Maxi-Car and the Old Roller

Just last week I was cleaning out my parts bins to make some room in the garage when they reappeared. Submerged in a pile of old purple anodized mountain bike components that were thoroughly thrashed, I came across a few Maxi-Car hub boxes. More than 10 years had passed since I acquired them and I almost forgot they were in my possession.

A year ago, my buddy mentioned to me that Maxi-Cars were ultra-rare and equivalently valuable, but at the time I thought I had lost mine. Well, rummaging around in the garage, I rediscovered them, and more significantly, my memory of my old neighbor, Sid “Old Roller” Sawyer.

Sid lived next door to my parents in Pittsburgh back when I was in high school. He was a mighty battle axe if I ever saw one. Eventually he died at 80 years old, but all throughout his life, bicycles were his transportation. Not only did he not have a car, but he didn’t have a license either. He simply didn’t need one.

Sid’s annual mileage from age 20 up to his dying day was a tick over 15,000. Nearly 50 cross continent rides in his lifetime, two at the age of 75, and one of them solo, Sid loved nothing more than what he referred to as “tappin’ the ol iron,” even though his pedals were some kind of alloy. With nearly 60 years less saddle time than Sid, he still recognized my love for bikes, and was always happy to see me cruising by on my purple anodized GT Zaskar.

One humid summer afternoon, I was coming back from a short ride when I saw him in the garage tinkering with one of his bikes. I was always quite curious, and Sid didn’t mind my presence because he always loved talking shop and reflecting on his youthful cycling days. Being that I was into all the new fangled anodized mountain bike components from makers like Ringle, Kooka and Grafton, I knew nothing about the “older school” gear Sid was so well acquainted with. I strolled into his garage with my bike and accidentally knocked over a dilapidated and dirty cardboard box. A pair of grimy old hubs that had exceptionally high flanges and machined holes in them rolled out. I picked them up to get a closer look.

“Ah! You got a good eye there my boy. Now them there’s a rightly fine set of old rollers,” said Sid. “They’re called Maxi-Car. Handmade in France. Best money can buy.”

To me, an 18 year old blockhead, I thought they looked like some generic hubs found on an old ladies bike. They weren’t oversized, didn’t have quick release axles, no cartridge bearings, were made of steel, and no anodizing! I was thoroughly unimpressed. Just as I was about to put them back down, Sid leaned over towards me and pointed at the dirty cardboard box.

“Son, is there a number on that there box?”
“Uh, yeah. It says 80,000.”
“My nation! What do you think of that, boy? Do you know what that number means?”
“Uh, no,” I replied.
“That’s the number of miles I put on them there rollers!”

I was astonished. Eighty thousand miles on a pair of non-anodized, non-quick released hubs! He went on to tell me that when he started riding in the 1930’s, he was living in France. While immersed in the French bike culture of the pre-War era, Sid met the acquaintance of one Charles Albert Ripet, who I believe he said lived in a town named Lyon. Charles was known for making top quality bicycle hubs used by the most discerning of riders and his company was named after his initials, C.A.R.

Sid was only a teenager at the time, but already an avid bike rider. Charles took such a liking to Sid after hearing about how much he rode, that he gave Sid a set of C.A.R. hubs to test and tell all his friends about. Sid mentioned to me something about how the C.A.R. hubs were so superior because of their annular bearings and labyrinth seals, or some such distant things. I was distracted by the fact those crusty old hubs in my hand had more miles on them than my mom’s Mercury Sable station wagon.

Sid then pointed to another threadbare box.

“Now peek a look at those there. What’s the number say on those?”
I looked at a Maxi-Car box, and in an old black felt tip pen it said 90,000.

“Ah yes! Those there were a custom set of hubs Charles made for me after he joined the company with Maxi. I believe they was from 1950 or thereabouts.”

According to Sid, Maxi happened to be another top quality French manufacturer of bike components in the pre-War era and because of the great reputation of both brands, the two companies joined together to become the legendary Maxi-Car marque just after World War II.

I took the hubs out of the box and examined them more closely. This pair was a bit shinier and much lighter than the earlier C.A.R. hubs, which probably meant they were some type of alloy. The axles were thicker, they had trick looking red dustcaps, but didn’t look to be one piece. Sid observed my curious demeanor. Without my saying a word, he knew why I was ogling at them.

“Boy, you do have a fine eye, I must say. That is indeed a rivet you’re gawkin’ at. Those rollers were three piece. The one pieced forged rollers didn’t come till later on. I got a few pair of those old boys runnin’ round this place somewheres.”

He got up quickly with no moan or hand on agonizing back like most men his age and started rummaging through a vintage green Coleman cooler that he used as a parts bin. He pulled out yet another pair of Maxi-Car hubs.

“These boys here are the one piecers. These be 1961-ers and was one of the first with the ole red badge in the middle of the hub. See? They ain’t got holes in the flange, though. They didn’t start doin’ that nonsense till later on.”
“But those other ones you showed me were from the 1930’s,” I responded quite astutely.  “They had holes.”
“Sharp as a gator tooth you are! You’re right. They was custom drilled by Charles.”
“Why don’t any of these hubs have quick releases?” I asked.
“Only thing on your bike needin’ to be quick and powerful is your legs, boy!”

