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3-Speed Coaster Brake Shootout

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So you're thinking of a 3-speed conversion for your cruiser... What options do you have and what hub is best for you?

Sure, there's no beating your single-speed coaster for reliability but sometimes the extra range of a 3-speed makes all the difference. You've though about converting your bike but what's involved and how much is it going to cost? This article will show you some of the options out there and talk about the differences between the popularly available 3-speed coaster hubs.

There are really two main choices when it comes to 3-speed coaster hubs, Shimano and Sturmey Archer. SRAM also makes 3-speed coasters but they aren't too common and therefore can be a bit hard to find so we're going to focus on the Shimano and Sturmey Archer models.

Conversions

So just how do you convert your bike to a 3-speed anyhow?

There are two ways you can go about this - either get a new set of wheels with a 3-speed hub already installed or rebuild your current rear wheel with a new hub. If you aren't happy with your rims as they are - ie if they're just plain alloy then you might as well use this opportunity to get something new. Most bike shops can sell you a wheel set with a 3-speed already installed, I know Ride Away has quite a few in stock. You can expect to pay about $150 to $200 for a new set of rims with a 3-speed.

If you decide you just want to modify your existing wheels then things get a little cheaper. You will usually pay between $50 and $100 for a 3-speed hub depending on which model you choose - the Sturmey Archer AWC is probably the cheapest while the SRC3 and the Shimano Inter-3 will set you back a bit more. Expect to pay about $40 to get your wheel rebuilt, chances are you're going to need new spokes plus there's a fair amount of labour involved in a hub swap. If you can build a wheel yourself then you can save a little bit here but I'd rather just pay the money and let someone else do it.

Sturmey Archer

Today's Sturmey Archer is not the same Sturmey Archer as we used to know prior to 2000. The 'old' Sturmey Archer was located in England and has history back to 1902 with a patent on the first 3-speed bicycle hub. Nearly any 3-speed bike from 1902 on through the '70s found in North America had a Sturmey hub - a lot of other manufacturer's hubs such as JC Higgins were actually Sturmey internals so the design is quite popular. However Sturmey Archer saw a decline in quality throughout the 1980s and '90s as demand for internal gear hubs plummeted during the mountain bike craze. In fact until cruisers started taking off internal gear hubs were all but gone except in a few specialized markets such as folding bikes.

Sturmey went bankrupt in 2000 and was purchased by Sun Race, a Taiwaneese company with a long history in the bike business. Sun Race moved the entire Sturmey Archer factory, machinery and all to their Taiwan plant and even brought along the supervisors from the old Sturmey plant to help set up and get things running. Sun Race knows quite a bit about the bike market and has renewed the whole Sturmey product line even going so far as to introduce new hubs based on the old Sturmey designs with improvements by the Sun Race design team.

Sturmey Archer TCW

There were 3 different 3-speed coaster models under 'Old' Sturmey, the TCW, S3C and AWC. The TCW was a total design failure - the coaster brake was attached through the internal gears on the hub in such a manner that the gears essentially worked against the brake - if you were in high gear it was very difficult to stop. Sturmey archer hubs also have a 'dead' spot between 2nd and 3rd gear where no gear is engaged - if properly adjusted you never notice this but if your shifter cable was out of adjustment you could end up in this dead spot and have no brakes at all! Due to these issues the TCW received a very bad reputation and was discontinued by Sturmey Archer to be replaced with the S3C.

Sturmey Archer S3C

The S3C is fairly common on older bikes, especially the '70s Schwinn Krate bikes. It is a reasonably good hub - the internals are fairly well built but it still has its issues. These can be found on eBay somewhat inexpensively - parts are still available for thse hubs through the usual sources (Harris) but some parts such as the coaster brake are somewhat scarce. Like all pre-'90s Sturmey Archer hubs the S3C is an 'oil filled' hub which means it needs to be periodically topped up with oil through the small cap on the hub shell itself - failure to do so will result in sticky shifts or a hub that just plain won't engage. On the upside though these hubs last a long time without needing a teardown since regular addition of fresh oil tends to clear out any junk that collects in the hub. The coaster brake in the S3C is a fairly traditional design - essentially just a 'smaller' version of the normal coaster brake design found in single-speed coaster hubs. Major downside to this hub is that the coaster is so small - not good for large, heavy bikes since it doesn't have the stopping power of most of the other hubs in this review with the obvious exception of the TCW. Neither of these hubs have been manufactured for quite some time however so you're unlikely to be using one on a conversion project unless you are going for a restoration project or are trying to keep things original.

Sturmey Archer AWC

There are two different AWC hubs, the 'Old' Sturmey AWC and the 'New' Sturmey AWC. The difference is readily apparent - the 'Old' Sturmey hubs all say 'Made In England' on the hub shell and are usually chrome plated. The 'New' AWC is generally raw metal and naturally doesn't say anything about England. Regardless if the hub is a 'New' or 'Old' AWC it will be grease-filled rather than oil filled1. This means it doesn't require periodic top-ups like the older hubs.

