Sunday, November 18, 2012

HOLY GRAILS: 1974 Masi Gran Criterium

Circa 1974 Masi Gran Criterium
When it rains it pours, I guess. I've been covering my René Herse bicycle refurbishment in recent posts. Now I'd like to shared a short story I wrote about the vintage Masi that I recovered before I received the amazing René Herse.

Note: This story first appeared in my weekly Jim's Tech Talk column on RoadBikeRider, so it will read a little dated. However, it should provide a good record of where I started with this Masi project. 

That will be good for comparison with the finished bicycle. And, for this rerun I've added more detail photos than what I could provide in my weekly column.

This old Masi is a special bicycle, just like the Herse, but when I found it, it was a...

Basket Case

As our thoughts go out to those who were affected by Hurricane Sandy and we brace for the usual rainy season here in California, it’s time to plan an escape from winter. I recommend heading indoors for a fun bicycle project. I thought I’d share one of mine, which I’ve dubbed a basket case since that’s pretty much how I found it, as the photos show.

Well, I didn’t actually find it. My friend Ellen did. I tuned her bikes at The Bicycle Center in Santa Cruz. So, when her friend told her he had an old 10-speed to sell, Ellen emailed me. She said it was a Masi.

Awful paint, crash damage, no serial # but all there

From the Vigorelli Velodrome to California

When it comes to collectible road bikes, Masis are among the Holy Grails. I have a fondness for them and I know a bit about the marque, but I am no expert. 

I can tell you that Faliero Masi was already building frames by his 16th birthday in 1924, and that in 1952 he opened the famous workshop located beneath the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan. 

He became such a legendary builder that all the greats, from Coppi to Merckx insisted on racing his meticulously crafted and super-fast frames.

He was also progressive enough to travel to Carlsbad, California, and open Masi USA in 1973 when he was about 65 years old. Perhaps the best-known Masi trivia is that the main character (Dave Stoller, for trivia buffs) rode a Masi Gran Criterium in the classic cycling movie Breaking Away. 

For more on Masi and a wealth of information on everything vintage road bike, be sure to visit Classic Rendezvous.

No sign of a proper serial number

Roger’s bike

My connection with Masi comes from the fact that the owner of The Bicycle Center, Roger Sands, rode one. Roger was a visionary bike guy. He foresaw the pedal-power explosion to come in the early ’70s and was among the first U.S. retailers to travel to Europe and import classic road brands from around the world. I was lucky to work for Roger, and as his top mechanic, I had the privilege of maintaining his Masi.

I needed to explain that so you’ll understand my irrational reaction to Ellen’s Masi, which I realized was a basket case in the most negative sense as soon as I turned it over in my hands. 

Collectors always hope to find an original bicycle, meaning that it has the paint, decals and components it left the bike shop with. It might be well-used, even beat-up a bit, but if it’s all there, you’ve got a winner. As we collectors say, “You can’t restore originality.”

Buckled and rusted

No such luck with Ellen’s Masi. You can see the awful paint in the photo. What you can’t make out is the buckled down tube and bent top tube, most likely the result of running into a parked car. And, while most of the original Campagnolo Nuovo Record components were still with the bike, they were as abused as the frame. Ellen asked me to take the pile of parts and try to figure out if the bike was worth anything so she could tell her friend.

I’ve restored enough bicycles to know a lost cause when I see one. Just the frame work alone would cost more than the restored Masi would be worth, never mind the cost of the vintage parts it would take to get it rolling down the road. I told Ellen as much, but agreed to take the Masi home and try to learn more about it.

The strange orientation lets the photo go really big

‘Fix me’

With the frame safely hanging in my garage rafters and the case of parts stashed below it, I did my due diligence, researched Masis Italian and American, and I eventually heard from another vintage veloman who had one just like it. 

His was from Masi USA and was built in 1973. That meant Ellen’s might have been partially built by the master himself when he was here in California.

I knew that some of the builders that apprenticed under Masi back then were still in Southern California and are now industry legends themselves, guys like Brian Baylis, Rob Roberson and Jim Cunningham. This got me thinking about the possibility of having the frame restored by someone with Masi blood in their veins, a direct connection to the maestro.

Lovely twin-plate crown rust and all

It was about then -- and you’re going to think I’m nuts, but I swear -- that that Masi started talking to me. Every time I went into the garage to get out my bike, and ducked beneath the Masi, I had the feeling it was calling out to me to fix it. 

I took the frame down over and over, looking at the careful lugwork, the lovely M cutout in the bottom bracket, the awesome twin-plate fork crown. I decided I had to have the basket case and gave Ellen the price her friend wanted.

All in

About a month passed. I tried to ignore the Masi but couldn’t. It’s a 57cm frame, perfect for me. I started dreaming of riding it around in some retro woolies and shoes and showing it to the guys. 

I thought about rigging up an alignment jig and trying to fix the frame, maybe then spray painting it just to save it for someone else to spend their life savings on. But that just didn’t feel right. It felt like the Masi ended up in my hands because I was meant to save it.

Thinking about how to do that, I remembered Joe Bell of Joe Bell Bicycle Refinishing in Spring Valley, California. Joe is maybe most famous in the handmade bicycle world as Richard Sachs’ painter. It says something when one of the world’s great builders sends his frames 3,000 miles to be painted. And I knew Joe had restored plenty of Masis.

I called Joe and told him about the Masi and in a few minutes I was ready to send it to him. He said he would ask Brian Baylis to look at it, and that Rob Roberson worked right next door and he would check it out, too. Wow. I got it in the mail straight away.

