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!