Sunday, August 9, 2009

Columbia Straight Bar Clunker

Today I took my kids to the Larz Anderson museum for a bike swap meet -- my second such excursion this year.

It was a short morning, but a good one. We met a friend of mine and her dog, and they joined us for a walk around the grounds and to look at the bikes and parts for sale. It was fun to watch the girls today -- they were looking forward to the bike show, but getting time with a dog (they really want a dog) was an unexpected bonus. He seemed to draw as much of a crowd as any of the bikes, especially with kids.

About halfway around the grounds, I saw an old straight-bar cruiser hanging on a rack. It was very much what I'd been thinking of when I wrote about picking up a Schwinn Cruiser a few weeks ago -- sort of halfway through the rework process. The bike had at one point been a Columbia De Luxe, but was wearing a modern fork and was missing all of its bodywork -- stripped to its essence. It wasn't a fancy bike (no complex construction techniques, here), but still an interesting design worthy of appreciation. In sum, it's a clunker. But the frame is very cool and I'm looking forward to tearing it apart and rebuilding everything. And for $80, it was perfect. There was actually a very similar Columbia there that wasn't rolling, but was more complete from a bodywork perspective. I skipped that one, but it's nice to know there are others out there, from a parts perspective. Schwinns appear to be growing on trees on eBay, but Columbias (made here in Massachusetts) not so much.

The frame has a very elegant design that makes me wonder why Schwinn ended up dominating the US bicycle market. The answer is probably that Schwinn built a better marketing and sales machine back in the day, but from a product perspective, the Columbia's frame is much more interesting to look at than contemporary Schwinns. For example, the top tube sweeps past the seat tube to intersect the seat stays in sort of a wishbone, rather than terminating at the seat tube. And the seat stays and chainstays are each formed from a single piece of tubing bent into a long U-shape. Also, there's a short tube running from the bottom bracket to the chainstays that's bisected by another tube that forms the kickstand mount. In any case, roughness aside, it's pretty cool to look at.

The parts on the bike appear to be a random mix of stuff, and it's hard to tell what, if anything, is original. The seatpost was turned upside down in the seat post to accommodate a sprung leather saddle and its clamp, which was made for a larger-diameter than the tapered end of the Columbia's post. The twin-rail sprung leather saddle is old and pretty cracked, but in usable condition. It's marked Dunelt, which as far as I know was a bike brand, not a saddle, so it may be an OEM Wrights or Brooks. The wheels are in decent shape. There's a Bendix coaster-brake rear hub and wide chrome rims in not too-terrible condition. I don't think they're S7 rims, which is probably a good thing. The headset is a generic chrome BMX piece, and the fork is a generic cantilever-brake BMX/MTB fork (with no installed brakes). The stem looks like a chrome Schwinn piece, or a knock-off. And the chrome bars look like kids cruiser bars. Blue grips and too narrow, but a nice bend. A bit of peppering in the chrome, but not awful. There's a generic 4-leaf clover chainring on the 1-piece crankset, and a set of metal-framed Wald pedals with rubber grips overlays (they're not rubber block pedals, in other words). There is no kickstand in that mount, unfortunately, but I'll look for one.

Mechanically, it works reasonably well. The bottom bracket and headset were recently repacked, and are oozing their share of fresh grease. And there's an obviously recent and generous application of oil on the chain, sprockets and pedals to quiet things down. Even so, there's a tick in the crank, and the coaster brake has a bit of a crunchiness to it as well. Both of which I can take care of during a teardown/rebuild.

Which I'll definitely have to do, because (as you can see) this afternoon I crashed headlong into a pallet full of cinderblocks, wrecking the junk fork. Seems you have to get used to having the right pedal position to adequately brake a coaster-brake bike. I remember reading something like that on Sheldon's website not too long ago. Should have paid more attention.

I wasn't hurt at all -- I wasn't going all that fast, and I stayed in the saddle, even. The poofy front tire served nicely as an airbag, and as I said, the fork crumpled, absorbing more of the impact. The legs bent back at the crown, and it's now scrap. The frame itself seems no worse for wear -- didn't see any signs of bending behind the head tube, probably because of the dual top tubes (and if it really didn't bend, that strength gives me a new appreciation for why the Rivendell Bombadil MTB was designed the way it was). I haven't checked the front wheel for damage, but am hopeful it didn't get all out of round on me -- I really don't want to spring for new wheels right now (though I may need to do that to support a front brake anyway).

So I now have another bike project, just when I was fresh out. This one will be equal parts cleanup, leather care and mechanical rebuild. There's another swap meet coming up in the next couple of weeks, and I already have a short parts list for it -- stem, seatpost, chainring, and most improbably, a Columbia kickstand. Should be fun figuring this one out!

All for now,


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