Getting Real with Steel
Some thoughts from Steve Andruski (RBH President)
People who know me and have ridden with me probably know I’m a big fan of steel bikes from the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially Trek bikes. RBH often gets a lot of old steel bikes donated and some might find their way into our stock for sale, while others may get passed on to other groups. Some of this is based on condition (i.e., how much would we have to put into the bike to make it rideable), but some of it is also based on a certain level of quality and reliability. An old steel bike from “back in the day” might make an ideal commuter bike and with proper care might last a long time.
Given the rising popularity of steel bikes and the significant quantity of old bikes sitting in people’s garages, you want to be aware of what to look for in judging quality and based on that, consider what to pay for the bike if you are looking to buy one. In this article I’ll go through some things to look for to indicate that a bike was on the lower end of the quality spectrum as opposed to one that is a higher end, more “collectable” bike. Depending on the condition, the bike might still be a worthy commuter, but would not warrant a collectible price tag. So, here we go.
I’ll start with some of the more visible signs pointing to an inexpensive bike. Drop-bar 10-speed bikes had a boom in popularity in the early ‘70s, but since many people were uncomfortable riding or braking “in the drops”, some bikes had auxiliary brake extension levers that were often referred to as “suicide levers”.
Auxiliary Brake Extension Levers, aka “Suicide Levers”
Aside from being common on less expensive bikes, these auxiliary levers had several problems that prompted the nickname. First, they were long and made of cheap metal, which lead to them bending under hard braking. This often caused the lever to bottom out against the handlebar meaning that no more braking power could be applied – not good when you’re trying to stop in an emergency. The other problem was their position and purpose in allowing braking from the top of the bar. This position placed your body weight higher than if you were braking from the dropped part of the bar. If the brakes did avoid the bottoming out issue, then a hard stop with your weight high on the handlebars could lead to you going head over heels over the bars. Used sensibly and adjusted properly, these levers are not necessarily unsafe, but you should be aware of these limitations. The presence of these auxiliary levers also meant that the rest of the bike was probably lower quality too.
The next visible sign of a less expensive bike is shift levers mounted on the stem.
These stem mounted shifters could be acceptable quality, but the quality varied from manufacturer to manufacturer. Their placement primarily indicated that the bike was meant for someone who wanted to avoid having to bend down and use downtube mounted levers. Aside from the more variable quality of these levers, the only practical concern would be having these “pointy bits” for your crotch to bang into if you were to go over the bars.
Another sign of a less expensive bike is the use of steel rims on the wheels. Generally, 27” wheels were used on earlier low cost bikes and those wheels very often had steel rims. 27” wheels were more common on less expensive bikes from the period because by the 1980’s the more expensive performance-oriented bikes had begun to standardize on the 700c wheel size, the same diameter as the wheels used by racers. However, keep in mind that good quality 27” wheels with aluminum rims were available on some mid-range and better quality bikes in the 1970’s and they were still commonly used on good touring bikes well into the ‘80s.
As you can see from the pictures, steel rims were more shiny (chrome plated), while aluminum rims were less shiny looking. Obviously, this may depend on the age and condition, so using a magnet is a quick way to tell if the rim is steel (will attract the magnet), or aluminum (non-magnetic). The major concern with steel rims was that they did not stop well when wet. Be very aware of that if you’re buying a bike like this and intend to use it for commuting. The larger stopping distance after riding through a puddle could be very dangerous. Some steel rims had dimples to try to move water away from the brake pads, but this was not very effective in increasing braking performance. In addition to the braking safety aspect of steel rims, steel wheels were also heavier. That is weight that you have to accelerate each time you start pedaling, so it has a bigger impact than weight elsewhere on the bike.
Another obvious sign of a less expensive bike is a one-piece crankset.
One-piece crank (steel)
cottered crank (typically steel)
less expensive 3-piece crankset (typically aluminum)
High-end Campagnolo crankset (aluminum)
One-piece cranksets are still seen on inexpensive children’s bikes. They are generally made of steel and add a lot of weight to the bike. While many components on a less expensive bike can be upgraded to save weight and improve performance, these one-piece cranksets are difficult to upgrade. The bottom bracket shell (i.e., part of the frame that holds the bearings) for a one-piece crankset is larger and uses press-in bearing races. A frame with a one-piece crank would need a special pressed in adapter to accept the smaller-diameter threaded components from higher quality bottom brackets to accommodate lighter cranksets. As you move up in cost (and to some extent quality) you may see cottered cranksets, or 3-piece cranksets of varying quality. The crankset and the bottom bracket could be all steel at the lower cost end, or a mix of aluminum and steel (and even titanium) at the higher cost end.
One more visible thing that indicates a less expensive steel bike is stamped dropouts.
