Hetchins Magnum Opus

Steve Maas, Long Beach, California

December, 2003

I was thrilled to get this bike. I have always wanted a  Magnum Opus, and this one was well equipped, a sexy color, and a good size. I bought the bike in late 2003 from a collector in Scotland. It was shipped to me by air, arriving only a few days after the purchase was made, fortunately in pretty good shape.

The bike was made in 1981 and originally sold as a bare frame. The first owner built it up mainly with Campagnolo Super Record components, but apparently it evolved a bit: some parts, like the high-flange Record hubs, are from an earlier era; others, such as the delta brakes, must have been installed later. At some point, a modern cartridge bottom bracket and a modern headset were installed.

The Magnum Opus is Hetchins' top model, the most ornate and the one most sought after by collectors. This bike has beautiful, intricate lugs, gold outlined, with chromed decorations on the fork and seatstays that echo the lug patterns. It has the so-called "curly" seat and chain stays, a Hetchins trademark since the 1930s, chrome plated and in perfect condtion. The fork has a two-plate crown, similar to bikes of much earlier eras. The paint is an exquisite, metallic, candy-apple red, with blue accents on the seat tube and head tube. The lugs are outlined in gold, and the Hetchins on the downtube is the well known "fairground" version. The seat is a Brooks B17, in a sexy, deep maroon color I have never seen on a Brooks saddle before.

The bike was in fundamentally good condition but, anal-retentive as I am, I had to spruce it up to perfection: relubricate, clean, and degrease the frame and components. On close inspection, however, I discovered a number of minor problems. A few paint chips that needed to be touched up, a little rust on some fasteners, worn pulley bushings in the rear derailleur (which made the pulley wheels loose and could lead to poor shifting), and some slack spokes. The front derailleur was decorated with tufts of puppy-dog hair, and the bar tape, white, was predictably a little dingy. The tires were dissimilar, something I just can't abide, so they had to go. Finally, the gearing was rather high for my bum left ankle, so the 13-21 Sachs freewheel must also go, replaced by my favorite freewheel, a 14-26 Shimano 600.

The bike came with Campagnolo delta brakes. These are part of the C Record group. They represent Campagnolo's efforts, in the 1980s, to transition to a smoother, more modern look, mainly to compete with Shimano. I'm just not sure, however, that they really fit the classic Hetchins design.

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The Hetchins Magnum Opus

Here are some pictures of the bike, taken at its former home in Perth, Scotland:

The components are pretty nice. The bike has a Super Record drivetrain, (I think the front derailleur is Nuovo), high-flange hubs, and delta brakes. The rims are Mavic MA-2, now much sought after, since Jobst Brandt (author of The Bicycle Wheel) declared them to be the best rims ever made. The saddle is a Brooks B17; it has a beautiful patina.

Once the parts were off the frame, I could clean both the frame and the individual components effectively. I found a few places where paint was chipped; the worst was three chips in the fork, which apparently occurred during shipping. Fortunately, these will not be very visible when the wheel is on. I cleaned the chipped areas with alcohol, reprimed as necessary, and touched them up with automotive paint. The match isn't perfect, but it is acceptable.

With the frame stripped, I also could photograph a few details: 

The bike has a number of unusual details, evident in the pictures above and below:

How does this happen? It's impossible to say for certain, of course, but there are plausible explanations. Obviously, for some reason, the front and rear drop-outs were replaced; when this was done, the seatstays probably had to be repositioned because of the change in dimensions. If the stays were mounted lower, it might not have been possible to preserve the wrapped top ends, or preserving them simply might not have been within the skills of the guy doing the repairs. All of this would have necessitated repainting, so any other long-delayed repairs, such as replacing the steering tube, may have been done at that time as well.  

The metallic, candy-apple paint is not traditional, and the "Magnum Opus" on the top tube near the seat lug is more characteristic of a later bike. This indicates that the frame was repainted in the late 80s or early 90s, according to the then-existing style. Other details, while different from classic-era Hetchins, are standard for a Jackson-built frame. In particular, the rear stays look very much like the modern, Hetchins-inspired Bob Jackson frames, such as their Legend series. 

Experts in the UK have told me that these details are minor, though unusual. But, in another (perhaps paradoxical) sense, it is common to find nonstandard details in frames of this era. While classic-bike zealots in the US view frame repairs as something requiring great skill and artistry, bike shops in the UK do not suffer from this rather silly idea. There, frame repair and modification are not a big deal; they are standard skills for bike mechanics. As bike shops in the UK evolve into something similar to those in the US, where shops make most of their income from clothing sales, we can expect their range of services to narrow as well. 

Repairs and Preparation

The bike was in pretty good condition as I received it, but it needed a few minor repairs and maintenance touches. Of course, I gave it my usual tune-up, which consisted of taking it completely apart, and cleaning and lubing everything.

