You’re here because you want an old bike. Good. However, be wary. Buying an old bike it like buying an old car – approach with caution. You haven’t owned this bike from new, and who knows what the previous owner or owners have done to this poor contrivance over the years.
First things first: Odd sizes, parts and how old should you go?
Well… anything after 1960 should be good for you. If you have visions of having a beautiful 1930’s roadster, they are out there in various states of repair, but be warned, these are rare and usually either in such a sorry state they’re good for scrap or parts, or have been lovingly restored and will cost you a fortune to purchase, and frankly won’t be much fun to ride. It will be heavy – seriously… they’re Heavy – and won’t handle very well. Pretty much all three-speeders prior to 1950 will have rod-brakes, which are nice to look at, but lethal in the wet and quickly go out of alignment. Old leather faced pads are correct for the purist, but don’t rely on them to stop you if the rims of your wheels are even slightly damp, because they’ll do little for you.
If you’re used to a modern mountain bike or hybrid, you’ll be familiar with V-Brakes. These are very powerful brakes, but still run on the principal of squeezing the rim with a rubber block. Vintage bikes have a calliper design that didn’t really change much over the years. They are very effective, but might feel a bit spongey to the uninitiated rider; but trust me, they’re fine, but you need to get used to them!
Parts for different bikes from different parts of the world vary in size and quality wildly. Anything French won’t fit on anything British, etc, as you’re trying to mix imperial (British Imperial, not American Imperial, because that’s slightly different) and metric. Wheels are a bugger too. I’m not going to go into detail, but read up on Sheldon Brown about wheel and tyre size and prepare to be bewildered with how much variance goes on in the crazy world of wheel and tyre manufacture…
Modern bikes have modern bottom brackets and are easy to swap and change. On an old English 3-speed you’ll more than likely find a cottered crank. This is where the cranks are held onto the main drive shaft with tapered pins that run through the body of the crank and buts up against the crankshaft. Personally I don’t see anything wrong with this, and some people think it’s better than the modern system; however, as with most things in life, they can be a pain. If you need to remove the cranks to get to the bottom bracket – which undoubtedly at some point you will have to – getting cotter pins out can be easy, or it can be impossible. More than likely these pins have been in from new and have never been removed. Metal on metal, over time, with eventually just bind together. There are many video tutorials on YouTube etc about removing cotter pins. One thing you will need is a hammer, a block of wood cut to the right length and a strong will. Hopefully they will just pop out undamaged, but the likelihood is they will bend or you’ll damage the tread of the bolt. Either way if that happens, you need new pins. They are available and pretty cheap, but they’re hard to find.
Tip: get a big set of spanners! My BSA seems to have a shocking mix of sizes all over it. Everything from a 6mm for the barrel adjuster to a 17mm for the non-drive side of the rear wheel, and it’s not just metric, but imperial too. The front brake is a 10mm on the front, but a 7/8th on the back. I think the previous owner or owners just put anything they could find on it to hold stuff on!
Hubs: front and rear.
Sturmey Archer three speeds are pretty much bomb proof and should give no greif at all other than a little adjustment and oil from time to time. There are several schools of thought on adjusting the shift on a 3 speed. The right way is to set the gear selector into 2nd (1:1 or direct drive) and adjust the barrel until the end of the selector rod is flush with the end of the axle. You can see this through the inspection port on the right hand wheel nut. You’ll probably have to re adjust every time you take off the rear wheel. This isn’t a big deal, it takes seconds to do. If your gears are slipping, this should be your first port of call.
If you’re buying an old bike, there’s a good chance that the bearings are either out of adjustment or just need replacing. If the wheel has lateral play around the axle – it is wobbles, rattles, etc, then you need to check the bearings. More modern bikes have sealed units that are just pulled out and replaced. Old bike have a race and cup design with bearings packed with grease that can be removed serviced and adjusted. Sheldon Brown, again, has a very detailed guide to this so I’m not going to copy and paste someone else’s work. You’ll need spanners for the lock nuts and cone wrenches – very slim spanners – to tighten the bearing caps and some patience. You need to find the right point where the wheel spins freely without grinding or binding, but before the axle starts flopping about.