Henry’s Yankee Transportfiets

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I have to admit that I have a lot of bicycles, and I’m referring to bikes that are really just mine and not somehow part of the WorkCycles fleet or inventory. I periodically cull the flock but some have too much sentimental value to sell, even if I almost never ride them. There’s the Daedalus mountain bike from 1990, designed by me and built by Kent Ericksen of Moots in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. There were six made of which I still know the whereabouts of four. I don’t think I could ever see my lovely De Rosa go. I bought it a year or two old from a friend in about 1982 and raced and trained on it for years until breaking one of the silly diamond shaped chainstays. My friend Brian Spitz (who built some of the world’s cleanest race frames for a while) repaired it but then I hung it up and forgot about it for 15 years. A couple years ago I decided I wanted to get back on a racing bike, found it still wrapped in paper and built it up again. Now it gets ridden regularly, much closer to it’s birthplace in Italy. There are many others, in order of how long I’ve owned them:

  • Custom 60’s Schwinn Typhoon cruiser with Sachs 2-speed kickback hub
  • Bianchi Reparto Corsa road bike built (15 years ago) as a road fixie
  • Castle track bike
  • 1973 Libertas racing tandem
  • Snel touring bike, now my “papa bike” for touring with Pascal
  • 1957 Condor Swiss military bike
  • WorkCycles Secret Service city bike (the daily ride)
  • Brompton folding bike with 2 speed shifter and titanium parts
  • Those are all complete, rideable bikes. I also have a number of bikes in various states of incompleteness and a rather absurdly large collection of (mostly old enough to have no monetary value) parts. The semi-complete bikes include:

  • 1950’s Gazelle Opafiets
  • 1970’s Rih light city bike
  • 3x 1930’s Grossman transportfietsen
  • 2x Hopper (English) delivery bikes with cross-frames, perhaps 1930’s
  • 1970’s Gazelle racing bike, converted to randonneur
  • At least all of the old transport and city bikes are destined for the WorkCycles museum and a few are already on display. A few bikes including the city bike, Brompton, papa bike and racing bike are ridden regularly. Some of the others will return to service when the time is right. Amsterdam has, for example, a fantastic indoor velodrome and I’ve been itching to get back on the track, though that might have to wait until Pascal is old enough to ride too.

    Anyhow this is a long intro to noting that I got another bike. This one is a transportfiets (Dutch delivery bike) from the firm “Yankee” in Hoogeveen (where Azor is now and Union once was). I’d never heard of Yankee but that doesn’t mean much; until the 1960’s there were hundreds of small firms building bikes in the Netherlands. Lugs, tubing and components were bought in from various suppliers and the bikes were built from scratch. The quality was typically excellent but the designs were very conservative. Only experts can tell many of the bikes apart and little changed from the 1920’s through the 1960’s or even 1970’s in some cases. A few of the manufacturers were known for particularly high quality (Empo, Fongers, Gazelle, Simplex) and/or unique design (Fongers, Locomotief, Maxwell, Simplex). Yankee though has somehow disappeared into the gorges of history.

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    Despite it’s near anonymity my Yankee is a beautiful bike, even after at least 50 years and perhaps even a decade or two more. I purchased it from a neighbor. When he brought it in it wasn’t pretty but it was clearly solid, complete and quite original. He’d originally bought the bike some 15-20 years ago for his catering business but no longer needed it. Since then we’ve mostly stripped it down, thoroughly cleaned and polished everything, straightened the front carrier and handlebars, replaced the tires (with better old ones) and assorted other improvements. Only the pedals, which weren’t original anyway, are “incorrect”.

    You might not be familiar with the old Dutch transportfietsen and aside from the lovely brass head badge this one’s as typical as they get. Here’s a rundown of some of it’s features:

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    Perhaps the most obvious feature of a classic transportfiets is the front carrier, always fixed to the wide, 1″ diameter handlebar, very heavy fork crown and front axle. Thus this giant carrier swings with the wheel making it a handful to ride when loaded. Typically a huge basket or wooden crate was mounted on the carrier to carry bread, meat, milk or whatever else the tradesman (or his son) delivered. The load capacity was huge, both in volume and weight. This carrier was made by the firm “Roelewiel” who made the carriers for many brands of bikes.

