Come spring and summer, sites like Craigslist and Ebay become full of ads for bicycles needing a new home. For the people searching for a secondhand bicycle the choices are endless. But what if you are looking for something with a bit of character and patina? If those are some of your requirements then it is likely you are looking to buy an old or vintage bicycle.
I have found through my experience with buying and repairing old bicycles that there are often many to choose from, but of varying quality. There is nothing quite like riding a vintage bike, but there are some important condition issues that one should search for and be aware of before hitting the road.
The first thing to look for when searching for a bike is the condition of the frame. The frame not only supports your weight, but is also responsible for holding on all of the major components.
Depending on how the bike was kept, there may be rust present. If you see rust, identify if the rust is on the surface only, or throughout the inside of the frame as well. You can check this by taking off the seat with the seat post and looking with a flashlight inside the frame. If you see ruse on the inside of the frame, scrape and poke the surface to identify the severity of the rust. If metal flakes off or the tool goes through the other side of the metal, it’s not worth the risk.
Another thing to watch out for is rust at points where pieces of the frame are welded together (see images below for examples). If these areas are rusted, even if the rest of the bike is pristine it is probably best to avoid it. While searching in these areas also search for signs of cracking or holes on or near the welds.
Note the cracking caused by rust (encircled in yellow). This is unsafe in my opinion.
Note the significant crack/hole caused by rust and possible poor metal quality (encircled in yellow). I would also consider this unsafe.
Note the mild rust at the point where the downtubes meet the bottom bracket (encircled in yellow). I would deem this moderately unsafe simply because of the low severity of the rust. This would likely get worse overtime however and would need to be monitored.
Brakes and Derailleurs
Check to see if the brakes and derailleurs function. It is extremely common to find vintage bikes with brakes and derailleurs that won't function so don’t be discouraged if you find that to be the case.
Visually inspect the brakes and derailleurs for any obvious damage or broken pieces. If everything checks out there, try next using the brake levers to identify how frozen the brakes have gotten (this is especially common for bikes that have been sitting for years). If you pull the levers and the brakes are sluggish or sticky it is likely that the brake cables are rusted and need replacing. This is something that is easy to do yourself and is a cheap service at most repair shops.
Check the derailleurs in the same way as the brakes. If you see the mechanism move but not engage any of the gears this is not necessarily bad. It is more than likely the result of rusted or dirty cables that are not moving freely. Just as with brake cables, this repair is easy to learn yourself but can be done at repair shops for a relatively low expenditure.
I have found that if these components appear to be in good condition but do not function at the time of purchase, they can usually be brought back to life nonetheless. That being said, if you find that one or both of these components are broken beyond repair, replacements are often cheap for older bikes and can often be had secondhand.
The condition of the wheels are arguably more important than the brakes and derailleurs due to the fact that they are more expensive to replace and are the only thing keeping you on a straight path.
As with the other components check for significant rust. Surface rust is to be expected but severe rust or rot can be dangerous. Subsequently, inspect the wheels to identify if the wheels are physically bent. If so, the wheel that is bent will need replacing.
Next, spin the wheels on the bicycle or in your hands to identify if the wheels rotate with a wobble. If a wheel wobbles this means the wheel is out of true and will need to be trued. This is a simple repair, however do not get a wobbly wheel confused with a bent wheel. A wobbly wheel will appear straight without spinning but will wobble as it rotates. A wheel that is bent will appear bent regardless of its movement.
If you hear a deviant noise such as a howling or crunching sound when rotating the wheels, the wheel bearings probably need a service and adjustment. This can be said for the bottom bracket (where pedals attach to frame) as well. If you rotate the pedals and they are difficult to turn or emit a noise, adjust and service the bearings accordingly.
The Effort is Worth It
If you’re willing to put in a little work, vintage bicycles can be dependable and nostalgic transportation. They often need minor work when first purchased, but that is made up for by the joy and mechanical simplicity they bring with ownership.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them in the comments below.