Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Raleigh Twenty Folding Bike

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...)
1969-1970 North American Raleigh 20 folding  bike with a few new parts.
(seat, handgrips, bell, mirror, reflectors and lights - original seat was a black plastic
Brooks mattress seat; handgrips were gray white rubber Raleigh with fins but were unsalvageable.
Otherwise all is stock including the Vinylon red stripe Raleigh tires)

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.


  1. Any idea how the non-folder versions ride? I always assumed that the poor ride quality of folders related to the frame's weak point, the fold, so if you removed that the bike would ride like a much pokier version of a regular sized bike.

    1. The Raleigh folder has a stable hinge lock like that of a Brompton . Lovely sturdy steel frame plus it classic touch.

    2. I have a folder and a non-folder (shopper). Exactly the same.

  2. Nope. It's stable as anything. I think it's poky because it has crummy wheels etc and the frame is probably not that important. We'll see.

  3. If you're looking for a folding bike you can put on a cargo bike website without any justification needed, you should totally check out Montague. It's what I ride, and it's awesome. I ride it to work every day w/ a couple of panniers, and I can take it right into the office with me and store it under my desk.

  4. Is it possible that you ride your awesome Montague to work and store it under your desk at Montague while you write ads on people's blogs?
    If so, please don't do it again. No ads here.

  5. Several months later, the Raleigh 20 is my usual winter bike. Changing the ball bearings and truing the wheels made a big difference, and putting high pressure tires on made it enjoyable to ride. Right now it has studded Marathon Winter tires, better than the originals even despite the studs. I put on a tire dynamo and B&M lights and now it's even safe to ride at night. By adjusting the seat back and forth the riding position became much more comfortable and less jumpy. New salmon colored brake pads improved braking in the wet slush somewhat, though it still isn't 100%.
    All in all, not a bad little bike now, great for snow and ice and nice to ride. And still pretty close to original condition. I take back most of the mean things I said.

    1. The 20 is still my best icy, crummy day snow bike. Fenders, Marathon Winter tires and adequate (just) braking combined with the small frame ability to bail out if the wheels start to slip make it hard to beat. Moving the odd handlebars up and down really changes handling and comfort. If you find one (Working Bikes had a late 70s one in impeccable condition recently) you should at least give it a test ride.

    2. I'm glad you ended up liking it more! I just picked one up earlier this year, and it's my favorite bike to ride by far. I did rebuild the wheels, but upgrading to aluminium rims was worth every second of work. 20" wheels are actually very easy for a beginner to put together and true - it was my first time and it took about an hour and a half total, for both wheels.

      I actually bought mine while traveling - the Craigslist market in rural areas is a lot more favorable than the big city back home. I took it apart and stripped it down to fly back, and it made it in perfect condition as checked baggage in nothing but a lightweight canvas backpack!

      These things really are bombproof. Heavy, but fun to ride, and great for hauling too. I plan on taking mine touring around the world. For now it's perfect for grocery shopping and getting me onto the local light rail system without having to stand up as they require with a full-sized bike.

  6. We recently came across a 1966? Raleigh RSW 16 Compact. 3 speed, folding handlebars, clicks in half at the bottom bracket 'like a shotgun' (Raleigh ad) and seems larger folded than open. Apparently it fits in the boot/trunk of an old Mini but not a great commuter folder. More to come eventually. But in comparison to the 20 it's not as much worse as the Internets led us to believe, and it fits the 9 year old well. Heavy, durable, very cool, still not a Moulton.

  7. Put on a set of alloy rims and you'll be surprised at how sprightly the old Twenty becomes. I got around the rear brake issue by building a new wheel with a Sturmey-Archer SRC3 3-speed coaster brake hub, but you can also get the XRD3 which is a 3-speed with a cable-operated drum brake. I used to have one of these with the larger 451mm (20" x 1-3/8") wheels and I used to blow off posers on carbon fibre bicycles all the time.

  8. I swapped on 451 alloy wheels with lightweight tires and swapped the crankset to a 52 tooth (steel) crank with 5mm longer than stock crank arms. Also put on a 350mm alloy seat post. Everything else is original. It is a performance machine now. Acceleration, top speed, etc etc. It doesn't like turning at at high speed on wet pavement though. Tends to skid sideways since the tires are practically bald. Limited tire options for 451.


  9. I have done an ungrade on a couple of raleigh 20s now. Between the two bikes, I have changed to a chrome bmx fork which had vbrake bosses (i cut off), changed to a square taper crankset, got the original hubs rebuilt to alloy 451 rims for good front braking, got a longer alloy seatpost and put Schwalbe Shredda tires on, changed to a ball bearing in place of the heatset bushing and put a quill stem and oldschool mtb flatbar on. I used one - looking original but with the new rims cranks and tires in a mtb race and came in 7th fastest out of 175 corporate teams. It was a team lap race and in the end out three oerson team came 17th in the 6hr event, whilst riding raleigh 20s. Great fun


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