Peter Czink with BikePeter Czink poses with bike.
By Peter Czink
Photos by Lorraine Weideman
Freedom is pretty important to us Hungarians, and my first taste of it was had firmly in the saddle of a hand-me-down, balloon-tired Eaton’s Road King, which was none other than a Csepel “Superla.” This vintage two-wheeler, which I have referred to in the past as Pee-Wee Herman meets János Kádár, was a robust cantilever-framed model, built by, I used to imagine, equally robust communist factory workers on the island of Csepel, a district of Budapest.
My parents bought it for my brother’s 10th birthday because they had an Eaton’s account, and because “Made in Hungary” was emblazoned on it in a friendly, Western style font. Canada was a significant importer of Hungarian bicycles in those days, and Eaton’s made sure their own “Road King” head badges were front and centre – there was a cold war raging back then, you know.
The Manfred Weiss (Weiss Manfred, or WM in Hungarian) Steel and Metal Works was a product of the Austrian and Hungarian unification back in 1867, when Hungary was given the responsibility to manufacture 30% of the Empire’s military hardware. The plant was situated on Csepel Island, then just a village, but today a district of Budapest. By 1928, not to be left out of the world-wide cycling craze, WM began producing bikes under the trade-name “Csepel.” The firm was very successful – in 1929, 30% of each bicycle’s parts were made in-house, and by 1931, it was 91.7%.
Production declined during the depression, and in 1932 only 10 different models were being manufactured, however, by 1934, 18 new types were added. In those days, pretty well all Csepel bicycles were of the coaster-brake variety, using imported “Torpedo” rear hubs. Later, the license was purchased, and Csepel began to manufacture them under the “Granat” name. World War II was a boon for WM, as bicycles were considered to be sound soldier-movers, at least until Allied bombing started in earnest in 1944-1945, after which much of the factory lay in ruins.
Post-war, the factory was nationalised and exports spiked – bikes were on the Soviet Union’s war reparations list, and soon things were running smoothly again with everything but plastic and rubber parts being made in-house. Csepel was truly making an international name for itself as well – bikes were also being exported to Holland, East Germany, the USA, Canada, Iran, England, Greece, Switzerland, Finland, and Egypt. To get an idea of the scale of Csepel’s manufacturing capabilities, their storage area alone could hold 20,000 bicycles.
It was in 1969 when my dad first laid eyes on the “Road King,” complete with “Granat” hub, in the downtown Eaton’s showroom. His purchase was one of 121,537 exported from Csepel (a total of 281,355 bikes were produced that year). A bright red beauty with white-walls, it later became my own steed that propelled me towards freedom – and the discovery of wondrous worlds beyond my backyard. I also found that if I removed the rubber hand-grips, the garden hose would attach easily to one bare end of handle bars, and the resulting high pressure jet of water that shot back from the other end, I was convinced, increased my velocity considerably (while the hose was slack, anyway).
In the early 80s, the Iran-Iraq war ended Csepel’s export business, as Iran was one of Hungary’s biggest bicycle customers. Later, the company was privatised, and 51% was bought by Schwinn USA. It ran as Schwinn-Csepel from 1989 until Schwinn USA went bankrupt in 1993. It changed hands a few more times, but frame production finally stopped in 2003 - today, bike manufacturing in Hungary is over. Hungarian designed frames are manufactured in China, and the bicycles are only assembled in Hungary.
Not long ago I was absent mindedly Googling “Hungarian bicycle” and I found an old, adult sized Eaton’s Road King that was for sale back East in Ontario. Of course, I knew right away that it was really a “Csepel Superla” with a “Granat” coaster hub. A little negotiating and the very reasonable Greyhound shipping costs got it to my doorstep at just under a hundred bucks. This one was even nicer than my old hand-me-down – near mint condition with a copper metal-flake finish and gold hand pin-striping. I added some vintage leather panniers, and named it “Károly Király” - just so the Canadian-tongued folks can have fun trying to pronounce it.
Originally published in The New Hungarian Voice, Volume VIII, Issue 3, Summer 2009.