I wasn’t sure if he was joking or serious, so I shut my mouth. He kept rummaging through the green cooler and came up with a pair of low flange Maxi-Car hubs in a Ziploc bag. He pulled them out and put them in my hand.

“This must be what you lookin’ for. See, these boys here have releasers on ’em, much like your newer whiz-bang type multi color rollers. These little flangers are somethin’ rare, too. I ain’t never ridden these boys because I prefer the high look. Tell you what, since you in such a quick hurry frenzy, you can have ’em!”

As he tossed them to me, Sid added that because they had the “releasers” on them, that model had thicker axles and larger bearings. I was flattered and thanked Sid again and again. Although I didn’t have much use for them, since I wasn’t a “roadie” at the time and the hubs didn’t have a cassette body, I still was grateful and took them with great appreciation. They were pretty trick, though, with their red label in the middle and red anodized dust caps, but they weren’t purple.

“You ever been on a tandem, my boy?” asked Sid.
“No.”
Sid’s face lit up into a wide toothy grin.
“Well, I got one here that I rode cross country, by myself, mind youse. I’d pick up hitchhickers every time I crossed ’em. You shoulda seen the look on their mug when I done rolled up! Wanna go for a spin round the block?”

I couldn’t refuse his offer. He pulled out an old tandem from behind his plywood workbench and wheeled it out into the driveway. The bike had a healthy layer of dust on it, but under the dust, I could tell the jet black paint and chrome fenders were pristine, and the label said “Singer” on it.

“Is this bike made by that sewing machine company?” My numbskullery was embarrassing.
“Sewin’ machine? Dog my cats, boy, heck no! Alex Singer was a French framebuilder an’ custom made this for old Sid, now cut the silly questions and hop on!”

I got on the back and Sid started rolling down our street, which is a steep descent to a four way intersection. Before I even realized, we plunged downhill at over thirty miles an hour. I was scared to death for we were approaching the intersection far too quickly for a nearly 500 pound contraption to halt on a dime.

“Clampin’ down!” yelled Sid and amazingly the bike stopped with plenty of room to spare. After the adrenaline wore off and my heart rate was under triple digits, I looked down in amazement.

“What kind of brakes do you have on this thing?”
“Ha! Youse didn’t think we were gonna stop in time, did ya? This here two boy got a Maxi-Car rear drum brake roller on it.”

I got off the bike and sure enough, there was a massive alloy hub with red accents on it that said Maxi-Car. Too bad it wasn’t anodized purple. I had no idea what a drum brake was, with the hot brakes in my world being either super-light cantilevers or Magura hydraulics at the time.

Then he turned the bike around and pointed it uphill.

“Okay, my boy, we gonna tackle the ol’ Londonderry Hump now. Youse gonna’ need to stoke somethin’ fierce boy, cause mind you, Sid’s an old man.”

I looked at the drivetrain of the tandem curiously and noticed the rear derailleur was sitting about six inches in front of the rear dropout, attached to a hanger brazed underneath the chainstay. There was also a huge ornate wing nut on the drive side which looked like some sort of antiquated quick release, but a wrench nut on the non-drive side.

Sid took notice of my curiosity  and mentioned it was called a Nivex derailleur, which he said was the “big hullabaloo” back in the 1960s. He said it was genius because you could shift the chain to a hanger on the frame and take the wheel off without getting your hands all gunked up. Maxi-Car was known for making custom hubs for that purpose and were also modified by the great constructeurs like Alex Singer.

“Now enough with the gawkin’ boy and mind to tappin’ the ol iron!”

I put everything my growing legs could give into those pedals and was pleasantly surprised at how much power that man in his late 70s and I were generating. We made it to the top with no problems and rolled back into his driveway nearly as fresh as when we started. He got off the bike and didn’t look a lick winded, which surprised me, because I has never ridden so fast up that hill! He walked the Singer tandem back into his garage just as my Dad waved to me from the house.

“Well, thanks for the ride, Sid, and especially for these hubs. I gotta head home now.”
“Don’t mention it, my boy. Glad I got a little scare outta yas, ha ha! By the way, since I noticed you kept on clammerin’ about colored rollers and whatnot, maybe youse can make some good of these here. I’ll prolly croak before I use ’em.”

Sid handed me a pair of beautiful brand new anodized red Maxi-Car hubs. They put my purple anodized components to cherry shame.

“These boys here be ultra-rare. See how they got a trumpet like shape to ’em? They newer ones, from the ’80s I reckon, so treat ’em nice. They got the releasers, too, which I know you have a jonesin’ for.”

I was speechless, but being an excitable teenager, it wasn’t for long. I then asked him if Maxi-Car made anything else besides hubs, because I wanted to get some parts for my mountain bike.

“My boy, Maxi-Car did only one thing, and by gumption, they did it better than anyone else. Remember that, you hear me? If youse only gonna’ do one thing in life, do it better than anyone else can done do it.”

Sid was right. How else can you explain the astronomical prices that vintage Maxi-Car hubs still fetch in today’s market? I’m just glad my garage rummaging helped me rediscover the legend of Sid. Now I’ve got to find a bike to use these hubs on so I can put over 100,000 miles on them in honor of the “Old Roller.”

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