Saturday, January 26, 2019

1987/88 Merlin Titanium w/ dirtdrops

I've been a big fan of Merlins for a while now and have settled around late 80s, early 90s evolution as the ideal mix of refined construction, classic style and off road handling characteristics. That being said, the earlier bikes are somewhat more unique and interesting. There are fewer of the early frames around and so getting a hold of one is a bit more challenging, relatively speaking. I've wanted to build one for a while, but am not really willing to pony up for one given I don't think it would be different enough or better than my 1989 Merlin. As luck would it have it a friend of mine wanted to do a Merlin build around this frame using another Merlin as a parts donor bike and asked me to do the restoration, works for me!

At first glance it's pretty hard to tell the different evolutions of these bikes apart. A closer look reveals a few details. Probably the most obvious thing is the weld quality. Merlins are historically known for their flawless welds, which is definitely true for the later bikes. Well, those welders had to learn and it seems obvious that the learning came over the course of building many hundreds of bikes, like this one. This is frame #190, placing it somewhere in 87/88 and representing something like the 3rd iteration of the design. The welds here are chunky and rough compared to my bike (#1849) but much nicer than some of the earlier one like #50 and #80, so clear signs of improvement.

Unlike some of the previous iterations this frame no longer uses swaged head tubes and bottom brackets shells, it seems that Merlin was able to get larger diameter tubing suitable for those applications. A few other minor details include one piece cable guides routing all cables on the down tube and a seat stay mounted roller cam brake. Apart from that you have to really be anal retentive to notice little details like the slightly abrupt end of the seat tube and stick on one piece decals rather than transfer style decals used on later frames.

The build is a nice a mix of Wilderness Trail bikes and Shimano XT with a Steve Potts LD stem supporting WTB/Specialized RM-2 dirt drop bars. The fork is a bit of a mystery. It looks like someone just sort of made it. The dropouts are welded into the open ends of the blades without any sort of caps or ends, the welds are rough and the general finish looks rattle can.

The WTB fixed angle seat post is one of the more unique features of this bike and remains the elusive missing piece for my personal Merlin. Sadly these are hard to find in general, and most of the ones I've seen have been rather short.

Man I want that post, only in black!

I have yet to build a personal dirt drop mountain bike and this Merlin is certainly a tease, it's a shame it's a bit too small for me as I'd love to give it a try on the trails.

Clean and simple XT, in my humble opinion there is nothing better on a Merlin.

I've discussed this before in other Merlin writeups, but here it is again. The 30mm Merlin BB shell is the Achilles heel of this frame design. Not only does it make for a flexy junction, but it relies on relatively small bearings which wear quickly. They addressed this later on by integrating WTB's grease guard system, but it was still suboptimal in my opinion.

It should come as no surprise that a dirt drop Merlin would come from PCC. The original bike didn't have all of the WTB equipment aside from the rear brake, but it provided a great foundation for the final build.

I mentioned the seat tube finish earlier. What I'm primarily referring to is the sharp cut on the top and the slightly longer length above the top tube. Later bikes had a bevel on the outside of the end and the stub above the top tube was shorter. The seat binder was also a bit more refined knocking down some of the sharp edges seen on this frame.

Nothing better than a Potts made LD stem if you want to run dirt drops. When it comes to vintage bikes involving these sort of builds it's really tough to cut corners. In this case all the parts sort of fell together and everything more or less worked right off the bat. The only thing I left alone was the 8-spd rear shifter. The previous owner had upgraded the bike over the years including a modern 8-spd drivetrain including the barcons. Rather than swapping them out, I chose to put them into friction mode and all is well.

All in all this bike holds a certain allure for me. Quantitatively I know it won't be better than my Merlin, it won't be lighter or faster or any of those things and yet it's more unique and quirky which keeps me thinking it would be cool to have one. This is the slippery slope many collectors face and eventually have to reconcile. Sure, with enough money and space you can have one of each iteration or color or whatever, but personally I struggle justifying allocating my limited relatively limited resources to pursue collecting subtle variations of each make and model. I suppose my goal is to identify the bikes I like and and then find the best possible version of each one and then hang onto that bike! All the better if along the way I get to check out the competition on someone else's dime!!

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