I’ve had it in mind for some time now that I could write up a post that would sum up all of vintage cycling. Something that would cover all the bases from restoration styles to what old bikes are worth to why we even care about them.
This, of course, is a foolish idea. You’d need an entire website to explain it all. And there are already two or three very good ones that do that.
But that’s no reason for me not to do it.
There’s no way I can do it all in one post though, so today, let’s talk about what makes an old mountain bike valuable. It’s really rather complicated. And I’m going to start with a story about me being a jerk.
Because I have a reputation as a bike mechanic that can put together a fantastic bike for anyone in a weekend, for a few bottles of craft beer, I will get requests from time to time to build bikes for friends. Of course I’m always happy to do so since bike building is pretty much my favorite thing to do. One of the bikes that I’m currently building (when I say ‘building’ I mean; ‘ it’s something I intend to do.’ Because I’m not building this bike in any sense of the word, at this time) is for a colleague of mine who runs.
I need to get him away from running before it’s too late.
One day during the building process, I thought I had hit upon the perfect plan; I found a nice vintage frame on Kijiji, and another bike that was a horrid Frankenstein’s Monster. If I put those two together, mix in a few parts I have in storage already, my colleague would have a very nice bike for about $100.
Step 1; The Frame.
There was – maybe still is, I don’t know – a bike company called Wheeler. They were sold in Edmonton briefly by Cyclepath. I think they were based in Germany, and after looking at a few pictures of Wheelers, I realize that they are definitely the German Trek.
Calling them a ‘German Trek’ is not a compliment by the way. I found this picture of a 5500, probably made in 1992 judging by the parts on it, and it’s a perfectly nice lugged steel frame, with very un-inspiring graphics and name. It does has a SunTour MicroDrive drivetrain though, which was pretty innovative back then.
The frame I found on Kijiji was a better frame than this 5500. Probably. Wheeler used their own tubing, so it’s hard to compare their bikes to ones made from Tange or True Temper tubes – ultimately, I can’t really say how good it was. But ultimately, it appeared to be in good shape, and a good buy.
I emailed the seller and offered $20.
Now, the seller made the mistake of not putting an asking price on his ad. In my mind, if you do that, you deserve stupid offers. If you don’t know what it’s worth, do some research and find out. My offer was clearly too low, and it sparked a spirited back-and-forth email exchange, some semi-hurt feelings, and an unspoken resolve to agree to disagree.
In my mind anyway. I’m pretty sure the seller just thought I was a jackass
Not long after, I realized that I had seen yet another frame, of much lower quality, with a stuck bottom bracket, offered for $40. Given the stuck BB, $20 seemed reasonable to me. Except for the part where the Wheeler was not some junk frame with a stuck BB.
When this dawned on me, it suddenly made sense that the seller had been so offended by my offer. I’d seen it on Kijiji a couple times before, I thought he’d asked for something in the $150 region, so honestly my low-ball offer was really deserving of the angry email I got in return.
Step 2; well, there was no step 2. That was the end of that plan.
In our free-flowing exchange of ideas, I made very valid points in the completely mis-directed defence of my offer, and this led me to ponder the value of vintage bikes.
If I had had my wits about me, I would have never made an offer on that frame. Anyone selling a Wheeler for $150 doesn’t understand its value in this market. In the vintage world there are a few brands that are fairly universally desirable. Like; Yeti, Ritchey, Klein, Rocky Mountain, Merlin, Fat Chance, Kona, Marin.
Then, there are the brands that existed at that same time, but enjoyed smaller levels of popularity. Like; Haro, Univega, Nishiki, Kuwahara, Bridgestone, Norco, and Trek. They’re perfectly good bikes, and loved just as much as the Heathers, but by far fewer people. Also, these bikes were not as high end as Klein or Merlin, they weren’t made from the same level of tubing, and were more likely to be treated more harshly.
It’s possible that that Wheeler was every bit as good as a Rocky Mountain Blizzard, or a Kona Explosif – two frames that I would be very interested in for $150 – but it just doesn’t have the pedigree. Rocky and Kona have been bike shop staples in Western Canada since 1990. Yeti had legendary race teams and riders. Klein and Fat Chance were handmade by one guy, very high quality, and neither company exists today.
Guys my age were in their 20’s, and in most cases couldn’t afford Yetis and Ritcheys in 1990. We had posters on our walls and read the bike tests in Mountain Bike Action over and over. These bikes were dreams, or unicorns. And now, we can afford to buy them, so their value has been pushed sky high.
Wheeler – as good as they might have been – did not have race teams, memorable advertising campaigns, or legends of crafting frames working for them. As such, a good Wheeler frame is simply not worth that much.
Unless we’re talking titanium. Pretty much any titanium frame is valuable.
Later in the summer I bought two Fisher Marlin frames and an undetermined Rocky Mountain frame for $50. That’s $50 for three frames that are known quantities in this market. Compared to that, my $20 offer is not looking so stupid.
And months later, my co-workers bike is still not done.