Monday, September 9, 2013

John and His 1952 Murray Strato-Line Bicycle: A Rare Combination

John and the restored bicycle
A rare piece of nostalgia, the restored 1952 Murray Strato-Line bicycle gleamed before my eyes in the diffuse sunlight on a recent spring day in Overland Park, Kansas.  The showroom-quality icon was a mixture of chrome, rubber, white sidewalls, and rich hues of glossy red and blue paint, a limousine-of-a-bike that would have been every boy’s dream in the mid-twentieth century. I glimpsed an owner’s proud smile on the face of my friend, John Davis, while I inspected the bike.
“That’s quite a headlight,” I commented as I rubbed the housing mounted on top of the front fender.
Delta Ray Rocket Headlight
“That’s not just any headlight,” replied John, “It’s a Delta-Ray Rocket headlight. You want to see something else that is rare as chicken lips?” He walked to the rear of the bike and pointed to the rack above the rear wheel. “It’s almost impossible to find a decent carrier. They hardly exist.”
Rear Carrier
           Since 1952, John and his bicycle have traveled a long and winding road, but now they are inseparable. The relationship with the Murray Strato-Line began when he received the shiny new bicycle for Christmas in 1952.  Prior to the Murray, he had learned to ride on a resurrected junkyard model, spray-painted silver, tires and all. The rides on the neighborhood sidewalks gave John a new perspective of the world around him.
          His memories with the Murray bike paint a Norman Rockwell image of a boy who discovered a glorious freedom as he rode through the neighborhood with his dog on a leash at his side. The larger bike allowed John to extend his range and his time from home, especially when he strapped onto the carrier a brown paper bag stuffed with lunch: a sandwich, a cookie, and a re-used mayonnaise jar full of water and ice cubes. His destinations were many: a park, the grocery store, a hobby shop or friend’s house. He also remembered a time when a neighborhood friend, Lee Ann, rode side-saddle on the frame and tank in front of him.
John rolled his eyes and chuckled, “Lee Ann is another story.”
          In his spare time as a boy, John cleaned the new bike. He wiped the frame and spokes, and waxed the bike from tip to tail. To personalize his mode of transportation, he removed the light and installed a hood ornament, a chrome swan on the front fender. It was the nicest bike in the neighborhood, and John stored it inside the house to prevent it from being stolen.

As with any true relationship, John and his bike went through some tough times. A pedal broke, and there was no money to replace it.  Out of necessity, he rode the bike with just one good pedal. The most vivid bad memory was the time he went to the store and bought two bottles of Pepsi to take home. On the return, he had a problem of simultaneously steering the bike and holding the bottles. He crashed down onto the pavement, where the bottles broke and the glass embedded into the skin on his arms.
After four years with the big Murray bike, he outgrew it and passed it on to a cousin. Years passed. Then in the early ’60s he decided to look for the bike and ride it again. He discovered a rusting, vine-covered frame outside the barn at the grandparent’s farm. The handlebars were nearby, as was one of the wheels. John collected the parts and went to his grandparent’s house, where he found the bent front fork. With some work and care, he put the bike back together and actually rode it in 1965.
More years passed. John married Theresa. The bike and its parts were hauled wherever they moved. The usual place of safekeeping was in the corner of the basement. John always held out hope that when he was retired he would be able to restore it. Finally, in 2011, he began a mission to rebuild the bike, piece by piece.
To understand the care and quality of the restoration process, one has to understand John. He’s a bit of a renaissance man. How many people do you know with a multitude of talents . . . poet, novelist, craftsman, mechanic, creative thinker, business consultant, day trader, artist, piano player, and a good, all-around caring individual . . . these talents and qualities are all part of John. He’s proudly restored a 1960 MG convertible and a 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air coupe. He attributes a lot of his mechanical ability to the fact that his dad was a car mechanic.  John also enrolled in as many industrial shop classes as possible, from fifth grade through high-school, working with wood, plastic, metal and other materials.
A bike might seem to be a small-potato project for John, but he shared otherwise. “It was as tough as a car restoration,” he said, “mainly because the parts were so scarce.”
         The restoration process included many journeys onto eBay to purchase things as varied as a skip-tooth chain, the Delta-Ray Rocket headlight, a wheel rim, and a 60-year-old Murray decal. John also purchased another used 1952 Murray Strato-Line bike, one that was scavenged for parts.

Skip-tooth chain ring
Sixty-year-old Murray decal

“I needed the second bike mainly for the tank portion of the frame and the Troxel seat,” he said, “And I had to reupholster the seat.”
John had to use some muscle to bend and re-shape the fork and front spring mechanism. The long process of refurbishing included sending out many rusted parts for re-chroming. “Finding a good chromer these days is not easy,” he added.

John discovered and purchased an original 1952 Murray wheel rim that had never been used. “I had to build the wheel, spoke by spoke,” said John. “I got it right the fifth time.”
  From another old Murray bike, he was able to scavenge an original Musselman rear hub and coaster brake.
              His attention to detail was meticulous. On the underside of the old frame, he found the un-faded paint colors of the original bike. He showed me the tiny rivet head on the headlight housing which he masked with a piece of tape to prevent it from being painted.  From an internet picture, he matched the paint scheme and pin striping.

Fine details in mint condition
 We took turns riding the bike up and down the street. The ride was sweet and cushy. It brought back some of my ’50s childhood memories of riding in the wind with a pack of bikes through neighborhoods in the spring and summer, the classrooms being only a distant thought.
With the 1952 Murray Strato-Line now in mint condition, John figures it is a rare bird.  “I’ve only seen one other complete bike of this model.  It was in Minneapolis, and it was in used condition.”
There’s no doubt the bike is rare. John is rare, too, with all his talents.  The two of them, now inseparable, make a great combination.
            As I prepared to leave John’s place, I noticed a small boy riding a bicycle along the sidewalk.  His bike had training wheels, and the boy was exerting as much energy as possible to keep the pedals going. But at that moment I could see the look of determination and a smile on his little face, with the road of a lifetime of possibilities and freedom ahead.

Sweet Ride

Retail Price: $85.00
Frame: 18 ½” hydrogen brazed. All joints reinforced for double strength.
Fork: Drop forged with twin spring assembly.
Fenders: Murray deep section Crescent design.
Crank: One piece drop forged with 7” throw.
Rims: All steel hook-type, bright plated.
Coaster Brake: Musselman, hard chrome brake shoe.
Pedals: Murray heavy non-skid tread.
Grips: Red plastic.
Tires: U.S. Royal or Goodyear White sidewalls 26” x 2.125” balloon with inner tube.
Saddle: Troxel tan vinyl waterproof plastic, scuff plates, compound plated springs.
Handlebars: Torrington S.B. 26 x 8.