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    The reason these bikes still exist despite their hard lives is the extraordinarily robust construction. This bike weighs almost 40kg. There’s not a single dent in the fenders or frame tubes and the frame was still perfectly straight. The drive chain, chainring and cog are 1/2″ x 3/16″, like on mopeds and small motorcycles. The crank bearings are larger diameter and wider. The cranks are massive chunks of steel.

    Bonus for the hardcore nerds who spotted that the left crank is mounted backwards: Yes, I’m aware of it. It’s that way because the crank was apparently bent in an accident and after straightening it still has a little “S” bend so it now fits better backwards.

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    Before WWII all Dutch transportfietsen had 28″ wheels, generally 28 x 1.75″ like this bike. For those keeping up with current fads and trends that’s the same size known now as a “29’er”. After WWII they were built with either the 28″ wheels or fatter 26″ wheels (for even heavier duty applications). My Yankee has the classic Vredestein “Transport Extra Zwaar” tires. This translates to “transport extra heavy” and they weren’t kidding; these tires weigh some 1500g each and they’re supported by special steel rims that weigh a couple kilos each.

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    The early transportfietsen were mostly or all fixed gears, meaning they had no means of freewheeling nor did they have brakes. The rider slowed the bike by means of resisting the rotation of the pedals. This was no mean feat on a heavy and heavier loaded bike with the further momentum of such heavy wheels. Of course these bikes were only ridden by professionals, though even they indulged in competitions. During WWII the occupying Nazis banned fixed gear bicycles (really, I’m not making this up) perhaps for a couple reasons:

  • They couldn’t ride these bikes themselves
  • The made a lot of laws to keep people busy and less mobile
  • The only available coaster brake hubs came from Germany (Fichtel & Sachs Torpedo)
  • The Yankee has a coaster brake hub I’ve never seen though. It’s a Bendix like the American hubs I grew up with, except that this one is different. Inside and out it looks much like the German Torpedo but still different, most notably that it has a helical actuator instead of the roller clutch used in the Torpedo. In any case it’s definitely a special, heavy duty model with a 3/16″ cog threaded in place with a locknut.

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    Am I going to ride it? Nah, probably not for a while. I’m just going to hang it up in our Lijnbaansgracht shop as one more constant reminder of what “quality” means.

    17 Responses to “Henry’s Yankee Transportfiets”

    1. Dave Says:

      That is indeed a gorgeous bike, and in incredible condition. I think especially in America (and the sporting fad doesn’t help this, nobody expects sporting equipment to last 50 years), bicycles have become yet another victim of disposability and the idea that the entire value of something is based on price (that is, low price equals good value). We don’t even think most of the time about the value of buying something that will last 50 years, because we figure we can easily just buy another one when the first one wears out.

      In your vast supply of mostly old enough to have no monetary value parts, you wouldn’t happen to have a bottom bracket spindle for a 1950’s era Raleigh Sports, would you? 🙂

    2. Anon of Florida Says:

      These strongly remind me of the ‘Panaderas’ in Colombia, very similar to your transportfiets, with a small number of mostly cosmetic differences:

      Panaderas typically have 20″ BMX wheels or 17″ moped wheels, and VeloSteel coaster brakes and BMX handlebars. Also their racks are these massive edifices made from one inch tubular steel, two identical racks mounted front and back. The majority I saw while I was there were welded together, although the occasional lugged example showed up every once in a while.

      Apart from these small, and somewhat cosmetic differences, their use and mode of manufacture in Colombia is identical to your description of the use of transportfiets in 20th Century Netherlands. Nearly every business had one, and used one, both as an advertisement for the business being open, as well as transporting the business’ products. Each city has about one or two factories where the city’s supply of panaderas are made. As far as claims of indestructibility are concerned, I saw both racks stacked to the rider’s eye level with various goods, with no complaint or struggle what-so-ever.

    3. henry Says:

      Dave,
      The sporting goods analogy is exactly how I’ve come to describe the situation of the bicycle industry and why it’s so difficult for WorkCycles and the handful of others to build bikes as timeless, durable, practical transportation. It just goes against the grain of what 99% of the bike industry is geared up for.

      Once upon a time I would have had a dozen of those BB spindles; A friend and I used to collect and restore old Nottingham Raleighs (and equivalents under a dozen names). That was in the early 80’s (we were teenagers) and there’s hardly a trace of it left in my stock.