Nicely crafted lugs and stays

Later that week Joe called with the exciting news that it was indeed an early Carlsbad Masi and might even have been worked on by Masi himself. Plus, Joe said that even in its bent and battered condition, Brian was so happy to see my Masi, that he took it home over the weekend with him.

Brian is repairing the frame by replacing the bent top and down tubes. I don't know if there’s any way for him to tell if he built the frame originally, or if Faliero worked on it. But, it’s perfect to have it restored by one of the first Masi USA framebuilders. 
[Update: only a new down tube was needed and Brian believes Faliero raked the blades!]

Once Brian finishes, there will be some chrome work on the fork and then Joe will add the bling with his paint perfection. I think that instead of going with Dave Stoller’s Masi Team Orange I'll go with the more subtle Champagne.

Instant Karma

As excited as I was to have the Masi in Joe and Brian’s capable hands, I was still feeling a little stupid for undertaking such an expensive project. I felt this responsibility to save Ellen’s Masi, and it’s going to give me hours of joy tracking down the right small parts and reassembling Brian and Joe’s masterfully restored frame. But, if I took the same money I’m already spending on the restoration (not to mention the additional cost of the parts I need), and got a little lucky, I could probably find a complete original Masi.
Hard to see, but it's been run into a car, or

With this buyer’s remorse ruining my sleep patterns, I received another email, kind of like Ellen’s. But this old friend wanted to gift me three vintage road bikes, including a 1975 René Herse in very good original condition. 

In car terms that’s a bit like someone giving you a classic Ferrari. It’s always been a bike of my dreams, and I never thought I’d own one. It, too, is a 57cm.

You don’t suppose that restoring the Masi had anything to do with the Herse coming my way, do you?

Stay tuned. As I finish the Masi, I’ll share it with you.

Have fun with your bicycle projects and let me know if I can help! Jim


JB said...

Great project, priceless. I have been riding my '73 since my junior racing. (My facebook has images. Landing page image shows us in a club race in Ottawa). I am riding my Masi. I ride it still each week. all original except I use clinchers and clipless pedaly keep the campy rims and the original campy pedals in my storage. Also changed the original stem. Still have these originals, so maybe you might want the pedals and even a pair of shoes?

Jim Langley said...

Nice to hear of your 73 Masi still in regular use JB. It's great you've been racing and riding it all these years. Thanks for the offer of the pedals and shoes. If you can tell me what brand and size the shoes are and which Campy pedals you've got, I'll let you know if I can use them. If it's easier you can email me at jim at jimlangley dot net. Thanks for your comment and keep enjoying that Masi. In cycling, Jim

ppparks said...

I just acquired M6 from my buddy's dad.
It has been in a box in his garage since 1996.
Never ridden just sitting in my living room.
Cereal #96694R (not sure about the R)

Jim Langley said...

Sounds like you need to build it and start riding it "ppparks" ;-) Enjoy it!

Thanks for the comment!
Jim Langley

ppparks said...

Hello, I want to sell the Masi I commented on awhile back.

It's never been ridden.Masi

Second, Mario Confente produced a small group of “special build” frames just before he departed. These are numbered with an “M” and a single digit. M1 was built for Mike Wootten and M2 was built for Jerry Ash. One lucky collector has owned M3, and presently owns M4 and M5. M6 and probably M7 were built under the Masi roof but received
Confente decals, so perhaps one could argue that these bikes were the first Confentes in spite of the fact that they have Masi lug sets and “M” cutouts in the bottom brackets.

Paul Parks
(310) 951-3847

Steve Barner said...

Resurrecting an old thread, but I purchased my first Masi from a guy who walked into the shop in 1979, wanting to sell his well-used race bike. It was pretty rough, with a lot of paint missing from the top tube, but I only had a track bike and a touring Paramount to ride at the time and was in the market for a decent road bike. He didn't want much for it, so I bought it, not really knowing much about Masi beyond the fact that it was a respected Italian brand that had setup shop in California. I actually would have preferred a Colnago in those days. Over an extended period of time, I stripped the frame, and my wife will never let me forget that she did most of the detailed paint removal around the lugs, leaving the frame completely bare. The frame was likely a '74, and it had the twin-plate fork crown. I was bothered by the fact that the crown looked a tad crooked to my eye, though the frame and fork were both in perfect alignment. It did seem that the fork and frame were brazed by different people, as the frame seemed absolutely amazing in all respects. Without paint, the lugwork and finishing were impeccable. As was commonly done in those days, but anathema today, I added cable guides, bottle and shifter bosses and painted it a green that was very similar to the one Jim's bike wore when he bought it. I believe it was a Mercedes color and I loved it for its uniqueness. It was my best paint job up to that time, though I had no decals to dress it up with.

The frame was a centimeter or two large for me and, not understanding what I had, I sold the frameset to finance the purchase of a custom Marinoni, which still today wears some of the parts from that Masi. I was poor enough at the time that I don't know that I would have been able to afford to keep the Masi and buy the Marinoni, which proved to be the best fitting frameset and most enjoyable classic bike I've ridden (I have owned and ridden many dozens over the years). I'm not sure that it wasn't the right thing to do at the time, and the changes that I made would have detracted from its value today, but I sure wish I still had that Masi. I am personally convinced that it really is one of the frames brazed up by Mario in the very early Carlsbad days when everything was fresh and new and things hadn't yet started going south. I have two Carlsbad Masis today, a '75 and a '76 and, while important bits of Masi history, they don't quite have the mojo of the '73-'74 first wave frames.

The other tale of one that got away was a circa 1970 Cinelli Mod. B, but that's a story for another day.

Jim Langley said...

Thanks for sharing your Masi story, Steve - you made my day! I have long lusted after a Cinelli but never even been close to getting a good one. Thanks again for the comment!