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  1. #1
    your god hates me Bob Ross's Avatar
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    What to watch out for when buying crappy old steel frame to refurb?

    So I've somehow gotten it into my head that I want to find a crappy 20 or 30 year old steel road frame to use as my commuter/beater bike. Perhaps a 10-speed, or perhaps a single speed; I suppose ideally I'd like the option of going either way. I've seen plenty of old/refurbished Raleigh, Schwinn, Ross, etc bikes advertised on Craig's List, and I think at least to start out I'll get a complete bike rather than just the frame (since I have zero experience building up a bike from scratch).

    But also ideally as things wear out and/or I get excited about this project I'd want to be able to replace anything with modern components: certainly the wheels, bars, brakes, saddle, & drivetrain. Plus I want the option of adding fenders. And maybe a rear rack.

    So my question is:

    Given the above goals, what sort of things do I need to look out for when shopping for this old pig of a bike? Rear dropout spacing? Bottom bracket size/shape/thread? Steerer diameter? Seat post diameter? I'm just tossing out guesses here, someone please point me in the right direction.

    What are the most important parameters which, if I overlooked, would pigeon-hole me into not being able to upgrade one of these old bikes? Thanks.

  2. #2
    * vpiuva's Avatar
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    Buying a cheap frame - one that was cheap when new - and then putting expensive modern componetry on it is like putting perfume on a pig. Upgrading can not always be done independently, either. Lets say you want to upgrade to a 9 speed drivetrain - you would need to replace the rear hub, buy a 9 speed cassette, buy 9 speed brifters, 9 speed crankset, and 9 speed chain. None of these parts would be compatible with the older 10, 12, 14 speed equipment you have. You might be able to get away with the old derailleurs depending on the age. So if you're going to spend that much money on upgrades, start with a good frame. Good quality steel, Reynolds 531, Columbus SL, etc. A 126mm dropout spacing will easily accomodate newer 130mm hubs. A 27.2 seatpost gives you many more modern options, but is really not a limiting factor. If you want fenders, it's easier if the dropouts have eyelets. You might find, as many do, that the older frames make a much easier and cheaper modern transition to a single-speed or fixie. Or you may find that you love the old stuff and keep replacing it vintage.

    But if you want to upgrade, watch out for:
    1. proprietary bottom bracket threading (some raleighs, for one) - look for 1.37" x 24 tpi or 36mm*24tpi. French and Swiss 35*1mm are also hard or expensive to upgrade, and will also keep you away from french threaded headsets.
    2. Proprietary headset/ fork threading - Raleigh again here on some models, and I think Schwinn had some odd sized, too.
    3. 27" wheels can limit your choices if you upgrade your brakes and change to 700c wheels.

    You'll avoid most proprietary issues if you buy a good quality frame.

    Sheldon Brown's website has a wealth of information. Look at it first. And have fun.

  3. #3
    B.C. to D.C.
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    Hard to say unless you have the specific bike. Most everything has a work-around, just depends how much effort you're willing to spend "modernizing."

    I'd say if you want to switch to modern (usually 700c) wheels, it might be a bit of a pain to find brakes that reach if you have a frame designed for 27" wheels.

    for the drivetrain, I think it depends on how much of an upgrade you want to make. Like, 10-spd ultegra, modern? Then you'll have to pay some attention to rear spacing, but frames can be spread.

    It might also be a pain in the neck to find BBs for bikes with French threading

    For fenders and rear racks, just make sure it has eyelets.

    I also wouldn't waste my time with a truly POS old bike. I'd get something that's a worthy platform for upgrading. This doesn't have to break the bank. There are lots of great quality older frames made with pride out there to be had for cheap that can take a beating. It might turn out to be your favorite ride.

    [Edit]: vpiuva beat me to the punch

  4. #4
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    Go for somethng built in Japan in the eighties. Centurion, Miyata, Nishiki made nice bikes. Try to get something that looks worse than it really is, ie a better frame and components under grime and dirt is much better than a shiny lowend in my mind. A touring model from the mid eighties is my best tip.

  5. #5
    Elitist Troglodyte DMF's Avatar
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    1. Rust (often internal, hidden)

    1a. Frozen seat post due to 1.

    2. Damage, especially bent front fork, creased or cracked tube.

    Check for the presence of a rear dérailleur hanger on the dropout so you don't have to use an adapter. Check that the shifters operate and the cables aren't frozen - in other words, that it shifts. Not important that the dérailleurs are adjusted and you can catch every cog. Don't get hung up on number of speeds.

    Assume that you will have to replace the tires. Plan on a complete drivetrain teardown to clean/repack the bearings. Replace the chain. You can cover the saddle with a cheap gel cover so don't worry too much about saddle condition.
    Stupidity got us into this mess - why can't it get us out?

    - Will Rogers

  6. #6
    Senior Member TimJ's Avatar
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    You've got a ton of options, it just depends on where you are and what's available there. I've got a '78 schwinn le tour III I ride as a fixie commuter, and I refurbished a 70-something nishiki international for my wife, they're both a mix of old and new and are great bikes. I've got another nishiki international in the garage, waiting for something, a motobecane, a centurion from the 80's... I got them all cheap and they're all cool bikes.

    There's random quirks in a lot of 70's bike-boom bikes, bikes from the 80's tend to have fewer issues with odd-sized stems or what-not. Both my schwinn and my wife's nishiki have the odd .833 sized stem, for example, and it is a pain if you need a taller or longer stem. As far as quality goes, it depends on where you are but you'd probably be more likely to find a chromoly framed bike from the 80s than the 70s. There's lots of 70's bikes out there but they're often hi-tensile steel. That's not a totally terrible thing though, my schwinn is hi-ten and it's a sweet ride. The easiest thing to do is just limit yourself to bikes with aluminum rims and cotterless cranks. Even the worst bike-boom bike with aluminum rims cotterless cranks would probably make a decent singlespeed.

    You'll learn most of what you need to learn by dealing with a bike you've bought. My advice would be just find a bike you think is super cool that doesn't cost much and buy it. That's what I did, I got my schwinn with rusted chrome everywhere for $20, now I ride it every day and love it.
    fun facts: Psychopaths have trouble understanding abstract concepts.
    "Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria."

  7. #7
    Senior Member
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    Give the price of decent old sports/road bikes why settle for frame that was bad when it was new?
    My everday hack bike is based on a good quality club racer style of road bike (long drop calipers) with plenty of clearance for fenders.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by plodderslusk
    Go for somethng built in Japan in the eighties. Centurion, Miyata, Nishiki made nice bikes. Try to get something that looks worse than it really is, ie a better frame and components under grime and dirt is much better than a shiny lowend in my mind. A touring model from the mid eighties is my best tip.
    There are millions of Centurion Accordos out there to be had pretty cheap. Everything modern generally fits.
    Although they are pretty heavy the Sears Free Spirt road bikes were mostly made in Austria and can usually be found at garage sales for $25.

    Agree with others on avoiding oddball stuff. Never, never go for a bike with a pressed in bottom bracket. Unless it is in your neighbors trash and still works.

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