Friday, January 20, 2017

Reconditioning a Vintage Charles Pelissier 650B Cyclotouring Bike

It was a winter day in San Francisco in 2007. I was working in the South of Market area. Late one day, I met with a friend who was moving soon to the Northwest. He knew I had been rebuilding bikes and said that he had an old French bike project that I might be interested in.

We met at his storage unit next to an old Greyhound bus service facility in the South of Market district.

My friend lifted the door of the storage unit and pulled out a weathered, slightly rusty frame. It was a very large road frame, the paint had been stripped and it was bare metal, but the original head badge was intact, it was triangular with red and blue bands and faint lettering that read Charles Pelissier.

The fork had a long offset and the rear drop outs were vertical, a tab for a generator was brazed to the left chain stay and the frame had mounts for cantilever brakes. My friend pulled out a box of very weathered old parts, some very oxidized zeppelin style fenders, LeFol Peon (“Peacock”) and brazed steel racks with built-in guards for the brakes. The wheels had a front "grand flask" hub and the rear, an Atom. The tires were completely dried out and cracked, imprinted "Dunlop Demi-Balon… 650B". I thanked my friend, bid him farewell and thus began my journey of discovery of an old French bike.

I started to try to find out about the bike and its history. What was 650B? The alloy parts and lightweight frame seemed to indicate it was an above average French bike. In the process I found information about the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme (FFCT) in France, and the traditon of classic French style of randonneur and cyclotouring style bikes and their rides in magazine like Le Cycliste. I learned that 650B is a wheel size roughly in-between 700c road and 26" wheel sizes and well suiting for touring and randonneur bikes since it provides slightly better handling than 700c wheels and allows the use of wider tires within about the same outer diameter as a standard 700c wheel with a tire.

As I searched on Charles Pelissier. I learned he was a racer, the youngest of the three famous Pelissier brothers, (Henri and Francis the other two), who raced in the early 20th century and had their own colorful histories. Charles won 3 French National Championships in cyclocross (1926-1928). He was a tall rider and known as a sprinter. He shares a record for 8 stage wins in one Tour de France (1930) along with Freddy Maertens and Eddy Merckx. Because of his handsome looks, he was frequently nicknamed “Charlot”. The question was, what was his name doing on a cyclotouring style bike?

I located a scan of a Charles Pelissier brochure catalog from the early 1950s showing a range of bikes, from racing, sport utility to sport, including a price list in the back. The Randonneur model, that had many of the same components listed that were in the box of parts, was the most expensive bike in their line-up. The logotype on the brochure was an eccentric French roman style letter with distinctive curves, typical of late 1940s-1950s French display type. Their shop was in a fashionable district of Paris.

The frame, a 61cm, has a the bottom bracket shell with the word “NERVEX” stamped on it along with angles in degrees. I learned later this was typical to indicate at the time. The other lugs not the ornate Nervex style but slim. The fork is a classic French style crown with flat tops and a long offset, with double eyelets for fenders and racks.

The bottom bracket shell seemed to be for some kind of cartridge bearing, that was unfortunately missing. I learned that in France some shops, such as Alex Singer, would do a conversion on frames for a cartridge style BB.

Many of the parts in the box that came with the bike were weathered and worn and would need to be replaced. There were parts for a lever style Simplex front and a steel Simplex Tourist "bell crank” type derailleur that was rusty. The original MAFAC cantilever brakes were the short criterium version and the bushings looked very worn. There were steel Stronglight cottered crank arms and an alloy triple set of TA chainrings. The original Simplex tourist derailleur was in the box, but it looked as though it had been replaced with 60s Simplex derailleur that was being used when the bike was taken apart. There were some unusual pedals, I learned later were made by Piel, a high end model with pressed in bearings, but were damaged and not usable.

There was a curious detail on the MAFAC front rod derailleur, the original rounded end cap that sits under the wingnut was missing and had been replaced with the identification tag usually attached to the top of the stem. The tag was engraved “R. RANSOM c/o AMERICAN EMBASSY PARIS” a clue to a former owner.

