From the very beginning right through to this day, Hetchins have turned the necessity for lugs — and for the breaking up of straight lines — into an art form. Hugh O’Neill traces the history of this famous make of lightweight.
How crazy they are in America is open to question. It is the living room of a typical American suburban, middle class home. The furniture is modern. There is an abstract painting over the dining recess and in a huge picture frame over the fireplace is a bicycle frame. On the other side of the continent in Seattle, there is a flourishing Hetchins Appreciation Society. Each year the Hetchins population of the States increases by at least 50 machines.
What is it that makes this particular bicycle a living legend in the States as well as in the UK? There are thousands of Hetchins in existence. There isn’t an owner who does not dote on his machine and some collectors have 20 or 30 Hetchins frames. The second-hand price can sometimes be nearly as high as the new price. And yet the company is still in existence, still producing original curly frames.
“I can’t understand it all” said Alf Hetchin recently in genuine surprise and modesty.
There are reasons. Every Hetchins frame is itself a reason. Even the very history of the marque is a reason.
– Bicycle Magazine, Sept 1982: Hetchin’s: A Marque of Distinction
Creating this online museum, my intention was to focus on Victorian and early Edwardian machines, and celebrate the era, pre-motorized traffic, when the bicycle ruled the road. Slowly, but surely, the years have crept up …and now even I find myself including a lightweight bicycle from the 1930s.
Maybe rules are made so that they can be broken? If so, a Curly Hetchins is surely a suitable bike to do so. It broke the rules from the beginning. When I look at any original vintage bicycle I see a fabulous work of art; but Harry Hetchins brought this idea of ‘bicycle as an artform’ into the public consciousness. And besides that, Harry’s real name was Hyman and he fled Russia as a child. My grandad was also named Hyman (similarly anglicised to Harry) and his family left Russia under the same circumstances. So it brings me great pleasure to announce that this iconic and historic machine, dripping with lugs and curliness, is herewith inducted into the Oldbike Online Museum hall of fame. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
1937 ‘Curly’ Hetchins Brilliant No 2 Vibrant
26″ Wheels (Weinmann 26 x 1 1/4)
Frame No 71551
GB Sports Brakes
Campag Gran Soprt Rear Mech
Webb Pedals & Clips
Brooks Professional Saddle
Milremo LF Hubs
Williams Fluted Chainset
Bluemel Lightweight Mudguards
Probably if other lightweight enthusiasts see these pictures they’ll consider this bicycle with original paintwork a fine contender for restoration. Admittedly it is past its cosmetic best. Maybe it’s because I’m also past my cosmetic best that I’d consider it sacrilege to repaint it?
It’s a boring shade of grey, unlike some garish postwar Curlys, but its original transfers (decals) still proudly proclaim its ancestry …and it’s built to ride. That’s what I’m doing with it. I’m only a recent convert to lightweights, and still addicted to old black roadsters, but I believe in trying everything, and riding an iconic machine such as this Curly is obviously too tempting to resist.
The marque specialist informs that this Hetchins was built in January 1937 and sold to Mr. W.E Fitt of Walthamstow, London on 15th March 1937, for £11 12/- 9d.
|The following article by Hugh O’Neill appeared in “Bicycle Magazine”, Sept. 1982.Hetchin’s: A Marque of Distinction|
From the very beginning right through to this day, Hetchins have turned the necessity for lugs — and for the breaking up of straight lines — into an art form. Hugh O’Neill traces the history of this famous make of lightweight. How crazy they are in America is open to question. It is the living room of a typical American suburban, middle class home. The furniture is modern. There is an abstract painting over the dining recess and in a huge picture frame over the fireplace is a bicycle frame. On the other side of the continent in Seattle, there is a flourishing Hetchins Appreciation Society. Each year the Hetchins population of the States increases by at least 50 machines.
What is it that makes this particular bicycle a living legend in the States as well as in the UK? There are thousands of Hetchins in existence. There isn’t an owner who does not dote on his machine and some collectors have 20 or 30 Hetchins frames. The second-hand price can sometimes be nearly as high as the new price. And yet the company is still in existence, still producing original curly frames. ”I can’t understand it all” said Alf Hetchin recently in genuine surprise and modesty.
There are reasons. Every Hetchins frame is itself a reason. Even the very history of the marque is a reason. Aged 26, Hyman Hetchins (‘Harry’) and his sister fled from Russia; their parents were killed in the Revolution. Harry established a music shop in Leyton. Sheet music and instruments sat side by side with the new portable gramophone and shellac 78 rpm discs. It was not unusual then for gramophone shops to sell bicycles, and Harry, himself a keen cyclist, gave over part of this shop to Raleighs and Rudges. A Natural Engineer Harry’s club, the Allondon Road Club, was probably where he became interested in racing.
As the bug bit deeper he began to dream about building his own frames. Fortunately Harry was a natural engineer — and a perfectionist. Gramophones brought in for repair would often vanish into his workshop to emerge a few days later repaired with some component he had made. He also believed in a complete service, so he had small ‘Hetchins’ cans made filled with a spindle of oil for the home maintenance man. So, in the early 20s Hetchin built his first cycle. It has a conventional design of frame and simple lugs, but it sold; and Hetch soon needed some other builder to make some frames for him. It was at this stage that two ingenious and complimentary talents came together.