One problem was a lot of cracked paint and rust around the binder-bolt lugs, a common problem in any bike. I used automotive touch-up paint, after priming:

It'll probably crack again eventually, but it's OK for now.

I noticed that the Hetchins fairground decal on one side had started to flake a little. To arrest the deterioration, I cleaned it with alcohol and painted over it with thinned oil-based lacquer. This is almost invisible and protects the decal nicely. I was concerned about whether this would be compatible with the decal and paint, so I tried it on inconspicuous places first. Seems to be fine. I did both downtube decals and the seat tube decal as well. Finally, I waxed the frame with automobile wax.

Another problem was worn bushings in the rear derailleur pulleys, shown below. I made new bushings on my Sherline lathe; steel, in the hope they might wear better. Similarly, the washers under the shifters looked like they had been made from filed-out steel washers. I made new ones from the right material, nylon.

I cleaned and regreased the wheel bearings. I considered rebuilding the wheels, since the slack spokes may have fatigued, and there was a little fretting at one or two of the spoke crossovers. Unlacing the wheels would also allow me to polish the hubs with my buffer, which would make them really nice and shiny. In the end, I found that a little Simichrome polish was almost as good as buffing, and I just don't want to take the time and trouble to rebuild the wheels. If a spoke breaks, I'll just replace the sucker. No big deal.

Since I have to retension the wheels, and I'm using a different freewheel, this is a good time to get the rear hub dimensions right. The rear dropout spacing is 126 mm, but the hub measured out at 132 mm. I switched some washers and spacers to get it to about 128, and it still had plenty of room for the freewheel, which cleared the frame nicely. I dished the wheel and retensioned it. Finally, I checked the chain line when it all went together.

I had a hard time deciding what to do with the bars. The white bar tape and cable housing isn't my preference. I ordered a spool of red cable housing and some red-black marbled bar tape to see how it looks. I also have a roll of red Benotto tape, which might also be an option. After looking over it all and discussing the matter with my consultant (AKA wife), I decided to ditch the tape and use leather bar coverings. My Allegro page shows how I do this. The nearly black leather will also go well with black cable housing and the black generic brake-lever hoods I already have.

The existing stem looked a little long for me until I tried it.  The top tube length is only 57 cm, rather short for a 60 cm frame, so I kept the long stem. The unusually short top tube is another indicator of a custom-built frame. 

After a lot of agonizing, I decided to put on a set of Super Record brakes. I have a set that is nearly new. I think they should be more appropriate for a 1981 classic than the delta brakes. 

The Finished Bike

Finally, I put it all back together. I still have a couple minor things to do; for example, the black brake hoods didn't fit, so I need some appropriate ones; the chain is slipping occasionally on one of the freewheel sprockets; and I need a freewheel spacer to get the chainline perfect. Just some minutiae to keep me busy.



The bike's maiden voyage was on January 7, 2004, when I took it on my Tour de Long Beach ride. My only disappointment was the absence of the biker crowd at the coffee shop in Seal Beach where I usually stop--no one to impress. Give me time; there will be other opportunities.

Hetchins in the LA Times!

I took the bike on the Pasadena vintage bike ride in February, 2004. A reporter and photographer from the LA Times came with us. When their article finally appeared, on March 16, 2004, two out of the three photos in the article were of this bike! A copy of the article is shown below:

la_times_p1.jpg (552029 bytes) la_times_p2.jpg (521297 bytes)

Update

The bike was sold in 2009. Perhaps a surprise, as it was my most admired bike for many years. As time went on, however, I acquired a much more significant Magnum Opus, and I became more interested in the older Hetchins, ones that predate the Jackson era. And, candidly, I just didn't need two. It's possible to get by with less than a dozen bikes. Really. 

Hetchins on the Web

Because of the wide interest in Hetchins bicycles, there are quite a few Hetchins resources on the web. Below are a few of them.

Historic Hetchins Website  The definitive source for Hetchins information.

New Construction  Hetchins are still made today, available through World Class Cycles in New York.

Classics Rendezvous' Hetchins Section   The CR website is the greatest resource for old-bike info in the known universe.

Sheldon Brown's Hetchins  Talk about a quirky setup! This bike is proof that you need not be doctrinaire about any classic bike. His is a phase III MO; mine is a phase II. Sadly, Sheldon died a couple years ago, but as of early 2010 his enormously useful web site is still in place. 

Caution: Because of their value and desirability, fake Hetchins frames have been made and sold. Also, for a while, a company sold reproduction frames, claiming they were the legitimate continuation of Hetchins. They weren't. Fortunately, that operation is now defunct, but their products are still around; I once saw one for sale on eBay. Generally, fakes are easy to recognize, because they have significant and obvious differences. See the Historic Hetchins website for more information on recognizing fakes.