[CR]Flash' Hetchins History Part 3

From: "Thomas Rawson" <twrawson@worldnet.att.net>
To: <Classicrendezvous@bikelist.org>
Date: Fri, 7 Mar 2003 19:38:34 -0800
Subject: [CR]Flash' Hetchins History Part 3

Final installment:

Flash Historic Hetchins Web Site http://www.hetchins.org March 2003

Some thoughts on 'old' and 'new' Hetchins and the idea of hand-made vs. custom-made, Conclusion

The Hetchins Mystique

It was the MO Phase 2, from 1953 to 1986, which defined the Hetchins Look; it is that model which remains the most sought after by collectors and the one most likely to be replicated by rogue frame builders. Like the Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing--no matter what other sports cars Mercedes makes for the next hundred years, however technically advanced and aesthetically pleasing they are, they will inevitably be compared (prejudicially) with the legendary Gullwing from the 1950s. I can well understand people who pine for the 'old' Hetchins (I myself have five of them from 1951 to 1984). As collector's pieces, to hang on the wall and bring out twice a year at the Concours d'Elegance, they embody something intangible which may never again be seen or equaled. But for people who want a bike to ride, it must be conceded that the brakes and non-indexed gears of that period are in every way inferior to modern components and that a modern frame must meet modern standards and specifications to be safe on the road.

If, as some critics have claimed, there was some definite point at which 'old' Hetchins became 'new' Hetchins--when the mystique began to fade--, then I suppose they would latch onto April 1986 as the cut-off date. That was when Alf sold the business and production was de jure transferred to Bob Jackson Cycles. But there is a flaw in that argument. Alf had been de facto subcontracting the work to Jackson anyway since 1977. Ah, but the lugs were redesigned as well after 1986, one might counter. But there is a flaw in that argument, too. Alf carried on as a part-time consultant until 1990, well after the new designs had been launched, and he must have had a hand in them.

Those who pine for the 'old' Hetchins may, I fear, be partly laboring under some myths which have grown up about Hetchins. So it is time to blast a few of them.

Myth no. 1: Jack Denny made every Hetchins (with its corollary: a Hetchins not made by Jack is less genuine). We know that there were other frame builders in Hetchin's employ in the 1950s and 60s, Stan Broom and Bob Stratfull by name. (You can see one of Bob's weekly time cards with his piece-work wages at the web site: http://www.hetchins.org/202b.htm.) Without a builder's frame card, there is no way to determine which of them built a particular frame. No difference in quality has ever been ascertained. Moreover, both Harry and Alf subcontracted frame building during periods when the in-house staff were not able to keep up with the work load. Myth no. 2: every Hetchins was custom-made. Now, first we have to define what is meant by 'custom-made'. 'Hand-made' is pretty clear: it means that a robot did not do the welding, a master craftsman did. In the case of many frames from Hetchin's heyday in the 1950s, even the lugs were hand-made by a master craftsman (not all by Jack Denny). Of course, many parts were not hand-made, neither in Hetchin's workshop nor by subcontractors: the dropouts, tubes, fittings, fork crowns, and so on were mass-produced products. A totally hand-made frame you will not get even from Alex Singer, who is famed for making his own fitments, brakes, and panniers--even Alex Singer uses industry-standard tubes and dropouts. 'Custom-made' means built to customer specifications, the opposite of off-the-peg. 'Off-the-peg' means built before the customer is known, to some fixed set of dimensions-- and Hetchins made thousands of those. The catalogs give the designations of the fixed-dimension models: Road Model No.2, Road Model No.3, Road Model No.3a, Path Model No.10, Circuit of Britain, etc. A customer who wanted something else got it; such a frame was called a 'Set Up' (an example builder's card for a Set Up is shown at the web site: http://www.hetchins.org/202a.htm). Production and sales records indicate that the number of Set Ups was small; less than 10% of the total production. Moreover, Hetchins often built frame sets and left them unfinished (no paint, no fitments, etc.) until a prospective customer walked in the door who wanted something close enough to it for it to be promised to him and finished off. That was how it was, in those days, and certainly not only at Hetchins. Every cycle manufacturer had slow months of the year and had to pay his frame builder(s) to make off-the-peggers until the summer months when business boomed again. Thus, some frames (even the most elegant models) were sold long after they were built, sometimes years later--this accounts for a number of anomalies in the dating of frames in the Hetchins Register (which Len Ingram keeps). So it is simply way off the mark to claim that every Hetchins was custom-built in the sense of made-to-measure for a specific customer. On the contrary, the percentage of off-the-peggers was highest precisely during Hetchin's heyday, the 'old' period, and encompasses all the Latin Series models.

