If you go looking for a vintage bike advertised on French classifieds, chances are you’ll easily come across a Manufrance for sale. A ubiquitous sight on French roads for many decades, the company was founded way back in 1885. The model “Hirondelle” ( meaning Swallow ), was a name Manufrance gave to various models in its catalogues as far back as the 1930’s. For bikes from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, if it’s a Manufrance, the bike could be anything from the most basic clunker to a high quality machine. Jimi’s Manufrance is well worth a good look.
Guns, Bikes and Sewing Machines
Manufrance bikes were exported to the US but were often rebranded and sold under different names. However, they were never part of France’s great cycle racing history, no one has ever won a Tour De France on a Manufrance branded bike. In fact, I’d say that Manufrance is a brand that is largely overlooked when it comes to celebrating bikes from the 1960’s onwards. Their business model was selling through catalogues, and throughout the last century they sold motorbikes, radios and sewing machines as well as bikes by mail order. I believe they were the first in the world to do this direct selling through catalogues.
End of the Road
For many years Manufrance built their own bikes in a big factory in Saint Etienne, but by the 1970’s the frames were built elsewhere as times got tough for the firm. Jimi’s bike comes at the end of a long history of bike building and manufacture, for a brand that was struggling to come to terms with modernisation and overseas competition. By the mid 1980’s, Manufrance and their decades-old Hirondelle brand was another relic of bike building in Saint Etienne. The headbadge on this bike is very different to the badges of its long ago past.
The main tubes of this particular frame are of Vitus 172 tubing, some have said that Manufrance weren’t building their own bikes at that time, but below there is a catalogue picture from 1978 stating otherwise. I think it’s common to find lower mid-range bikes like this by all the manufacturers of the time: Vitus or Reynolds main tubes, no chrome and little ornamentation, simple lugs and standard French components. A good quality bike at the time, weighing perhaps 23lbs, similar to a Peugeot PF10 or a Motobecane C3, bikes that shared many of these features of this build.
Some bikes are just a pleasure to restore, being in good condition already when you buy one. I think this is the case with Jimi’s Hirondelle. I like the colour of the frame, it’s like burnt copper ( like a darker version of the Raleigh International ), but I do wish it had been given half chrome stays and forks. It would have looked amazing. Nevertheless, this is a handsome bike, though in need of a new rear rim as it had been damaged. This is a problem you would only notice if you rode the bike. The components were well cleaned and greased, and the bike seems to have no rust anywhere.
Manufrance were still using French components to build their bikes in the late 1970’s, even though the Japanese were making giant strides into the European market. This was a critical era, a great struggle of survival for traditional French brands, and on this bike the Saint Etienne giants still feature: a Stronglight TS crankset ( 3 arm ), Simplex derailleurs, Mafac centrepull brakes, Belleri handlebars and stem, Excelto large flange hubs with Super Record Gentleman clincher rims, and a nice suede Super Sprint saddle.
What Year is it?
I can’t tell from the photos if the brake cable is internally routed in the top tube, as it looks like there are no cable guide brackets to hold it in place. Does the top tube have braze-on cable guides? Surely not for a 1970’s bike? The rest of the components would seem to date it to the late 1970’s, but I wonder if it could even be as late as 1981. Has it got French threading? I’m sure it has, but I need to get more information to date this machine more accurately.
My Guess at its Date
After doing more research, I think this bike is late 1970’s, perhaps 1978. Below you can see photos of the Manufrance catalogue from 1978, and the bike on the page is similar to this one: Vitus 172 frame, Stronglight TS cranks, but in this case Huret derailleurs. Here is another 1978 Manufrance Hirondelle with very similar components and paintwork, Vitus 172 tubes. Jimi has 1972 as its date, but I’m not convinced: Simplex S001 derailleurs were introduced in 1975 at the earliest, the Stronglight TS crank was also a mid-1970’s crank ( 1977? ), and Vitus 172 itself was only introduced in 1972. It just looks a late 1970’s bike.