It’s weird how things happen in a sequence and seemingly unconnected, until one thing joins them all up. In this case, the ‘one thing’ is a catalogue from a Swiss company long since gone. My friend Stefan, who you made have read about before (see links at bottom of page), told me he had an old catalogue from 1948 that he thought I would be interested to see. He was correct!
I love learning about the history, adventures and technology associated with cycling, so I was excited to see the catalogue. The company that produced the catalogue was based in a pretty, Swiss city that straddles the French and Swiss-German speaking regions, and unusually, has two names; a French one, Biel, and a Swiss-German one, Bienne. All of the road signs and trains and anything associated with the place usually display both names together, which means that it looks a bit confusing when you see Biel/Bienne on a sign and you are not local to the area. The city has grown through its reputation for fine engineering as well as it’s close association with the Swiss watch making industry.
The company went under the overall brand name of ‘Sport’ and was essentially a designer and manufacturer of every bicycle component and tool. Within this Sport brand, there were a number of other brands, which were associated with specific components like ‘Sporlux’ brakes and ‘Phoebus’ lights and dynamos. The company was a big employer in the area and it supplied the many bicycle makers in the country as well as the shops. This catalogue also included well known brands like Sturmey Archer, who also licensed their famous hub gears to be manufactured in Switzerland. The Sport company was also played the role of a distributor channel to all trade customers, and as you’ll see from the picture above, this catalogue is the 23rd edition. Stefan’s knowledge of the Swiss cycle industry is impressive and when he showed me the catalogue, I got a full tour through the pages of Swiss cycling history from him.
He showed me the page with the special 3 speed Phoebus Mutaped gearbox and explained how to change gears across the range. A gear change basically needs two backward rotations of the pedals and then a return to forward pedalling, and the rider gets the next gear. Simple! I had also never seen or heard of this type of gearbox, so I was keen to learn. More on this gearbox later.
Whilst going through the pages, which by the way, smell fabulously of old paper and print and is one of my favourite aromas, I notice two things that I’ve actually bought from Stefan’s garage over the years. One is the display rack holding a full set of bottom bracket axles, and the second is the big cast iron workshop stand that I knew was Swiss, but not much else about it. I am fizzing inside with the excitement of the connection made by this catalogue. What I didn’t know was that there was more to come.
Being a serial Projecteer, I had another small list of stuff to get from Stefan’s for my latest Swiss, S’Bike MTB project. Long-story-short, I got my parts, had a few chats with Stefan and before I left, I thought I would go and have an explore in part of the garage that I haven’t seen recently. Stefan gets new stuff all the time, but equally importantly, he’ll move a load of stuff to get access to a special car gearbox or engine and this opens up access to previously unseen stuff. Very exciting!
With head torch on, I weave my way through the hundreds of bicycles and specifically checking out the bottom bracket area of them just in case I’m lucky enough to find one with a Phoebus Mutaped gearbox. About 10 minutes in, I found one, and then another one further down the long row of bikes. More fizzing-inside-excitement as I look to see how old they are. The first one I found was a really old bike with rod brakes and the first version of the gearbox, which was made in 1937. The other one was also a 1937 gearbox, but had the later 1947 chainring fitted, and attached to a Swiss Helvetic frame. I decided to pull out the later bike, which took 10 minutes and then tested the gearbox to see that all was in order, which it appeared to be.
The bike had years of dust on it, no saddle, no air in the perished tyres and some other small stuff missing, but largely, it was intact and original, right down to the Phoebus dynamo, lights and Sporlux brakes. I carried the bike around to see Stefan and to get a price. He said to me ‘where did you find that?’. I explained and a told him about the second one as well. He was surprised because he had been cleared out of all bikes with this gearbox sometime ago by a collector. He gave me a price, which I accepted and then as I was there, decided to hunt for the parts that were missing or needed replacing. I found NOS tyres, tubes with the right valves, rear light, pump, tool bag and tools, rack, grips and a NOS Brooks saddle with big chrome springs. Perfect! I laid all of the parts out and Stefan gave me a price.
I took everything home and showed it to my wife who said it looked amazing even in its current state. I was so keen to strip it down and start the renovation work, I didn’t even take a ‘before’ photo. The following week saw mainly rain and crap weather, so perfect for post-work renovation in my room. In all, I had it done during the week, used a full tube of Autosol aluminium and chrome cleaner and finished off my trusty UK-sourced polish. I polished the frame about 7 times, not because I’m a bit weird like that, but because every time I did, it brought off a layer of cigarette tar. It’s previous owners must have been big smokers.
I get the bike completed at about 10pm one evening and can’t decide if I should go and test it straight away or wait until daylight. My wife says that if I need a reason to test it, she’d like a chocolate bar from the Selector machine up by the station, so I engage the dynamo and point it uphil at the chocolate machine. The ride is only about 500 metres, but uphill, so after making sure all the gears and brakes worked, I selected the lowest gear and set off. Firstly, riding a renovated bike for the first time in the dark is quite good because all of your senses focus on the feel and the sound of the bike. The saddle wasn’t adjusted correctly, but halfway up the hill I wasn’t sitting on it anyway. I get to the chocolate machine, get the specific product that my wife wanted and set off down the steep hill, going through second gear and into third gear smoothly. Fortunately, my set-up of the brakes was good or it would have ended up a bit messy. So, it all works, is shiny and the dynamo and lights work. I’m very pleased!
