They just don’t make them like they used to.

There’s a common misperception that the millions of bikes around Amsterdam are cheap “junkers”. Sure, there are plenty of low-quality bikes around the city but they don’t last long. Their parts wear out and break, or they rust badly and then the bicycle quickly becomes unrepairable and gets thrown away… or more often left to rot until the city declares it a “wreck” (“fietswrak”) and carts it away. This actually doesn’t take long at all – usually just a couple months.

Along with the unfortunate but unavoidable disposable, modern bikes are also an amazing number of remarkably old bikes. These bicycles, 30, 50 even 70 years old aren’t pampered and regarded as classics (though some could be considered so). No, they’re just somebody’s trusty transportation, often having been in continuous service for a couple generations.

That’s amazing when you think about it: 20 or 30 kilos of steel, rubber, leather and maybe some plastic “overbuilt” to such a high quality standard that it can reliably carry several or many times its weight for a service life unthinkable for most products. It’s an incredible material efficiency and all the more fantastic considering that these bikes live outdoors in a cold, wet climate. All of the bikes in my photos have rust, but it’s mostly the dark brown (sometimes beautiful) patina of quality steel; It forms an oxide layer after the original paint or chrome has been worn off and then doesn’t corrode further. This is partially because the steel has few internal impurities so it doesn’t rust from within. That’s the nasty kind of orange rust that’s impossible to stop and will quickly kill your bike.

This is also a lesson in the importance of simplicity. More complicated products simply have more things to go wrong, require more service and are more likely to someday be declared irreparable. Note in these photos how few of the bikes have gears or hand brakes. Vestigial frame mounts for rod brakes are common though I don’t see any in these photos. Nor is there much “design” to be found here. Many are lovely bikes but there’s no pretentiousness or design just for design’s sake. This also plays are role in durability: things that go out of fashion cease to be maintained.

The accompanying photos are just of bikes I happened across over the last two weeks, mostly on Thursdays (that’s papa day) while walking around the city with my five month old son. The newest bikes in the photos were made in the 1960’s and the oldest probably date back to the 1930’s. Most Dutch bikes stayed approximately the same through this period and the differences are only of concern to the the enthusiast and mechanic. Unfortunately very few of the bikes made after this period and virtually none of the bikes from the 1980’s to the present will last nearly as long as these.

It’s specifically this timelessness and durability that WorkCycles strives to achieve. It’s an uphill battle though, given the unavailability of certain parts (a good coaster brake hub…), customers expecting features such as multiple gears and hand brakes and a modern world economy of cheap products made with inexpensive materials and overseas labor. We’re working on it and continually making improvements.

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19 Responses to “They just don’t make them like they used to.”

  1. Dave Says:

    Just out of curiosity – do you use any coaster-brake hubs, or just roller brakes?

    It’s interesting just to see how different culture’s perceptions can be so different – that Americans see Dutch bikes and think two things “how inefficient” (such as having a bottle generator rubbing on the tire), and “look at all the after-market stuff they put on their bikes,” thinking that they buy the generator and light and rack and skirt guards after they buy the bike to add to it. Also, that we seem to think the only bike that is worth more than $300 is a super high end sport bike of some sort.

    It just goes to show that most of us don’t think of bikes as transportation yet – a good, solid, low-maintenance, practical bike is worth more than a sports bike if you rely on it for your daily movement.

    I got an Electra Amsterdam, not really expecting to switch to a bike as my main mode of transport – but having done so, I can easily see the value of a high-quality practical bike, and in the future, would be more than willing to put out $1000-$1500 for something that is going to be really solidly build, last me and not require a lot of maintenance to keep up.

    Thankfully we can get your bikes (as well as Azor) in Portland via Clever Cycles :)

    Keep up the good work!

  2. henry Says:

    Dave,
    Here in Holland we sell far more bikes with coaster rear brake than hand brakes. Our typical setup is a Shimano 3 speed with coaster and a roller brake in front. It’s not glamorous but it’s as close to maintenance free as we can get with modern parts. Our US dealers tell us that coaster brakes suck and Americans don’t want single or 3 speeds them so they only import deluxe 8 speed bikes with roller brakes front and rear.

    The misunderstanding that all of the standard features of a Dutch bike are aftermarket items is funny but understandable for those who’ve only seen stripped bikes in the shops. Even the French and English “10-speeds” sold in the US during the 70’s were stripped versions of models sold in Europe. Here, they all had lights, fenders, kickstands etc etc.

    BTW, all of the Azors sold through US dealers are actually WorkCycles bikes made by Azor. You won’t find these models in the Azor catalog. There is also a growing line of WorkCycles bikes not made by Azor.

    Happy cycling!

