Vintage frames, white mudguards and taxes: a bicycle collection

[questo post ha anche una versione in italiano]

Every year at Christmas, when back home in Italy, I gather with my old friends from secondary school for a ‘magnassa’ (a big meal) of our city’s specialties (tortelli verdi, tortelli di zucca, cappelletti alla panna, cappelletti in brodo, arrosto con patate, a dessert, often the local, despite its name, Zuppa Inglese, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese…), kindly and amazingly prepared by Mrs Luisa (the mum of one of us). It is always a very pleasurable night, and the food quality seems to improve every year, from already extremely high standards.

Last year, at the end of our night, Mrs Luisa’s husband, Mr Sergio, asked us to follow him. “There is something special I want you to see…” he said. Down in the cellar were two wonderful restored bicycles from the 1930s, one manufactured in Milan, and one in our city Reggio Emilia. I was so happy, took a number of pictures, and tweeted about that…

…when he said he had more, I asked him to come back one day to take pictures and hear the stories behind them. That day finally happened about a month ago, and that is what this post is about.

I met with Mr Sergio on a rather greyish mid-morning, and spent more than two hours with him chatting about and taking pictures of its collection. Mr Sergio took the bicycle out for me to look at one at a time. Here, I am going to show you his eleven bicycles, in the same order as they were shown to me and, when possible, tell you a bit of the story behind and beyond them.

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Above you have the first bicycle Mr Sergio showed me. A Bianchi Real, from approximately 1935/1937, built in Milan, and named ‘Real’ in honour of the then King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III.

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All pieces are original, like the front light above, and the bell, below…

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…and the bicycle has certainly been beautifully restored….

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Now we remain in Bianchi’s land, with the same model, and age (around 1935/37) as well, but this time in a beautiful grey colour…

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Bianchi’s city bicycles were mostly black, like the previous one, and the colour of the racing ones was the famous Bianchi Celeste, few were painted grey. Personally, I have never liked black bicycles too much, so I do prefer the grey version. This bike has not got all the original parts as the previous one, the saddle for example had to be changed, as it was well beyond restoration. It is an exquisite model nonetheless…

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…with bone handlebar grips, and the original pedal cranks rubber protection.

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Mr Sergio is very proud of this two Bianchi Real but would really like to add a Bianchi Imperiale to his collection. That particular model has so far eluded him.

There is something in common between the Bianchi Imperiale and the Taurus Lantal, the third bicycle in Mr Sergio’s collection. It is the fact that most elements of the braking system are internal…

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…you can see a close-up detail of the braking system in the pic below

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This bicycle dates from the early 1940s, and saddle, wheels and tyres are not original as again they were unfortunately well beyond restoration. As for Bianchi, most Taurus models were black, and this grey one is relatively rare. Taurus, founded in 1908, also from Milan, has always been a direct competitor of Bianchi, founded in 1885, but has never reached the same popularity.

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Their bikes look very well built nonetheless…

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The next bicycle is one my favourite of the collection, and one of the two I had a glance of last Christmas. It was made by Pecorari a local, to our city Reggio Emilia, bicycle artisan.

This bicycle displays the metal strip indicating the date (1935) of the payment of the circulation tax and the registration number.

I did not know bicycles were taxed in Italy, so I did some research. The tax and identification number (a number plate?) were introduced in 1898 with the Law n. 318 (22/07/1897). The first amount was 10 Liras. The tax was then modified at various stages (1907, 1926, and in 1931 was then listed among the local taxes, with local administrations responsible for its application). It was finally abolished at the end of 1938 (Real Decree n. 1937 24/11/1938) and never reappeared…(although every few years, like in many countries, someone proposes it again)

I’ll talk again about 1938 shortly. But let me go back to the bike, which is really beautiful. Pecorari made bicycles in the 1930s basically copying the frames of the Milanese manufacturer Umberto Dei (founded in 1986 and still existing, and you’ll see some of Dei’s creations below). I could not find much info online (but it is part of my next project), but Mr Sergio heard that they were taken to court by Dei after the war and had then to stop production.