In case that was not put forthrightly enough: just because you're the original owner of a Magnum Opus Phase 2, that doesn't mean it was custom-made by Jack Denny! It may have collected dust as a partial-assembly for ten years before being sold off the peg, and Jack may never have touched it.

If, after reading and digesting the above, if, after having discarded all guru-ism, hyperbole, and false myths about how and why they were made, you still think a 1950s Latin Series Hetchins embodies something special, valuable, and evocative of a remarkable historical period (Britain was pulling itself up by the bootstraps after a devastating war), because it is a fine piece of craftsmanship, then I understand your passion and share it.

That quality remained consistently high, even for off-the-peggers, is the real tribute to Hetchins and what, perhaps as much as the elegance of the Latin Series, distinguished it from its competitors. Virtually every other frame builder eventually compromised quality for quantity, or went bust. Hetchins did neither.

New Hetchins

In 1993 Jackson and Hetchins parted ways; David Miller, who had been the manager at Jackson, left, taking the Hetchins marque with him. Since then, David reports, the MO deluxe is pretty much the only model which anyone still orders, the others having been relegated to insignificance. If a customer wants a Scorpion Bonum, David will build it for him, but the reality is that the model selection has been effectively reduced to a single one: whatever the customer wants. And the customer generally wants an MO deluxe. There have been some special editions--a 60th Anniversary edition and the MO Millennium, for example, which were even fancier than the MO deluxe (see Fig. 4). These were not remakes of the famous designs from Hetchin's heyday in the 1950s, but logical and historical developments of them. If a firm were not to develop in 50 years, it would not be maintaining its reputation, but merely pickling it.

Recently some people have raised the criticism that David Miller has neither a shop nor a welding torch in his hand, and drawn the conclusion that he is not the rightful torchbearer of the Hetchins tradition. I think that this is an unjust conclusion. Alf Hetchin probably never had a torch in his hand either, and there were many excellent frame builders who made names for themselves over the years without having a shop with showroom windows. David has never concealed the fact that he does not do the work himself, but subcontracts frame building, chroming, and spraying. Harry and Alf did all these things, too. Hetchins never did their own chroming--and only during the de jure Jackson-period, from 1986 to 1993, did Hetchins do their own spraying and stove enameling in-house at the Leeds facility. As for frame building, subcontracting to various London and Italian builders, as well as to Bob Jackson, was the only way to meet orders during several periods. So I think it is no criticism of David that he subcontracts the work and has no shop. The brand shows a consistent historical development in keeping with the industrial advancements of the day, while still retaining a high degree of brand recognition (rather like the radiator grills on RollsRoyces or Aston Martins).

Every Hetchins made today is not only as hand-made as ever, but absolutely custom-made to individual customer specification. One myth, at any rate, has become reality! Nowadays, Hetchins caters to a very small group of collectors who are looking for a piece of tradition but made with modern materials to modern standards and specifications. I think it is fair to say that the very best of what Hetchins ever was is the part that survives today, reduced to its essentials. Fig. 4

1990 Magnum Opus Phase 3 deluxe (left); Magnum Opus Millennium (right).

end of Part Three

Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Don Thomas (Bob Jackson Cycles) and David Miller (Hetchins) for information about production and methods over the years, and Mick Butler for providing copies of lug cutters' templates.