  3. Alex Says:

    hello henry,

    I have had two dutch bikes, both Spartas. The first one’s frame rusted through at the BB after about ten years. On the second, a beautiful grey model called ‘Cornwall’, I hit another cyclist, who was riding a lightweight carbon machine. i was brought to a standstill, he flipped over and landed on his back. both riders were alright. and the damage to the bikes? his carbon bike was unscathed. my dutch bike had a bent front wheel and the fork was irrepairably destroyed.

    the moral? i love(d) my dutch bikes yes, but please, with frames made from chrome molybdenum or some other strong steel alloy, and not plumbing pipe! and they DO rust through, if you give them enough time! the seatpost and stem areas let enough water in, unfortunately.

  4. henry Says:

    Hi Alex,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Like I wrote there are Dutch bikes built to last generations and bikes built to be disposable. I wouldn’t count any Sparta ever made in the former category. From the 60’s through the 80’s Sparta made enormous numbers of bikes with unusual bent-tube frames. They’re famous for breaking. Only since Sparta was recently bought by Accel Group (Batavus etc) has their quality increased to the level of other “A makes”… none of whose current bikes will stand the test of time anyway.

    Regardless, a chrome-moly frame wouldn’t have helped your front fork or wheel in that crash. In fact forks are generally designed to be sacrificial in a head on crash to avoid crushing the frame. Replacing a fork is easy and cheap, a frame is not. A weak fork is often the clue to a weak frame. Strong frames can be fitted with more crash resistant forks.

    So yes, you’re correct: Dutch bikes are lovely… if they’re good ones. The bikes in my photos might eventually rust through but at least our grandchildren will be riding them when it happens.

  5. Dave Says:

    Yeah, apparently Batavus stopped selling in the US because they wouldn’t make anything with more than a 3 speed hub, and they just didn’t sell, which is really unfortunate.

    Even in Portland, we have some decent hills, and I get around just fine on a 3 speed. Maybe if I lived in Seattle or San Francisco I would want more, but I think the majority of places in America are perfectly serviceable on a 3 speed bike – as long as you don’t want to go 30mph.

    The Electra Amsterdam just comes with a 3 speed shimano coaster brake hub – I added a front caliper brake just for a little added braking power, as we do have some hills that are difficult to stop going down with just the coaster, but for most of my riding, the coaster brake is just fine.

    I’ve kind of had my eye on a Secret Service, I think it’s a great looking bike. We’ll see how that goes – I would love to make great use of one that I could pass on to another generation of people. Here’s hoping :)

  6. henry Says:

    Dave,
    Over here Batavus sells plenty of bikes with more than 3 gears so apparently they just chose not to send them to the US. I agree that a three speed is adequate for even rolling terrain but the 8 speed is probably more pleasant for most people. It’s hard to say whether the overwhelming choice for 8sp is generally functional or often a matter of taste. Regardless, as long as they get people on bikes it’s all good.

    You might be expecting me to make disparaging remarks about the Electra but I actually think they look like ok bikes. The wheels and a lot of small items aren’t built for the long haul but with some care (assuming indoor storage and no dutch style abuse) and a few key upgrades you’ve got a useful bike for a fair price, That’s much more than can be said about 99.9% of the bikes on the US market.

  7. Brandon Says:

    Great entry on these lovely old bikes. It is a sad thing that in the USA it’s hard to find single or three speed bikes with all the normal European \options\. I’ve been looking for a few months and haven’t found anything local. The Electra Amsterdam is the only thing close, and I’m not so sure it will last as long as I want. I personally have never used more than 3 gears, even on my 10 speed bike. I don’t understand why you would even 10+ gears, unless of course you are racing. At any rate, thanks for another great blog entry!!

  8. Dave Says:

    Yeah, I agree about the Amsterdam – I think the core of the bike is pretty solid, not the quality of an Azor or WorkCycles bike, but of a similar quality to other bikes in its price range – and the design is almost exclusive in the American bike market, in terms of facilitating practical everyday cycling, right from the shop.

    I’ve replaced the sidewall generator and light on mine, as well as adding the caliper brake. The generator became almost non-functioning after a few months of daily riding. They are now using Basta generators though, which seem a bit better. I put on a Busch and Muller Lumotech headlight with standlight, which has been great so far. The back rack is a little wobbly, but carries 50 pounds of groceries in my panniers just fine – it’s illegal to carry a person on the rack here anyway, so carrying the groceries is about as much weight as I’d normally put on there :)

    I’m very thankful for it, as it’s enabled a really good change in my lifestyle. Still, if I had the chance to grab an Azor or WorkCycles bike, I certainly wouldn’t complain :) I’m big on the aesthetic of something a bit more hand-made, well-built, and designed with quality over economy in mind. Your bikes just seem a bit more cohesive in design as well as just feeling solid in ways the Amsterdam doesn’t always.