The concept of lightweight bicycles was not yet fashionable. So smaller manufacturers in smaller cities (and my region of Emilia Romagna has a long tradition of not only cycling, but also bicycle manufacturing) often took their inspiration from larger manufacturers from the bigger cities like Milan. What smaller artisans often did though, was to make their bicycles sturdier and more resistant to shocks, in order to increase their appeal. This sturdiness was however at the detriment of their weight, so ‘provincial’ bikes were often heavier than their Milanese counterpart.

Back to the bicycle now. It still has the original wheel locking system…

…the newspaper carrier was added some years later apparently, and I also saw it on the only other Pecorari bicycle I found online,  but I like it very much…

You must have noticed that half of the rear mudguards is painted in white.

I had previously seen that in some older Raleigh models without thinking it was anything more than a simple esthetic touch, but Mr Sergio mentioned a law during the war. I did some research about that and discovered interesting things. Many people believe that obligation to circulate with a white mudguards at night was introduced in 1940 during the ‘oscuramento’, when streetlights were not turned on at night, and people were asked to keep as little light on as possible to make the task of the enemies’ airplanes a bit more difficult. In 1943, when the curfew was applied and nobody was allowed to be anywhere at night, the bicycle became then an important means for partisans to move around as unnoticed as possible.

However, a bit of digging into (few) publications, highway laws and parliamentary acts made me discover that the initiative was actually introduced earlier, but not that much. In a very interesting intervention in parliament on 8 March 1938, MP Italo Bonardi (I would normally add the political party an MP belongs to, but as you know in 1938 there was one party only…), who was definitely was very supportive of cycling, especially as a mean for poorer classes to go to work, talks of the white mudguard (as well as simple rear reflectors) as a cheap solution to increase visibility for people on bicycles at night. The MP reminded his colleagues that the rear red light (which was compulsory at time, but compliance was very low) could cost the equivalent of half the price of a bicycle itself, and this was well beyond what poorer workers could afford. Interestingly, the idea of the white mudguard came from England, “where the number of bicycles is the double than here”, added Mr Bonardi in his intervention. 

So, Mr Bonardi must have been successful in his lobbying, as the white mudguard (and rear reflectors) were introduced with the decree 22 December 1938 n. 2139, converted then into the law 29 May 1939 n. 921. In England, where Mr Bonardi found inspiration, the same obligation came into force in 1934, and in the Netherlands in 1931 (source: this very interesting piece about ‘visibility‘ in the ‘As Easy as Riding a Bike’ blog). I am not sure Mr Bonardi knew that the same rule was applied in the Netherlands as well. Having said that, he did mention the Netherlands in his intervention as a good example of cycling nation (and it was 1938…). I have not found yet when the rule was officially removed in Italy (and in the UK), if anyone knows please do let me know. 

So, the tax strip says 1935, but the original bicycle did have the white mudguard on, so we are not that sure about the precise year of manufacturing of the Pecorari. Nonetheless, their signature on the frame looks stunning…

Now let’s move to the manufacturer that Pecorari used for inspiration, Umberto Dei, again from Milan (founded in 1896, it still exists, and it is now property of another historic but much bigger brand, Atala, founded in 1907)

The model above is a Dei Summer version, a bit younger than the previous ones (it was built in 1952), the colour is original, and a fairly rare one, as most of them were black or champagne. The saddle is not original in this one, as well as the pedal cranks, the remaining parts are original.

There are few special things that Dei bicycles had, which were however not copied by Pecorari (perhaps they did not want to make them too similar…). The first one is the design of the mudguards…

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…which for me adds a lot to the already quite high elegance of the bicycle. But that was not the only thing. The internal part of the rims was painted in the same colour of the frame

again a very beautiful touch, and so is the rest of the bicycle…

which still has the original locking system…

The following bike was also manufactured by Dei in approximately the same year than the previous one, 1952, but it is a ladies’ model (and something I did not know, old ladies’ bicycles are worth much less than their men’s counterparts, I like them nonetheless and have very often used one, always a bit more practical in cities if you ask me, and in any case, despite plenty of attempts, I have never really managed to master the ‘salita alla bersagliera‘ with the men’s ones…).