    4. Dave Says:

      It’s truly a shame that disposability has become such a value here… it seems to me there’s something both of the feeling of accomplishment and of tradition and history in using something that has been around for generations, has had minor alterations to keep it going, and is now yours. That’s why I was so excited to get the 1952 Raleigh (I just had the BB spindle break on me, the left crank just fell off), and why I’ll be happy to find a new spindle and keep riding it. Not to mention then we’re not just tossing crap in the landfill at 3/4 the rate we’re mass-producing it.

      I’m about 90% sure I found a spindle that will work (it’s on its way here from England), but thought I’d ask you about it just in case 🙂

    5. henry Says:

      Dave, It’d be more accurate to say that the values of durability and timelessness are diminishing in importance since disposability isn’t much of a value in itself.

    6. Dave Says:

      I don’t know, I sometimes get to feel like, in America, disposability is looked on as a value – not that I think it is – but I feel like some look at disposable items thrown away and re-purchased as a great solution (this probably comes from companies making such products for their own sales quotas and then running campaigns to convince people it’s a great idea). Essentially, people think something like “isn’t it great that I can buy a bike at Walmart for $100!”

      It’s also accurate to say that the values of durability and timelessness have diminished, but I feel like, at least in some cases, disposability is also held up as a good thing.

    7. Frits Says:

      Just a bit of nitpicking: Union was in Dedemsvaart, later Nieuwleusen, on the old road from Zwolle to Emmen. A white building on the North side of the road. Past history.
      The site http://www.oudefiets.nl has a story about the brand Yankee Style, not connected to Yankee at all but made in Den Bosch. Not in English regrettably as it is one of those memorable histories.

    8. henry Says:

      Frits, Thanks for the added info. Even if both Dedemsvaart and Nieuwleusen are within 20km of Hoogeveen I was under the impression that Union was actually from Hoogeveen. Unfortunately it is past history; for those not familiar with these things Union (which was a fine make but never really one of the best) was taken over by DBG, a large producer of really cheap bikes for mass-merchants such as Halfords. The Union brand is now used on rather nasty, department store quality bikes.

    9. David Says:

      Hi Henry,

      Just noted your hoodie is featured on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIiVfHj2pmk

      Cheers,
      David

    10. henry Says:

      Hoi David,
      Cool. Thanks for the promotion!

    11. Eurico Says:

      wow!
      Greeting from the warm weather of Portugal. Henry, I can see that you set of bikes has considerably increased since last August. Have you now received the Portuguese seats?

    12. henry Says:

      Hi Eurico,
      Yes, I’ve been talking to Tabor and we have a number of their seats to test. They get fitted to various bikes for my employees and others to try out. The quality is very nice though the designs are quite unusual. I’ll have some feedback in a month or so after I return from my travels in Japan.

    13. Eurico Says:

      Henry,
      have a great time in Japan. In the meantime I look forward to see the test results.
      Best.

    14. bert Says:

      Hello,

      Yankee was one of the small firms building bikes in the Netherlands.
      They did it in Hoogeveen. It was founded bij Jan Huizing from Hoogeveen.
      His dad has been in USA in the beginning of 1900 The Dutch were all namend Jan or Kees : Yankee was a good name for a Dutch bike firm.
      Union so far I no, has nothing to do with Yankee, it was a factory in Nieuw Leusden as Frits said.
      I can remember the old transport bike’s who where made in Hoogeveen.
      for a small boy it was to heavy and to big for my, they where used by the baker , butcher
      Yankee did made also custom bike’s and bakfietsen.

    15. Olivia Says:

      I am from the Netherlands. These transport fietsen and opa fietsen you can buy in almost every bicycle shop in the Netherlands.

    16. henry Says:

      Olivia,
      No thank you for your condescending spam. Had you taken a moment to do your homework before posting your comment you’d have quickly seen that I’m also located in the Netherlands, and actually run a Dutch bicycle company. I’m very well aware of what bicycle shops sell here.

      I can assure you that bike shops, and certainly not discount bike shops like the one you’re advertising, do not sell transportfietsen or opafietsen anything like the beautiful old Yankee in the post above. Bikes like this have not been made since at least the 1970’s and even those weren’t nearly as nice as prewar bikes like this one. The bikes advertised on your site (I’ve removed the link) are but pale imitations of the real thing. Basically they’re just budget city bikes fancied up with front carriers and maybe matte black paint. They’re simply not heavy duty commercial bicycles.

    17. Markus Says:

      Hallo ich habe so ein gazelle Rad. Würde gerne wissen ob es einen besonderen Wert hat. Würde gerne Fotos schicken. Email? Gruß markus

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