  9. henry Says:

    Dave, Brandon,
    Though they don’t normally stock them our US dealers can always order single or three speed versions of our bikes. We make a number of variants with each frame type including “Lux” and “GT” (simpler) versions, each with various gear hub options. For example there’s a Secret Service with rollerbrakes front and rear but no gears, Lux bikes with 3 speeds instead of the 8 you normally see there, and GT’s with single, 3 and 8 gears with coaster brake rear and roller brake front. Hate coaster brakes?… then request a rear roller brake instead.

    There’s no difference in quality between the simplest and fanciest, and 90% of the parts are the same anyway.

    See here for an overview: http://www.workcycles.com/workbike/bicycles/dutch-city-bikes.html

  10. Dave Says:

    Would you consider building an Opa (were I to save up for one) with a 3-speed rear coaster brake hub, a front roller brake with a sidewall generator and headlight mounted at the fork crown? (with the view to making the initial purchase price cheaper and then possibly saving up for a dynamo hub later)? I don’t know how much difference that would make, but it might be notable at least.

    The 700 euro price you sell them for in the NL ends up being more like 1100 euros by the time they make their way to Portland through Clever Cycles, so any way to reduce that up front cost a little would be nice if I were to think about getting one :)

  11. Dave Says:

    Funny you should have mentioned the quality of the wheels on the Amsterdam, I actually popped a spoke today on the way home from work – the wheel is a bit wobbly now as well, have to take it in and see if the rim bent – hope not :)

  12. Dottie Says:

    I have a feeling my Azor will see me through life, stored indoors. She’s really solid!

  13. Dave Says:

    Also, it’s not that I wouldn’t pay 1100 euros for an Opa if I had it, but anything at that price is a serious investment for me.

  14. henry Says:

    Dave,
    Almost everything you mention above is standard on an Opa GT NR3D. We don’t bother with tire dynamos anymore because a Shimano hub dynamo costs only a couple euro more and is much more reliable, less damage prone, has less friction and is silent. We put the headlamp at the top of the head tube, Dutch style on bikes not equipped with the Hebie 2-leg stand and steering limiter.

    That’s a €749 bike at our Amsterdam shop, though obviously much more once it arrives at a US dealer.

    These bikes ARE serious investments and so were all of the bikes in the photo above. The Netherlands was a poor country and people shelled out a couple months salary for a “vehicle” that would cost little to maintain and last a long time. That’s the whole point.

  15. Dave Says:

    Right, so just saying it’s something I’d have to save up for, not something I could just drop the money on (since I don’t have the money to drop). I’m definitely thinking more and more about seeing if I can’t save up a bit, then sell the amsterdam and get an Opa or a Secret Service. I definitely think it would be a good investment.

  16. Brandon Says:

    Dave, it seems you are on the same page as me. I’m saving up for a bike and trying not to spend a few hundred on a bike I’m not going to be happy with. So I’m trying to save up for an Opa or SS. I’m not really sure of the different except price. The only things I really want on it are standard issue I believe. Rear coasters, front rollers, rear rack, head and tail lamps, rear wheel lock, bell, and maybe a front rack too. I just got married so we don’t have the extra cash just yet. But hopefully soon. Thanks for the information Henry, I will definitely keep you guys in mind. I’m just hoping to purchase a bike that will last me at least 20 years.

  17. Stephan Bianchi Says:

    Hi Henry,
    As you know, I like the trusty old stuff, so I appreciated your photos. I wish I’d had a camera when I saw one old bike at an Italian train station: It was rust brown rust except for a St. Christopher medal strapped on where the head badge had been. It was well-worn, but well-oiled, ridden for years with the ball-less headset bearings tightened, the riders shoes pressing on bare spindles.

    I’ve seen a few nice old Dutch-style “girl’s” bikes for sale here, but I worry about them ascending the occasional hill. How do they fare?

    -Stephan

  18. henry Says:

    Hi Stephan,
    I love to see bikes ridden for decades with zero investment into pure patina. Here in Amsterdam it’s rarely done so gracefully but I see plenty of bikes with one pedal spindle, fender wagging without a stay, rear hub with no bearings, chainring teeth worn to slivers, paint worn off by a swinging lock…

    A bolt upright bike is never ideal for climbing hills but most cities have a flat downtown area, and it’s really not such a big problem to occasionally work hard or walk. In Japan most people ride single speed city bikes, even when they live up a hill. They just walk the bike up the hill. Maybe sometimes we try to design and invent for situations where much simpler solutions exist.

    By the way, I’ve tried to send you a few emails over the last few months but they all bounce.

    -Henry

  19. Erik Sandblom Says:

    Henry,

    “most cities have a flat downtown area”. Uh, well, it would be nice if people rode their bikes in more places than just downtown. I have a three-speed bike with a coaster brake and it works sooo much nicer since the friendly bike shop exchanged the rear sprocket for a bigger one. It cost 10-20 euros to do and made me the Master of Hills. It also helps to learn to pedal a little faster, a little over one rotation per second.

    Anyone can ride up hills with a three-speed, as long as the gears aren’t too high. And a three-speed doesn’t need much maintenance either.

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