 70’s bikes.

If you dig deeper in the thread, you’ll probably find more instances of people poo-poohing the 70’s Raleigh three-speed and favoring what came before. The idea is that the ideal is from anywhere between the 1930’s to the early 60’s, though in the US, you’ll be extremely lucky to find any British bikes that came before 1950. So 1950 gets touted as the sweet spot. And I can’t disagree that they are right, as the quality of bikes from this era are superior. The brazing of joints is spot on, there are extras like pump-pegs and an oil port for the bottom bracket, (no Phil grease here!) and the parts are of high-quality. As the years went on and the three-speed bicycle moved lower in the pecking order, the brazing wasn’t as good, and the parts started to cheapen out, more aluminum than steel. (Though they never got around to making an aluminum rim, y’know, where it really counts)

But y’know something else? Those 70’s bikes are still perfectly okay. They have lasted fifty years, and could possibly last another 50 more. These frames are not going to self-destruct while you ride them, despite what some may say. As for those not-great bits? If you care enough, you can always replace them. That’s what I did to my Raleigh Superbe.

There’s another advantage to having a “less desirable” three-speed: You don’t get so hung up over things. What do I mean by that? If you had a 1950’s Raleigh, or an even more exotic 30’s Raleigh, there’s the dichotomy of either not touching anything and keeping as much “patina” as possible, or doing the complete exquisite restoration. On one hand, you’ll have a bike that’s “original” but maybe unrideable, so it’s a museum piece rather than a bike you can ride. On the other hand, you’ll go down the rabbit hole of finding the “right” parts, spending lots of time and/or money on the project. Sure, you’ll end up with a bike that’s ostensibly rideable, but you may be too scared to ride it, since you’re paranoid about scratches and theft. It too becomes a museum piece.

Me? While I can appreciate a good museum piece now and then, I’m all about riding three speeds. I’m less concerned with finding the perfect one and finding a good one. And I like to spread that enthusiasm, rather than gatekeep what’s so-called “correct”. I get more of a thrill out of seeing all the people participating in the Three Speed October Challenge than finding a 1951 Raleigh Sports with a full chaincase.

The long and short of it is: I want people to ride and enjoy three speeds. I don’t care what country it originates from, and how old it is. Heck, it can be a bike that was originally something else that got converted into a three speed! (I’ve done that with three different bikes.) While I do appreciate a good vintage steed, I don’t judge on what people are riding. And while the vibe I’ve gone for with Society of Three Speeds is definitely “Britian from the 30’s through 50’s”, I know it doesn’t have to be done with a bike from those years. You can do it with an Electra Townie, if that’s what you like.

So, if you start asking some old-timers for advise about what three speed to get, and they steer you to something from the ’50’s, remember those ’70’s three-speeds too. Or an Electra Townie!

9 thoughts on “In defense of the 70’s three speed, or, it don’t matter as long as it’s a three speed.

  1. CB from northeast Kansas and former SOTS member here:
    I’m also a fan of 3 speeds. I am not a snob either. I ride a Takara 3 speed. it has a 3 piece crank (I think). I’m unsure of the year, but suspect it’s from the 80s. It has 27 inch wheels so it can get to rolling along pretty well. It has a butted frame, so there’s that. It lives outside, so the once red paint has faded to whitish pink. I’ve replaced the shifter twice and the IGH once. Bits of rust have formed in places where the paint has chipped. I’ve got the front fender connected on one side with a bit of electrician’s 12ga. insulated solid copper wire (BTW, I’ve found that leftover hanks of what I call Romex [three insulated solid copper wires and paper winding wrapped inside another plastic insulated sleeve, used by electricians inside walls, attics, and basements] make for good tie downs on my bike’s rack and metal wire collapsible baskets).The point is, my bike is ugly! But I love riding it for errands and on a nearby rail/trail.
    I also have recently acquired a blue Free Sprit 3 speed with 26 inch wheels. The frame is not butted. It has a one piece crank. It must be from the 70’s judging by the color and decals. It’s not as fun to ride, but I also don’t have it set up with racks, and baskets.
    I also recently acquired a Sparta 3005. I bought it with a broken shifter and am patiently awaiting the delivery of another shifter all the way from Holland, where this bike was made. It has a 5spd IGH. I can’t wait to get to know it. It feels like a step up in quality from both the Takara, and certainly from the Free Spirit.
    My intuition tells me there will be another resurgence of these utility/functional style bicycles. They just make so much more sense than the sports car road bike models and the off road 4X4 models of suspension bicycles. The pandemic will likely encourage more people to seek out ways to include bicycle transportation in their solutions and 3speeds are just such a better choice. I can’t wait. I feel like Kansas makes the most sense for leading the way in this regard, since it is known, after all, for its flatness and centrality.
    I could go on, but I’ve gone on enough.
    Keep up the good work. It’s good to know like minded people.

    1. Thanks for the response!
      As for membership, once you are a member of Society of Three Speeds, you are always a member! But you can always “renew” to get the extras.

  2. I wish I still had my early-80s AMF Nimble 3-speed. It was the perfect bike for me. It just fit. The guys in that forum would probably laugh me out of there.

  3. I always drooled over Raleigh 3 speeds, especially the Superbe. But they were all too small for me. Oh well. I agree good aluminum rims are better than steel rims no matter the era. I’ve used 3 speed IGH’s on and off my whole life. They definitely have their advantages. My present 3 speed is a Worksman LGB with Sturmey Archer modern 3 speed hub. A good hub by the way.

  4. I remember getting lambasted on the “For the Love of English Three Speeds” list when I replaced the rusty wheels on my ’52 Raleigh with alloy rims. What’s the point of replacing them with rims that are not as good? I’ve been riding the ’78 Schwinn that’s been converted to a three speed, (aka “the happy little three speed bicycle), lately because the roads have had their first coat of pumice and salt for the winter. One of the things I love about it is that I just don’t worry about it as much. Anything that needs to be replaced can be replaced without a visit to Ebay. The Sturmey Archer SRF-3 hubs seem fine to me, (though I wonder if the lubricated-for-life feature simply means they have a shorter life).

    I originally started thinking about an older three speed because I liked the idea of the oil port in the hub, and I read a bunch of stuff on the internet about how the older hubs were longer lasting. I can buy into the romantic notion that the old bikes were built to be serious, easily maintained, daily transportation. And I love my old bike, but maybe it’s a little bit twee. The newer bike, however, doesn’t show any signs of disintegrating any time soon.

    One thing I wonder about the oil hole for the bottom bracket on the old one. I do drop a little oil in there occasionally, just because I can, as well as a drop or so of oil on the hub of the front wheel, since there is also a place to do so, even though I used grease when I rebuilt everything. But I’ve never seen the inside of a bottom bracket shell that didn’t have a little accumulation of sand from somewhere. How does dumping a little oil into the bottom of the bottom bracket help lubricate the bearings without carrying that dirt over to them?

    1. I think alloy rims to a three speed is the best investment you can make, if you want to ride the bike as a daily driver. Steel rims in good shape are fine if you intend to use the bike as a “Sunny Day” ride. But the improved braking power from aluminum rims cannot be beat.

      And there is also the weight savings. Steve M rebuilt his wheels with drum brakes and kept the steel rims. Later on he wished that he did them in alloy instead.

      I know there’s some who say the steel rims have a “better ride quality” but I haven’t noticed the difference. The only thing I dislike about the modern alloy rims (Sun CR18) is that they are narrower than the old rims. I like wide rims.

      I get the feeling that many of the folks on the “For the Love of English Three Speeds” are more into tinkering with (and looking at) old British three speeds than riding them. I gave up on mentioning my Three Speed Challenges there, I never got any response.

  5. best wheels on a three speed that I had were stainless steel on a Rudge. Braking was iffy on such metal butnever use brakes much anyway…
    I still have a sixties Moulton three speed, does that count?

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