The bike was originally black, but was then repainted in the same colour as the previous one at restoration. Everything is original in this one, apart from the saddle, and the skirt protection net. You can recognise the same type of very elegant mudguards…

…and I like the little door to oil the chain without having to remove the whole cover (that is common to most of the bikes I am showing you here).

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Now we go back to the 1940s (but Mr Sergio is not sure of the exact year) with another Umberto Dei, this time in black.

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Again, very beautiful, with the same signature mudguards.

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This particular model has the original real reflector (everything else is original apart from the saddle, this is one of the few models that Mr Sergio bought already restored)…

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…and of course the usual matching color in the rims.

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The next bicycle is certainly less ‘aristocratic’ than the previous one, but it is nonetheless a good example, and has a particular sentimental value for Mr Sergio.

P1030572.JPGA ladies’ model, made by Paff (a small manufacturer that has now ceased activity, which was located in Marostica, not far from Venice). The year is 1955/56 and this beautiful bicycle belonged to Mr Sergio’s mother-in-law, who used it for commuting (she worked in a wood shop). She stopped using it when she got older and the bike was then in very bad conditions. She did ask Mr Sergio to restore it, but somehow Mr Sergio could not find the time (and was not interested in vintage bicycles back then). She died some years ago and Mr Sergio recently decided that restoring it would have indeed been a nice gesture to her, even if a bit late. It was not easy though, not only because of the conditions of the bicycle, but also because some restorers were not too interested, given that it was a bike of a low value. Mr Sergio finally found one who was keen, and the result is very good, with a bicycle that certainly is a typical example of the plenty of simple and practical but nonetheless very cool ones you can see in our city.

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and I think the grey and the blue elements go very well together…

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as well as the old Paff logo…

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We are now back on Umberto Dei’s territory, and also getting younger. The following bicycle is from the late 1960s (possibly early 70s). This model was not restored, and so was obviously very well kept. All pieces are the original ones, apart from the rear light, which was replaced with a new one.

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This is the bicycle that Mr Sergio currently uses the most, along the cycleways of our city and to get to the Centro Storico.

He says that it pedals wonderfully, almost like an electric assisted bike…

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The handlebar grips are original but they were made of plastic, and not of bone any longer…I like the signature on the mudguard…

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and the pedals…

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…and even on the locking system…

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The following bicycles is also a Umberto Dei, similar age, but a wonderful ladies’ model. The colour is champagne, which was quite popular…  

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…this model display all Dei’s usual touches,

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This bike, as the previous one, was also not restored, but kept with love and care by a lady who unfortunately died some years ago.

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Her family could not help getting emotional and sad looking at her beloved bicycle, and so finally decided it was better to sell it. The bicycle still has the signs of its owner’s heels on the frame….

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Next bicycles is also a Umberto Dei ladies’ model (and the last one I am going to show you in this post), of the same age of the previous ones roughly, and is the favourite of Mrs Luisa, Mr Sergio’s wife, who says it rides wonderfully.

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Apart from the skirt protection net, this bike still possesses all its original parts. It belonged originally to a relative of Mr Bolondi, a local bicycle artisan, who carefully and beautifully restored some of the bicycles I showed you in this post.

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The usual Umberto Dei’s mudguards above, and the signature placed on strategic elements of the bicycle…

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That’s the end of this post for now, although Mr Sergio is planning to add more bicycles to his collection, so I will write again about those in the near future.

Thanks for making it so far with me. Neither Mr Sergio nor I are great experts of vintage bicycles, so please do correct me if I said anything wrong. If you have any other comments or questions, please do not hesitate to add them below.

All the best

Alberto

28 November 2018

All opinions expressed in this post are my own and I have received no incentive whatsoever from any of the companies, organisations or businesses mentioned above

Here you can read about me, this is a bit about my research, and here you can see my publications. You can follow me on twitter here

 

 

 

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