I always learn something at Stefan’s place and there were three things that were new to me about this bike and Swiss cycling. Firstly, there was a hole in the mudguard, which is for a cast alloy flag crest. The Sport company sold these to screw into the front mudguard and whilst they all had a Swiss flag on one side, the other flag had one of the Canton (County) flags. I asked Stefan if he had one and he said that they were now very rare. He then looked up at the ceiling to where there were lots of mudguards hanging high upon a rail, and pointed to one of them. It had a crest on it?! The Canton flag was of Solothurn. We got the mudguard down, which wasn’t very good condition and I noticed the nut holding the crest on was well rusted to the mudguard. I bought it, and took back to carefully hacksaw the nut off without damaging the thread. I eventually got it off without any disaster, so now I have the crest.
Secondly, Stefan had previously explained about the little tax plaques that were put on Swiss bicycles until it was stopped in about 2010. I asked him if he had a 1948 plaque. He didn’t, but he did have an NOS 1949 one and with its original paper document. Every bike in Switzerland had to be licensed and taxed, so there was the plaque for the bike and the document for the owners records. Every year the colour changed, and just like the car vignettes that have to be bought today to travel on a Swiss highway.
Thirdly, Stefan pulled out of a box, a number of alloy plaques that were put on the bikes during the 1940s for insurance is case of theft or accident. I chose a nice condition one that had been issued originally for a Zürich insurance company, and which clamps between the rear seat stays. My bike now has a full period mudguard crest out of my catalogue, as well as the Swiss tax and insurance plaques of the 1940s. This lot is the final icing on the cake.
The bike is finished and as we’d been invited for lunch at Stefan’s, I put the bike in the van and we head off to show it to him. When he sees it, he is amazed at how it looks and happy to see it completed and running. Stefan points out that if I need any replacement parts and phone the telephone ordering number in the catalogue using the old Swiss 5 digit phone number, I may not get a quick, or any answer. We both think the bike is of epic design and it looks really cool too, so it seemed a great idea to have a photo together with it, even if we are both squinting into the bright sun?.
I bought a very old, British Phillips cycle lubricating oil can from Stefan as well, and putting it next to its 2021 Swiss Motorex chain oil container equivalent, it made me think that nothing much has really radically changed in the cycling technology world, but then I questioned my own thinking on the subject. Whilst the two oil cans do the same job, have the bikes really changed that much? I decided to put the newly finished Helvetic bike next to my new Super Tourer Diamant ebike to see where the big changes have taken place. Let’s start with the Mutaped Phoebus gearbox versus the derailleur. I know that the derailleur is proven over time and shifts smoothly and is cheap to make, but why hasn’t anyone really made the paradigm shift (?) and got something that reduces friction and is enclosed like a car or motorcycle gearbox for bicycles, that is relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Regardless of the answer, we are still using the trusty derailleur.
Whilst brakes, frame material, tyres etc have all been developed and improved for fashion, performance and production, I think the ebike is probably the biggest shift since my 1948 Helvetic was made. When people know I have an ebike, they tend to say that I’m getting too soft, I now need motor assistance to make it easy for me etc etc. I have to resist slapping these people because if they did come with me for an ebike ride, they would see what a workout it is. Whilst I don’t ride an ebike for more than 50% of my total riding, I got this latest one to do some longer touring and to make it a bit different. A recent ‘quick 45km hilly ride’ in the Swiss Pre-Alps with 59% unassisted pedalling realised the following four benefits:
- The additional weight makes the bike super stable on Alpine descents and the great 4 pot brakes allow really great stopping power.
- The acceleration from stationary and only using the ‘Eco’ or ‘Tour’ settings of the motor get me quickly up to 25kmh and then I can turn it off to pedal normally, so I don’t use valuable energy just getting up to speed. This bike is easy to pedal unassisted as well.
- Climbing those real tough killer climbs.
- Charging into a headwind, which is always a slog.
Anyway, whilst the Helvetic won’t be carrying me up Alpine climbs, I do have some rides in mind for it, and one will be from our place to Stefan’s garage, which is two hours (rolling hills) pedalling away. As time flies by and constant small changes are made to bikes every year, it is easy to disregard the evolution of them, even more so the culture that surrounds the bicycle and the people that used them. I’ve learnt a lot about cycling history just being lucky enough to get an old catalogue, have Stefan and his place nearby and to find a really interesting bike that I had never heard of. It is really hard to find out anything detailed about the Phoebus Mutaped gearbox and this journey has been beautifully guided by an old catalogue. This wasn’t the only bicycle gearbox that came out of Switzerland either, and I’m interested to know more. It is worth watching out for one of these Swiss gearbox bikes, because they are rare apparently and were made to the same standard as the premium Swiss watches that were made not far away from Biel/Bienne in the Jura mountains.
Here is the introduction to Stefan’s amazing garage https://diaryofacyclingnobody.com/the-ultimate-aladdins-cave-of-bike-shops-is-in-switzerland/
Here is a post about a ride over to Stefan’s on a special bike https://diaryofacyclingnobody.com/a-soulful-bicycle-which-carries-the-name-of-a-true-cycling-raconteur/
All photos by the Author and his wife?