I decided to have the frame powder coated. The frame had been stripped down some time ago as indicated by a slight rust that had formed on the metal while it was in storage. Someone obviously wanted to restore the bike, but never did. The person I’d acquired it from said a friend of his had brought it over from France.

Removing the brass headset badge revealed that the frame had originally been black. Nothing fancy, perhaps sidestepping appearance for making a higher quality bike more accessible to the general public.

I had the frame powder coated a forest green. Powder coating, electrostatically applied powder that is then baked, is a dull finish when cured so to give it a gloss a clear coat is applied. It goes on a little heavy and while not as nice a finish as conventional paint, it’s a good durable finish for general use. The green was stock color, I noticed it was a similar green as found on powder coated park benches.

In my looking for (and learning about) replacement parts I found an NOS P3 Stronglight headset that came without ball bearings (the norm for the time). The next obstacle was the bottom bracket. Through a word of mouth referral, I met with Peter Johnson, a local machinist, frame builder and former amateur champion racer. He is also somewhat of a collector of vintage bikes. He knew of the cartridge bearing style bottom bracket system (it had been a way he’d made bottom brackets for some of his frames as it’s very practical set-up). So I ordered a square taper bottom bracket spindle and cartridge bearings from Phil Wood. Johnson re-tapped the Bottom bracket shell and machined aluminum end caps. He also made a center sleeve that is held in place with locktite adhesive that acts as a spacer in between the cartridge bearings when pressed on the spindle.

Now that I had the two main bearings of the headset and bottom bracket solved over the next two years I acquired new parts of the same era to get the bike on the road. The rear rack and the steel brazed handlebar stem that were very weathered I had rechromed. I located NOS MAFAC brakes for a tandem that had would provide better leverage with the guidonnet style brake levers. The Peon fenders were very oxidized had some dents and would need some finishing work. The rolled edges held wring for the generator light.

The wheels had seen better days, the rims were alloy, but without hook beads, the rim strip was the old style rim rope. The spokes were very thin and the front hub was a gigantic grand flasque style. The rear hub was a plain Atom. I rebuilt new wheels with Normandy high flange hubs and new Grand Bois 650B rims. I gave the dried out saddle a few drenches of Lexall leather treatment. The saddle, it turns out was quite well broken in with a comfortable ride despite the surface cracks.

I re-taped the bars with cotton tape and multiple coats of shellac. The brown ribbon after shellac looks like leather. Finally on a spring day in April. I took the Pelissier for a test ride. I was only planning on a short loop. But the bike was so fun to ride I ended up do a longer ride including taking the bike off road.

The bike seemed very lightweight, the slightly smaller wheels (than 700c) with Grand Bois Hetre 650B 42mm tires were amazingly responsive. I noticed the gearing was slightly geared down from 700c. The bike handled very well and was nimble. I had installed MAFAC guidonnet tourist style levers. These are fine for general riding but a bit awkward for hard braking on hills.The front rod lever also took a bit of getting used to.

My first experience riding this 650B bike was a revelation, even if the bike was far larger than the size I usually rode. The wide lightweight tires give the bike a wonderful ride.

I since then relettered the Pelissier logotype and had decals made. In California we have been in a drought the last 5 years so I’ve left the fenders and the racks off.

The Pelissier bike was made during the classic age of French bicycles and is an interesting high-quality example from that period. Whoever made this bike was a craftsman. While not a frame made by one of the more well known French constructeurs (artisan frame builders/fabricators of their own custom components) such as René Herse, Alex Singer, and Jo Routens, among others of this era, this 650B Pelissier is an exceptional, lightweight 650B bike for it's time. The frame size of this bike is for someone very tall and clearly was ridden in Paris. Charles Pelissier died in Paris in 1959 at the age of 56. Could this bike have been ridden by Pelissier himself?

I’ll never know, but the process of going through the reconditioning of this bike and finding out how well it rides despite it’s age, has been, ultimately, the most gratifying reward.

© 2022 Mark Eastman