A stamped dropout was stamped from a sheet of steel, so it had sharp edges. Because these were sometimes made from less expensive metal, they also had to be larger (especially in the rear as shown in the pictures) to withstand pedaling forces. These stamped dropouts also generally had bolt-on derailleur hangers. If they did have hangers that were part of the dropout, these were more easily bent. If you’re having problems with shifting, misalignment of the derailleur hanger is a possible source of the problem on a less expensive steel bike. The process of forging created a stronger dropout and therefore it could be smaller and more rigid overall.
This leads to the last indicator of a less expensive steel bike – frame material. Generally, about half of the bike’s cost was in the frame and the rest in the components, so saving money on the tubing used for the frame had a big impact on the cost. However, it also made the bike much heavier. On less expensive bikes there is often no decal or other indicator of what brand of steel the frame was made from. On more expensive bikes, the brand of steel alloy was generally proudly displayed, with names like Reynolds and Columbus at the top end of the price range, and Tange and Ishiwata at the middle price points.
One point of difference related to the frame is how the tubes are joined. Inexpensive steel frames were often made with tubes welded directly to each other whereas higher quality steel frames were joined with lugs. This allowed the use of lower temperature brazing to join the tubes. The lower temperature reduced the fatigue on the metal of the tubes and the lugs added rigidness at the joints.
Modern aluminum frames and some better-quality modern steel frames are welded using a technique known as TIG welding. The weld is often not sanded so that the quality of the welder’s technique is on display.
Welded straight-gauge frame
Lugged steel frame
TIG welded steel frame
The better-quality steel bikes also used tubes that varied in thickness along their length (called butting), putting more thickness at higher stress points and saving weight in areas needing less strength. The steel tubes used in less expensive bikes, aside from being made from a cheaper alloy, were also straight-gauge, meaning they had the same thickness along their entire length. To give you some perspective on the weights of different types of bikes, I’ve listed the weights and frame materials for some of my bikes in comparison to a typical less expensive steel bike in the table below.
1972 Raleigh Super Course
Lugged, Straight-gauge Reynolds 531
1983 Trek 970
Lugged, Double-butted Columbus SL
1984 Trek 760
Lugged, Double-butted Reynolds 531
1990 Trek 1500
TIG-welded Easton aluminum
1970's Vista Esquire
Welded Straight-gauge steel
Note that the Columbus steel Trek is no heavier than an all-aluminum bike from the same time period, while the lower cost straight-gauge steel bike is more than 10 lbs heavier. The heavier straight-gauge steel bike is probably more durable overall, and for a commuter in city traffic on flat terrain, this might be an acceptable choice, but any hills will definitely be more of a challenge and carrying it up that flight of stairs to your apartment will be considerably less convenient. Keep in mind though that while a heavy straight-gauge steel bike might withstand more rust damage, a well-kept high quality steel frame will still last decades and thousands of miles. Durability is relative. Light-weight Columbus steel frames were used by professional racers, surviving crashes and a lot of miles of use.
The other by-product of the varying tube thickness used in more expensive frame tubes is the ride feel. Steel still has popularity partially because it flexes more compared to aluminum or carbon fiber. That bit of flexing makes the ride a little more comfortable, while still giving stiffness where needed. Straight-gauge steel will be stiffer and less forgiving, generally giving a harsher ride feel than better quality steel.
So, what does this all mean? Give thought to how and where you will use the bike you’re considering. This will tell you something about how important the weight and ride feel aspects of the frame are to you. Also give some thought to how long you want to keep the bike and whether you might want to upgrade components in the future. That might eliminate some bikes from consideration, such as one with a one-piece crankset that would be more complicated to upgrade.
In the end, you usually get what you pay for. Better quality used steel bikes can sell for several hundred to several thousand dollars depending on brand, age, condition, and the collectible nature of the bike. Most of the inexpensive bikes with the features I’ve been describing probably sold in the $80-150 price range when new; paying more than that for a used one would probably not make much sense. Again, variables such as brand, age, condition and the collectible nature of the bike might influence what you pay but do some research and don’t pay too much. For example, the Vista Esquire I listed in the weight table above was my bike in high school. It cost somewhere around $100 new in 1972. Right now, I wouldn’t pay more than $50 for one, even one in very good condition (note that I have seen them listed for much more than that online). On the other hand, older Schwinn bikes have some collectable interest, so those may have held their value better, even the “cheap” ones. Older Raleigh bikes have similar collector value, especially ones made at Raleigh’s Carlton factory. The Raleigh Super Course listed in the weight table was the lower end of the quality range of the bikes made at Raleigh’s Carlton factory. The only “lower cost” attribute that his bike had was stamped dropouts. In some model years they also had less durable derailleurs, but that’s another discussion.
The bottom line – know what you’re buying and be wary of marketing hyperbole on Craigslist or eBay! Steel is real, but the asking price might be “unreal”.