I have an affinity for the oddballs, orphans and survivors of the mechanical world. With bicycles, that means things that never sold well (probably for a good reason,) whose rarity make them more the stuff of sideshow curiosities than valuable collectibles. It suits my budget, in a way, as the entry price point to acquire such machines is low. They languish in dusty garages until someone tires of them hindering their access to the Weedwacker; then they become the stuff of garage sales and trash night finds. This works for me. My income and taste both compel me to pass by a carbon fiber wunderbike to gaze and grin at an off-brand three-speed or cargo trike. I like things with a history, even if I don't know what it is.
I recently went to a swap meet to look at old bikes. I made a point of not bringing a significant sum of money along so that I would not be tempted to buy another bike that I don't particularly need or have space for. I almost made it back to the parking lot, nearly home free, when the fateful distraction took place.
It's a Tyler. A Polish-made 3 speed with patina to spare. A snazzy red and white throwback to days gone by and not particularly missed. It has a sturdy lugged steel frame in the swoopy cruiser/paperboy style. The fit and finish are not what I'd call excellent, or even particularly good. You can almost imagine some strapping young worker delivering Communist propaganda from a handlebar-mounted basket. It sports a Sturmey Archer drivetrain, dated 1969, which may or may not be original to the bike. A quick once-over shows that this Tyler has had a hard life. Everything on the bike seems to have been messed with clumsily with blunt metal, or possibly stone, tools. The rear axle is stripped, making proper chain tension impossible, the front axle is a piece of threaded rod jammed violently through the hub without bearings. It needs parts and attention that I don't have time to lavish upon it. As it sits, it's kind of a piece of crap. Naturally, I love it.
It was cheap, so now I own it. I attempted to ride it to Bike-To-Work Day last month, with underwhelming results. The factory-crimped end fell off the brand new shifter cable (shoddy reproduction). I selected 2nd gear by threading a paper clip through the tiny gear-selector links at the hub. The chain fell off as I pulled in to the Old State House. I rode this untested relic fully expecting it to shed a component or three as I breezed through Bushnell Park and I wasn't disappointed. The only thing that held true were the unworn but age-checked vintage American-made Uniroyal (!) 26 x 1 3/8tires. I knew this ride was a lost cause, but I felt like it was a necessary initiation, like breaking a wild horse (not knowing whether the role of said horse in this flawed analogy is played by the bike or myself.) I made it back home, parked it in front of the couch, and let it serve as decoration until further notice. It stands there now, with a new chain and a front wheel borrowed from my cheaply made, but ever-so-charming mid 60's Columbia tandem.
In time, friends or dump scores will yield a combination of parts that will make it work again. I'll find a good axle or another front wheel while looking for something else in the garage. I don't know how or why this cold war relic has found its way to Hartford. Perhaps it was the personal mount of one of the many Polish immigrants in the area-- a sentimental keepsake from the old country. Maybe some entrepreneur thought they would get rich selling these cut-rate bikes to would-be Raleigh and Schwinn customers in the 1960's. I don't know what the story is but I know that it has one, and that's good enough for me. This thing is a survivor. It deserves to live, and be ridden, again.
I used to ride a 1965 Vespa, which could squeeze a tremendous amount of miles (90+ mpg) and pollution (worse than a diesel bus) out of a gallon of gasoline. I stopped riding it when I learned how incredibly horrible two-stroke engines are for the air, but I confess that I do miss it. Nearly everywhere I rode it, some aging Italian would tell me about the Vespa or Lambretta scooter they rode around their hometown 40 or 50 years ago. The stories differed in content, but were always delivered with a smile and a warm glint in the teller's eyes. Maybe the Tyler will be its human-powered counterpart. Maybe some future cruise around New Britain or over to the Polish National Home will elicit that knowing smile and a story from back in the day. Until then, it looks like another orphan device has entered my ragtag project queue.