Harry was joined by Jack H. Denny, the inquisitive and creative son of a local frame builder. Jack learnt his craft from his father, the owner of two London cycle shops. It soon became evident that the son outshone the father, who was magnanimous enough to recognize the fact. On Jack’s 21st birthday Mr. Denny gave him the Wandsworth Road shop. Many of Jack’s friends had had cycling accidents, some quite nasty, and all due to the breaking of frame tubes and fork blades. Jack could see that the straight shouldered lugs then in use gave a sharp shearing stress line straight across the tubes. He started to experiment with stiffening strips tacked on to extend the joint, and the breakages stopped. The idea of just tacking on bits of metal however offended Jack’s artistic eye, so he began to ornament the stiffeners and to cut away the lugs. He had always been attracted to the Fleur-de-lis design and this was what he incorporated into the early models. The choice was not quite entirely fortuitous, for this is the shape that gives the best load-spreading capability. Certainly it is a theme that Jack returned to many times.
One day Jack turned his mind to another problem. Riders were touring and racing over ever increasing distances. Road surfaces were poor and the new narrow saddle was all the rage. Consequently weekend riders were separated by a week of hobbling in bow-legged agony. Something was obviously needed to reduce road shock. Just A Fancy Idea Jack recalled a curly frame that he had seen on a stand at the Lightweight Cycle Exhibition at the Floral Hall. It had been made by Maurice Selbach who had said it was just a fancy idea. Not to Jack it wasn’t! If the front forks curve to absorb road shocks, he thought, then why shouldn’t I try to do the same thing with the rear stays?
He built his first frame with a gentle curve in the seat stays and the ‘S’ bend in the chain stays. The idea worked, the bends did damp the road shocks, but there was an unexpected benefit. The ‘S’ removed a great deal of the flexing of the bottom bracket zone. The frame was given to one of the hard men of cycling to try, Harry Rothwell. In order to toughen himself and to test the frame thoroughly, Harry carried two house bricks in his saddle bag. He couldn’t fault the frame and it was returned to the shop where it was hanging when Hyman Hetchin walked in. He had come to ask Jack to build some trade frames. He saw the curly and quickly asked three questions: ‘what’s that?’; ‘does it work?’; and ‘can I have it?’
H.H. had a shrewd eye for business. The deal that the pair finally agreed was that JHD would sell his shop, would become a junior, profit-sharing partner in the Hetchin business, would build high-quality, fancy-lugged machines and would allow the patenting of the curly stay idea. This would mean a bigger business and therefore new premises would be required. The Seven Sisters Road, Tottenham operation was started. There were a number of other builders in the area: some achieved fame for a time. Each tried to outdo the other and to produce lighter and better frames.
Hetch and Jack focused not on weight but the lugwork. Taking a standard Chater Lea casting they drilled and cut and filed, then welded on embellishments to produce ever more intricate shapes and patterns. Jack found that this also gave a considerable strength advantage. The shapes were such that he could get a good run of brass brazing metal with 15 seconds less heating. This was quite significant in preserving the nature of the metal of the very thin tubes [chrome moly steel, such as Reynolds, gains its strength through tempering, and loses a bit of it with every re-heating.]
The development work was now completed and in 1932 [sic — should be 1934] the Rear Vibrant Triangle (patent No 33317) and the Hetchins Vibrant Triangle (Patent No 443454) were taken out. The curly Hetchins was born. [There were not two patents, as O’Neill here suggests, but only one. –Editor] A press write-up on the first production bike created a considerable stir. Some manufacturers tried to buy the patent — then, finding it was not for sale, tried to discredit it.
One Quality — The Best From the early days Hetch never used anything but Reynolds 531 tubing (although some of the earliest catalogues listed Chromo SAQ as the alternative). The reasoning was simple. By only having one quality — the best — there could never be a mix-up. There is no need to put a ‘Reynolds 531 Double Butted’ transfer on a Hetchins bicycle — it just could not be anything else. At the time when the Curly was born there were two main lug designs. They were called the Ideal and the Brilliant. A pre-war catalogue shows various styles of cycle. The prices are for cycles or framesets with the most expensive fittings (then BSA or Chater Lea). If Brampton equipment was preferred the price would drop by about 30/-. The list was: Brilliant No.2 Vibrant for 6 pound 6. Competition Road or Path: 13 pound 10. Superbe Road: 12 pound 10. Brilliant No. 1: 10 pound 10. DeLuxe: 8 pound. Ideal: 6 pound 6. Ladies DeLuxe: 8 pound 15. DeLuxe Tandem: 15 pound 10. Ideal No.1 Tandem (lady in back): 13 pound 5. The brilliant No. 1 frameset with Williams C1000 chainset, seat pin, and head clip cost the sum of 5 pounds 5. (No wonder that with over 1000 built in one year the company made no profit.) At the time the tandems all had straight stays, as did all Ideal and DeLuxe model bicycles.
1930s HETCHINS CATALOGUE