Tom's London Classics: Hetchins, a true London classic

Vintage bike brands, Tom Bogdanowicz looks at Hetchins

When Hyman Hetchin started selling bicycles at his Tottenham music shop in the 1920s, he could not have imagined that Hetchins bikes would top the ranks of the most collectible steeds of the 21st century. Browse the web for the name Hetchins and you will instantly see extraordinary cycle creations, at eyewatering prices — if they’re for sale at all.

Hyman (Harry) Hetchin was a Russian Jewish migrant who trained as a tailor but arriving in London moved into the then popular gramophone business. Expanding his shop at 780 Seven Sisters Road to include bicycles proved a wise move and led to a now legendary partnership. At a time when well known London bike shops routinely built their own frames (Maclean , GA, Holdsworth), Hetchin had the good fortune to recruit an inspired frame builder: Jack Denny.

From the outset Denny was not content with what had gone before in bicycle design. His ‘vibrant’ rear frame triangle, best known as the ‘curly,’ may, or may not, have had vibration dampening properties but the wavy seat and chainstays were instantly recognisable on the road and track.

Legend has it that bike makers of the day were not allowed to put their names on frames in professional races so the curly trademark was supposedly a clever way around the rules.

Denny’s other notable inspiration was to make the British fancy for ornate lugwork into an art form. To match the excesses of their fi nely carved metal, Hetchins and Denny came up with equally ornate names. Chronicler Hugh O’Neill describes how they raided the local library for ideas and picked Latin names. I once owned an early, relatively restrained, ‘Experto Crede’ (expert’s choice), while the most ornate lug-set of all had the fi tting title of ‘Magnum Opus’.

From music to bicycles
The cycle business clearly did well for Harry, and then his son Alf, because he dropped music and expanded the cycle side first to Leyton, then to larger premises in Tottenham. In the late 60s another unusual design — the shortlived ‘Hellenic’ — was introduced adding some Denny touches to the earlier Thanet Silverlight. For the truly dedicated, the triangular ‘Hellenic’ seat-cluster could be combined with a curly rear end and fancy lugs. Hetchins devotees, notably Len Ingram, have included photos of this design along with rarities like the ultra-fancy Cognoscenti lugs in an opulent gallery at Hetchins.

Hetchins and Denny left an indelible mark on bike frame design before moving out to Southend in the 70s. Fame, within the cycling world, did not change them. I recall a very courteous handwritten letter from Alf in answer to my questions about a second-hand Hellenic I’d acquired . He filled in all the details and told me who built it (Jack Denny) and when (1968).

In 1985 Alf Hetchins sold the business to Jake Riviera, Elvis Costello’s manager, who according to Alf’s son Paul, had only turned up at the shop to buy a frame. Hetchins frame manufacture, complete with curly stays and fancy lugs, was moved to Bob Jackson’s in Leeds (another Riviera acquisition) for a decade.

Eventually a manager from Jackson’s, David Miller, bought the Hetchins name and continues to produce a Magnum Opus model in small numbers in Preston. Given the iconic status of Hetchins as a London brand, however, a place of honour in the London Transport Museum would be a fitting tribute.

 

QUALITY MARKS PHOTOS: Tom Bogdanowicz (top left); the Hetchins badge (bottom left); lug work on top-tube and seat-tube; beautiful fork detailing

Acknowledgements: the great archival work by Hugh O’Neill, John Liffen, Hilary Stone, Len Ingram

 

Tom Bogdanowicz is London Cycling Campaigns Senior Policy and Development Officer and regulary contributes to London Cyclist magazine.

This article first appeared in London Cyclist Aug/Sep 2012 magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.

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