As I’ve mentioned several times before, I love almost anything on two wheels, with or without an engine, and with or without pedals. The latest addition to the garage (not that there’s that much in there!) is a 35-year-old East German cargo bike, although I’m sure it wasn’t referred to as such when it was built. The MIFA Universal, Model 510 was intended as a bike for transporting realtively light amounts of luggage (leichter Gepäcktransport), and was built at the Sangerhausen factory in the German state of Thuringia between 1983 and 1990. They are quite a rare sight on the roads these days, and I found this one for sale online by the original owner in Berlin. I’d been looking for a simple, affordable cargo bike, and wanted another project bike to work on as well. I hadn’t heard of the 510 before, even though I’ve restored two MIFAs before, and have found them to be simple and robust, which they needed to be in order to survive the rough roads and long years of use in the former GDR.
After bringing the bike home, I cleaned it up, steel-wooled the rusty chrome parts and replaced a host of parts, including the tires (original East German Pneumant tires, probably as old as the bike), the entire front wheel (which now has a hub dynamo), the lights, pedals, brake pads and chain. I also added two baskets, each of which is allowed to carry a whopping 10 kilos of groceries. For aesthetic reasons I left the old plastic tool kit hanging from the back of the soft plastic seat, and the dynamo on its rear mounting bracket, even though it’s not hooked up to the lights anymore. The new dynamo hub allows the use of LED lights, which are a huge improvement over the old incandescent bulbs and make the bike great for use at night or during the grey of winter. The standard Flammrot paint, which is more orange than red, cleaned up nicely, and the bike positively glows as it slowly makes its way down the street.
Due to the bike’s strange mixture of 26″ rear rim and 20″ front, it rides better than the company’s much more (in)famous Klapprad folding bikes , which had two 20″ rims, making it quite enjoyable to ride around town. The small front rim allows the basket above it to be attached to the frame, so that it has little effect on the bike’s steering, regardless of weight it’s carrying. Can’t say as I’d want to go on a long tour with the 510, but for the daily run to the grocery store it’s perfect. The folding bipod stand in the rear also works well and holds the bike steady while loading.
The finished 510 in all its glory! It may not look that much different at first glance, but the numerous changes have made a huge difference in how it rides. Although it’s quite a small bike (especially compared to new cargo bikes!), the long seat and steering tubes can be raised or lowered to fit almost any size rider. It certainly isn’t a lightweight due to its oversized steel frame and aluminum fenders, but it feels solid. I originally thought I would exchange the standard 1-speed rear hub for one with 3 speeds, but I’ve gotten used to not having to shift, and it is amazing how well you can get by on one gear, as long as you don’t have to go too far or climb any big hills. And I’m certainly not intending to take this bike on the Iron Curtain Trail (EV13), which stretches for nearly 10,000km from the Barents Sea in Norway to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. I mention this because I’m currently reading a book called The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore, which describes the exploits of a crazy British writer who decided to ride an old MIFA Klapprad the entire distance. While it’s certainly an entertaining read, it doesn’t make me want to use my MIFA to explore Europe, even if the bike is called Universal.
I immediately took the bike to the local grocery store and filled up both baskets with wine and food, just to see how it rides when doing what it was made to do. Everything arrived home in one piece. The small holes running along the lower edge of the rear mudguard were once used for the tiny hooks that held the Rockschutz, an elastic net that spanned the upper half of the wheel in order to prevent women’s skirts (Rock in German) from getting pulled into the spokes, sort of like the saree guards on Indian motorcycles. I probably won’t be fitting a net to this bike, even though the tool kit came with a spare one.