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Mercian Cycles

Posted: Wednesday 03rd June 2020

Author: Christopher Barbour, Veteran-Cycle Club

Mercian Cycles have published a history of the company on their company web site. A few notes on published sources and frame models will lend important background to Mercian history and point to lines of further enquiry.

Of foremost interest to owners of older Mercians wishing to identify their machines is the fact that records for frames built before 1970 no longer exist; they are assumed to have been lost or discarded when Mercian moved shop in 1971. The Mercian Cycles Register, compiled and published by Chris Barbour and Martin Hanczyc of the Veteran-Cycle Club, is an attempt to reconstruct the lost record of earlier Mercian frames.

All sources agree that Mercian Cycles was founded in 1946 by Tom Crowther and Lou Barker, and that frame production started soon thereafter. Mick Madgett of the V-CC has records of Mercian frames sales at Madgett Cycles, Diss, Norfolk, that show frame no. M1146 was sold on 17 April 1947 – the oldest documented Mercian, its whereabouts unknown. Another Mercian, no. 444, survives and is reputed to have been made in 1946.

Identification of models without original documentation or first-hand knowledge of original specification can be tricky. Mercian has used many lug patterns and model names over the years, which sometimes correspond, but at other times do not. Reliably identified models in the register show that the same pattern could be used for different models; on the other hand, some individual models were available with different lugs, or even lugless, at the same time [see Hilary Stone, “Design Classic: Mercian Tourers”, Cycling Plus, June 2004].

The pattern of frame numbers has varied over the years, and especially on 1950s frames, the year of manufacture could be either the last two digits or the first two. There are a sufficient number of frames in the Register to show trends, but some frames – number 59557 for example, which may have been made in either 1957 or 1959 – will be impossible to date precisely without corroborating information.  Further information on Mercian in the period 1956-60.

Some early frames carry “Tom Crowther” transfers, and to confuse matters, there are frames of that marque that would seem to date from periods after Crowther sold the business to Mercian builder William Betton in 1965. Grant Mosley, a longtime employee who purchased the business with current director Jane Smith upon Betton’s retirement in 2003, confirms that these later Crowther frames were made under contract in the Mercian shops [see Nic Henderson,].

The most important primary documents before 1970 are Mercian frame brochures. Several have been published on the Mercian history page. It is unfortunate that photographs in the 1950s brochures do not show sufficient detail to discern lug patterns.

In 2006 a brochure surfaced with a separate, enclosed printed price list dated November 1st, 1951.  Featured therein are the Vigorelli Pursuit, Miss Mercian, and Massed Start frames, all constructed with Oscar Egg lugs, a common brand of fitting on early Mercians. Models listed without photos include the Standard Track frame (Oscar Egg lugs), the lugless Whitemeadows Road Racing frame, and the lugless Short Distance Road-Track frame. The separate price card adds the King of Mercia and, in a handwritten addition, “Vigorelli Scroll Lugs” (left?) at a pound dearer than the Vigorelli Pursuit. In light of Hilary Stone’s Cycling Plus article, wherein he describes the early 1950s Super Vigorelli with lugs of “a similar design to the Vincitore’s”, it would seem that the scroll-lug model is likely to be the first appearance of the Mercian’s signature motif in hand-cut lugs, seen since the mid-1960s in the Vincitore racing and touring models.

In addition to Oscar Egg lugs, the 1951 brochure mentions use of Agrati ends and brazed-on fittings for Simplex or Benelux gears.

It will be for others to relate the history of racing men and women on Mercian cycles. It should be noted that throughout the excellent Bicycling book: transportation, recreation, sport (John and Vera van der Reis Krausz. – NY: Dial Press, 1982) one sees a number of Mercians photographed on tour and in rough stuff, cyclocross, and hill climbs.  On November 11, 1954, when Cycling featured Ray Booty as its Man of the Year, he was shown at speed on a Mercian bike.

Models of long standing in the frame stable include:

  • Vigorelli – almost always a fixed-wheel track or time trial frame, although Dave Keeler’s 1954 Mercians appear to be geared Vigorellis. Still available, but since the 1960s, not with fancy lugs;
  • Miss Mercian – twin lateral mixte configuration;
  • Welded frames – still available as the Pro Lugless;
  • King of Mercia – still available and usually the top-of-the-line among Mercian frames made with commercially available lugs;
  • Superlight – introduced in the late 1950s, still available it  traditionally used Mercian’s own hand-cut lugs and shot-in stays;
  • Campionissimo/Olympic/Classic/Audax … slightly less expensive frames than the King of Mercia, sometimes with simpler lugs, often available only in a fixed frame specification introduced by the late 1950s; and
  • Vincitore – according to Hilary Stone’s research, this frame with fancy lugs in the motif of the 1950s Vigorelli, but with some differences in the lug profiles, was revived under Bill Betton’s ownership circa 1965; Still available includes Mercian’s signature lug pattern.

Hilary Stone’s article in Cycling Plus and Mercian’s own potted history are the best overviews. Many Americans will be familiar with the chapter on Mercian in The Custom Bicycle, by Michael Kolin and Denise De la Rosa (Emmaus, PA, 1979), which provides a glimpse of the firm under Bill Betton’s direction in a time of booming production. We would be grateful to hear from readers of this page who have other articles or documentation on Mercian Cycles, such as reviews of Mercian bicycles in British cycling magazines.

We have included some details of some particularly interesting older machines. The first is a 1954 machine, frame No. 36254 (54 at the end denotes year on this frame) which was built for Dave Keeler of the Vegetarian C & AC.  Dave was a leading time-triallist in the UK and also competed in track and road racing events spanning all disciplines from 4000 Metres Pursuit on the track to attacking and getting the Land’s End to John O’ Groats (850 miles) record in 1958.

The 1954 Vigorelli frame is 25
The 1954 Vigorelli frame is 25" from bottom-bracket to top of top tube; the top tube is 24" centre-to-centre and the chainstays 17¾". It has twin braze-on Campag gear bosses with cable guides at B B plus cable stop on chainstay. Brake cable stops under top tube.

Always interested in cycle technology, Dave Keeler had been impressed with the Paris/Roubaix gear thinking that it would be ideal for a time-triallist who would not need to change gear so often and had purchased one when in Milan during 1954. He brought it home to the UK and took it to Mercian Cycles where this frame was built with the special toothed rear ends needed for the gear. Some time after 1958 Dave had the frame changed by having normal Campagnolo road rear ends and gear bosses fitted. This was the specification when I got it from him earlier this year and I had the paintwork restored as the original.

Below are advertisements  from 1956, 1958 and 1960. They are reproduced from ‘Coureur – The Sporting Cyclist’ and give a good impression of which machines were during this period. The ‘super Vigorelli’ (sic) had been advertised for several years but the implication here is that the ‘new Vigorelli’ has been refined to save some weight and has the seat stays probably ‘shot-in’ at the seat cluster. The 1960 ‘Olympique’ had a special seat tube transfer showing a runner carrying the Olympic torch(see image below).

Kyle Brooks has created a very informative blog on Mercian with some help from Grant Moseley, the owner of Mercian.  This appears on the Retrogrouch website site here.

Thanks for reading

Posted: Wednesday 03rd June 2020

Author: Christopher Barbour, Veteran-Cycle Club

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