The Raleigh Twenty was a little sometimes folding, sometimes not three speed bike with 20 inch (406 or 451) wheels that Raleigh started building after they missed out on selling the suddenly very popular small wheel Moulton in the late 1960s. At one point in the mid-to-late 1970s it was the most popular bike in the Raleigh stable, which earned it loads of similar competitors during the era of Disco and Punk. It has that chromed steel look typical of 1970s metal products and came with a wide variety of load carrying options (which is how I can justify putting it on a blog about cargo bikes, I guess...)
I found a probably late 1969 or early 1970 North American folding model (1969 handlebars, November 1969 hub, 406 wheels) a couple of months ago and polished it up with chrome cleaner, oiled it and started riding it. It’s a strange little bike even among other strange little bikes like the Bike Friday, Brompton and Birdy. It's easy to see where Bike Friday got their basic design, isn't it?
The frame seems much heavier than the others but is very sturdy, the wheels are heavy and slow with steel rims and low pressure wide tires, the handlebars are welded to the stem in an odd position that (when combined with the weird plastic bushing instead of ball bearing headset at the top of the steering tube) makes the steering kind of jumpy, and the plastic Brooks seat cries out for replacement. It has beautiful painted steel fenders and a chainguard just like a big Raleigh, inefficient but classic Weinmann extra long reach caliper brakes, and a Pletscher aluminum rack. It is that extra-durable but really kind of dull green/olive color Raleigh used along with brown and black for a long time (I think I read somewhere that the base for the durable paint they used was kind of yellowish so the only colors that worked well were ugly dull ones).
Famous bicycle guru types Sheldon Brown and John Allen in Boston both souped up Raleigh Twenties years ago and blogged about them, which gave this sturdy but relatively awful little bike enough cred to become kind of a cult item. They said, basically, that it was possible to get one to run like a Bike Friday for a tenth of the price.
Well, the devil is in the details. The first things they did to achieve rideability were replace the wheels, the gear system, the tires, the entire crankset, the handlebars, the top of the headset, the seat and the brake systems. It looks like they removed the fenders and chainguards, too. Sheldon Brown swapped the fork. So what was left? A frame with nothing on it, which they had to “cold set” (= “bend”) to fit new wheel hubs. And that supposedly folding frame doesn’t really fold up that small to begin with, though you could cram one in most car trunks. I decided that with all those changes even if it were great to ride it wouldn’t be the same bike, and elected to give it a try more or less as it came from the factory.
I’ve been riding mine now for a while and fiddled with most of the adjustments. I replaced the uncomfortable plastic seat and the falling-apart handlebar grips and I stuck on a mirror, a bell, and some battery lights but the rest is as it came. The Sturmey-Archer gears function now. I think it’ll make a nice winter commuter bike if I can get the brakes to work right despite the steel rims and install decent lighting. But it isn’t a sweet ride by a long shot. It’s clunkier than a full size three speed Raleigh Sports, which isn’t a very zippy number itself. Maybe with some new bearing balls and a little grease...? I’ve been thinking of putting a kid seat on the back but I need the pannier space so I haven’t got to it yet.
So in case you were wondering, until you are willing to change out nearly every part of a Raleigh Twenty for something else, maybe there is something to be said for getting a more modern ride like a Bike Friday (rides well, folds OK but better than the R20), Birdy (ditto, really expensive new), or Brompton (rides OK, better than the R20, folds beautifully), or for that matter an inexpensive Dahon or Swift or whatever brand of modern folder. The R20 is like a 1969 muscle car — bad gas mileage, high pollution, loud, bad seats, crummy handling, but so chromed and really cool. And, yes, it’s made to be durable and sturdy, and you can probably carry a couple of hundred pounds of cargo on one if you tried. If I can get it to do that you’ll read it here.
Edit 3/2014: Just added a post about the Raleigh Twenty's predecessor, the RSW16 Compact.