Modern bicycles are lighter, stronger, and often much easier to ride than their predecessors; what they lack is a sense of style. Vintage bicycles have a look that modern bicycles cannot match. There is just something about the older technology that catches the imagination in a way that seems to have gotten lost in the years since. Some people are so enamoured by the style that they restore vintage bicycles, and need handlebars for that reason. Others may be building custom bicycles and simply prefer the look and style vintage handlebars give a bicycle. One thing buyers should remember is this: when buying vintage handlebars they are buying used parts, and that requires an extra level of due diligence which is not necessary when buying new. However, as long as buyers understand their needs and fulfill their due diligence, buying a set of vintage handlebars can be both easy and rewarding.
Handlebars are among the most recognisable parts of any bicycle. They also show some of the greatest variations in visual design, as the majority of frames are very similar in shape regardless of the type of bicycle. In its simplest form, a set of handlebars is nothing more than a lever which is placed crosswise to the front wheel of a bicycle. This serves both as a balance point for the rider to rest his or her hands, and also as the primary method of steering.
Most handlebars are made from a shaped metal tube, which is often either wrapped in tape or covered with plastic or rubber handles for the comfort of the rider. These tubes range in shape from a simple straight-across bar on some models to complex symmetrical curves which sweep outwards from the stem to provide a secure grip. Modern bicycles often have handlebars fashioned from aluminium, magnesium, or light alloys, while vintage bicycle handlebars are more commonly fashioned from steel.
The other part of the handlebar is the stem, another vertical tube which connects the bar to the forks, enabling the rider to steer. The crossbar itself is generally connected to the stem by a clamping mechanism which is held tight by a bolt.
Other Handlebar Functions
Handlebars are not only used for steering the bicycle. Many handlebar designs take advantage of the fact that the rider's hands are almost always on the handlebars, and use them to mount shifters and brake handles so that they are in easy reach. Some bicycles even have bells or baskets mounted on the handlebars.
Development of the Handlebar
The handlebar itself actually predates the bicycle proper, as it appeared with the Draisine of the early nineteenth century. This precursor to the bicycle was made of wood and featured two wheels in line with the front wheel steered by the handlebar. These first handlebars, like the vehicles they were attached to, were often made of wood, as it was the most readily available and easily worked material. As the true bicycle came into use in the later part of the nineteenth century, wood was used less and less often, being replaced by metal, initially by solid bars and later by hollow tubing. This was primarily steel, though aluminium began to replace it in common usage after 1963.
The first handlebars were fairly simple in shape, often curving backwards towards the rider, making them easier to grasp. Over time, this progressed to the standard upright shape where the handlebars come out to the sides before curving upwards and back towards the rider. There are a number of variations on this basic form, but they are all designed for a person who rides in an upright posture.
Upright Handlebar Variations
The upright handlebar comes in a number of variations. One of particular interest to those looking for vintage handlebars is the cruiser, which features a long bar that curves quite far back to allow for an almost completely upright posture. Another is the porteur, which is designed to hold a basket in the middle, over the front wheel. This is probably the most common form of handlebar, and nearly all vintage handlebars fall into this category.
The next most common shape is the drop bar, often seen on road bicycles. This design features a rams-horn shape which curves down and back from a straight crossbar. It allows riders to lean forward for speed or sit upright for comfort. While very widespread, especially since the 1970s, these handlebars are among the least important for those looking for vintage bicycle parts as most postdate the vintage era.
Ape Hanger Handlebars
Not commonly found, except amongst people who are looking for 1960s vintage bicycles, these handlebars resemble those on a chopper motorcycle, rising high above the frame and dropping back down to the rider's hands. While they fell out of favour fairly rapidly, with critics citing safety concerns, they are still found in small numbers and were extremely popular with youth in their heyday.
Choosing Vintage Bicycle Handlebars
One of the first things to consider when looking for vintage bicycle handlebars is whether to get modern handlebars in a vintage style or to go for authentic vintage handlebars. For those looking for the authentic experience, whether for restoration or customisation, there is no real substitute for authentic vintage hardware.
Research the Bicycle and Handlebars
When looking for vintage handlebars, it is important to pay attention to the bicycle they are intended to be used with. While a personal custom bicycle in a vintage style can use almost any pair of handlebars and still look good, a proper restoration job requires vintage handlebars that exactly match what was originally available for the bicycle. While that may be easy enough to say, it can require a significant amount of research to determine precisely the right handlebars, particularly when dealing with a less common bicycle.
Check the Handlebar Material
One of the keys to ensuring that one has found an authentic vintage handlebar is to check the material it is made of. Most vintage handlebars are made from steel, usually tubing, but sometimes from solid bar stock. Some of the early ones are made from wood. Aluminium, while popular now, was not used before 1963, so a person looking for an authentic vintage handlebar should be careful of any aluminium ones, as the chances are extremely high that they are of a more recent vintage.
Be Aware that All Vintage Handlebars are Unique
An important part of researching vintage handlebars is not only researching the bicycle itself, which may not be necessary if the handlebars are to be used as retro accessories for a more modern bicycle, but also researching that particular set of handlebars. By their very nature, vintage handlebars are not brand-new. Each set has its own unique history which can be a major factor in determining its current condition. The best way to deal with this, is for the buyer to gather all available information on the specific set, or sets, of handlebars that are being offered for sale and use that information to help make a decision. Photographs can be extremely helpful when determining whether a given set meets the buyer's requirements.
How to Buy Vintage Handlebars on eBay
One of the best places to buy a set of vintage handlebars, whether for restoration or as an accessory, is eBay. The site offers a wide variety of vintage handlebars that can be easily found with just a few keystrokes in the search box. All you have to do is enter your search terms in the box, there is one on every eBay page, and watch as the results appear. Once you have your list of results, you can use the filters in the sidebar to narrow them down even further. Then, after you have limited things down to the vintage handlebars that meet your requirements, use the sort function until the ones that best fit your needs appear at the top of your screen.
After you have found the vintage handlebars you want, the next step is to decide which amongst eBay's many reputable sellers you wish to do business with. One excellent place to determine that is their profile page, where you can check everything from their feedback rating to their location. You can also see if they allow local buyers to pick up purchases in person, and whether they offer bundles such as a basket along with an appropriate set of vintage handlebars.
The quest for making bicycles lighter and more efficient is like any other, a series of tradeoffs. As modern materials and design make bicycles easier to use they also become more alike, losing the sense of style and individuality that once drew buyers to one bicycle over another. Perhaps the greatest determiner of a bicycle's visual style comes from the handlebars, whether they be racing drops or the picturesquely named ape hangers so popular in the 1960s. Probably the best way to take advantage of that style is through the use of vintage handlebars, whether as accessories on a customised bicycle, or as part of the complete restoration of a vintage bicycle. Regardless of the goals of the rider, the key to finding the right set of vintage handlebars is knowledge: knowledge of the bicycle, of the user's needs, and of that specific set of handlebars. Armed with this knowledge, buying a set of vintage handlebars is a quick and easy proposition for any buyer.