Head down, legs pumping, a 17-year-old Sir Paul Smith sped his racing bike through the streets of suburban Nottinghamshire. It was a sunny day in 1963, and the cycling-mad teenager had donned a pair of dark wayfarer sunglasses to shield his eyes from the glare. These chunky frames blocked out more than just the sun, though. A style-conscious nod to Mr Buddy Holly, they also had the side effect of significantly obscuring his peripheral vision. By the time he'd noticed the car, it was already too late. He careered into the back at such speed that his momentum carried him clear of the roof, onto the bonnet, and down onto the road in front of the car. When he finally came to rest in a heap on the asphalt, he was in no fit state to walk away. His femur had been shattered, along with his collarbone, ribs and nose. "I broke lots of bones," he says, recalling the accident more than 50 years later.
The crash left him hospitalised for three months and brought his dreams of becoming a pro-racing cyclist to an abrupt end. But it also set him on the path to becoming one of Britain's most successful designers, as it was while meeting friends that he'd made in hospital that he was first introduced to the local art school crowd. It's fair to say that things could have turned out very differently for Sir Paul Smith. But despite his radical change in trajectory, he never quite managed to rid himself of the cycling bug.
He careered into the back at such speed that his momentum carried him clear of the roof, onto the bonnet, and down onto the road in front of the car
The bike that bore the brunt of the impact on that fateful day was a Mercian. Based in Derby, not far from the designer's hometown of Nottingham, this small company has been building bespoke steel-framed bikes by hand since 1946 – the same year that Sir Paul was born. In 2006, when both designer and bike maker were celebrating their 60th birthdays, he decided to relive his youth and take a trip to Derby to have a bike made. The result was what he described as "the perfect non-bike [...] fixed gear, stripped down and all black". A full collaboration between Mercian Cycles and Paul Smith was to follow, with a series of limited-edition bikes in typically bright colours, but that all-black racer remained one of a kind.
This year, Sir Paul's bike has been remade just for us. Built to his exact specifications in Mercian's workshop in Derby, and available today on MR PORTER, it forms the centrepiece of Paul Smith 531, a capsule collection that's designed for city cycling. The name pays homage to Reynolds 531, a lightweight bike tubing that was popular before the advent of aluminium and carbon-fibre composites. The number refers to the ratio of manganese (5), molybdenum (3) and carbon (1) in the steel alloy. To find out more about this bike from the man himself, watch our exclusive video, above.
Video by Mr Aaron Christian, Video Style Editor, MR PORTER
Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER