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Classic women's frames

Posted: Friday 26th June 2020

Author: Peter Underwood

As a general rule, the rarer a frame is, the more you have to pay for it.  One exception to this is in the world of women’s classic open frames which are about as rare as you get.  Having said this, many of the top builders did produce examples of these frames for women to ride in the 40’s and 50’s.  The reason for the small uptake is that many women of the period rode frames built in the same triangular format as that used for men.  Some club women did race and this is why they opted for the slightly stiffer concept of the men’s frame.  To be honest, quite a few were riding their husband’s hand-me-downs, both the frames and the components.  Other women riders bought triangular frames as they were so much in the majority in the club world and were generally regarded as superior.

There was however a small number of open frames constructed by builders such as Claud Butler, Hetchins, Bates, Rotrax, Hobbs and others.  Although men’s frames were hand built there was a certain amount of repetition in their building but, when it came to open frames, each one must have been a real one-off job necessitating special lugs, tubing and jigs, if used.  Sadly, this didn’t result in small frames with short apparent top tube lengths for the shorter rider as builders were very conservative and wanted the frames to conform to their norm, resulting in a 21” top tube or virtual top tube no matter how small the frame.  Nowadays, without the constraints of lugs, it is easier to get round this but that is another story.

I have noticed that each of these frames I’ve come across has a very high quality build. I guess only the top builders within the company would be allowed to take on this demanding project, so different from the run–of-the-mill jobs.  In the main, the format would be for a second ‘top tube’ to run parallel or close to parallel with the down tube.  Sometimes this was supplemented by extra ‘chain’ stays from the seat tube to the rear ends, as on the Claud Butler ‘Avant Coureur’- ‘Lady Lightweight’ shown below, not always the case though.

The Avant Coureur was the top model in Claud Butler’s open frames, some cheaper versions being welded.  It is thought that in the early 50’s Claud Butler was building some 50 open frames per year.

The open frame construction creates a few problems with the build-up of the complete machine – one is the cabling to the rear brake which needs a reversed cable ending allowing the cable to approach the stirrup from the bottom rather than the top.  Other centre-pull versions took the cable to the seat cluster where it was reversed to the stirrup via a pulley or seat-bolt mounted hanger. Examples of all three are shown above.

Makers of mass-produced open framed machines were able to create them in sufficient numbers to be economically viable but the small volume builders wouldn’t find it so easy. The second problem could be around the positioning of gear levers and cabling for both derailleur and hub gears. In the case of the latter this was made slightly easier by the use of handlebar trigger levers. In the Claud Butler shown above the rear centre-pull brake cable can be seen taken via two eyes and a brazed on pulley to the rear stirrup.

Paris Cycles on the other hand went for a more curvaceous ‘Dame’ – seen below. It is welded, lugless, with the ‘top’ tube splitting from single at the head to a curved small-diameter double tube right through to the rear ends. Note the small bridge between twin tube brace and the down tube to give more rigidity. Short stem but the bars have quite a forward throw. The rear brake cable takes a simple route along the down tube and chainstay before curving up to a reversed stirrup. The rear carrier is a Paris own-build and the curves compliment those on the frame.

Some builders used straight twin small-diameter tubes for the ‘top tube’ and they often ran from the head to the rear end resulting in what we now know as the ‘mixte’ frame.

Some machines from the Harwood Collection are shown above including, first,
details of a Bates Ideal women’s frame

Thanks for reading

Posted: Friday 26th June 2020

Author: Peter Underwood

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