The AWC uses a 3-segment brake shoe design and a cast brake ring pressed in to the hub shell on the left hand side of the hub. There are 3 steel brake shoe segments which are engaged through the gears in a safe design that always engages the same way regardless of which gear the bike is in, eliminating the issues of the TCW while providing a better brake than the S3C. I was quite happy with the brake performance on my 'Old' Sturmey AWC and most riders of the 'New' Sturmey AWC seem to be happy too. If you ever do any service on these hubs it is CRITICAL to use the correct grease - you want a grey moly-lithium grease on the coaster brake, a regular wheel bearing grease on the ball bearings and white lithium grease on the actual gears and pawls themselves! Apart from ensuring correct gear adjustment the only thing to worry about with an AWC is playing it safe with the brake - repeated hard skids can dislodge the cast brake ring from the hub shell destroying the hub. This type of failure usually shows itself starting with slipping in low gear followed by eventual loss of all braking abilities - if you manage to do this to your hub you have no choice but to throw it out and look for something more suited to your riding style such as the Shimano Nexus Inter-3 below.


Sturmey Archer SRC3

The SRC3 (or S30 as it is sometimes referred to) is an updated version of the AWC and is the first significant change Sun Race has made to the Sturmey 3-speed product line. It has a billet aluminum shell which looks MUCH nicer than the plain steel shell of the 'New' AWC making it a good match for the alloy front hubs most of us have. One improvement of the SRC3 over the AWC is that this hub is dead quiet! You can barely hear these hubs in operation while the older models all have a noticeable clicking sound.

I have been running an SRC3 on my Manhattan for quite some time now. I have also run an AWC on the same bike so I can give a pretty good comparison between the two. I would say that the improved looks and quieter mechanism of the SRC3 is definitely worth something however I haven't been particularly happy with the brake on this hub. It is VERY difficult to lock up the rear wheel and quick stops don't seem to be much of an option. This MAY be an issue with my particular hub2 as I know others with SRC3's seem to be pretty happy however I have heard from local bike shops that the SRC3 won't stand up to rough service very well. This hub rates highly in the looks department and is definitely a little different from your 'run of the mill' 3-speed but brake issues definitely warrant some careful thought before selecting this hub. However some manufacturers such as Felt use these hubs on their bikes, albeit often with a front drum brake.

One thing to mention about the Sturmey Archer hubs is the large variety of shifter mechanisms available. Due to the long time popularity of the Sturmey design in British and North American bikes there are literally hundreds of shifter options available. I personally am a fan of the old-school trigger shifter although grip shifts are available for those who want them.

Shimano

Shimano is very well known in the bike industry - regardless what make or model your bike is chances are you have at least some Shimano components if it's been made in the last 30 years or so. Shimano has been in business since about 1931 bringing Japanese engineering to the bike industry. As they supply the bulk of bike components for road, mountain and cruiser bikes you know you can order their parts through nearly any bike shop without too much hassle.
Nexus Inter-3 If you have a factory 3-speed Electra you most likely have a Nexus Inter-3. These hubs are very well made and seem to be able to stand quite a bit of abuse - I have personally seen riders doing things with these hubs that I know would break a lot of single speed hubs let alone a 3-speed. Shimano has a different brake design from most of the other hubs on here which is much more compact - the Inter-3 isn't much bigger than your everyday single speed hub! The downside to this design is there is a lot less material to soak up heat so cooling it down after a long hill will take a bit longer.

The Inter-3 is a noisy hub - under normal pedaling it is easily as loud as your average freewheel hub coasting. When coasting it's REALLY loud so you aren't going to be sneaking up behind anyone. I'm also not a huge fan of the bulky indicator hanging off the right axle - it works ok visually on newer bikes but it will definitely clash with an older-style cruiser. It does allow for easy gear adjustments however.

Brake performance on these hubs is actually quite good. It doesn't take much to lock up the rear wheel on demand and even the most aggressive riders don't seem to be able to break this brake! If you're hard on your bike and don't care too much about visual appeal than this hub is for you - it will withstand much more abuse than any other 3-speed I've tested. That's not to say you can't break it if you really try but you'll stand a better chance of having a working hub at the end of a skid contest than members of the Sturmey family.

One disadvantage to the Shimano design is it uses a different amount of cable travel between gears from the Sturmey design. This means you can only use Shimano shifters with Shimano hubs. Essentially the only readily available shifter is grip-shift, something I am not personally a fan of as I don't like my bike accidently shifting while I'm trying to haul up a hill!

Conclusion

So what hub is right for you? As we've seen above there are a few different options out there with their own strengths and weaknesses. All of the hubs tested have good reliability with their gear mechanisms and provide smooth shifting. There are differences in visual appeal and braking as well as the shifter mechanisms available to suit your riding needs.

With its billet aluminum housing and minimalist indicator chain the Sturmey SRC3 definitely wins in the looks department. Add near-silent operation and you've got an excellent stealthy 3-speed provided you keep your stopping limitations in mind. If you want old-school looks there are quite a few shifter options available for the Sturmey hubs that won't work on the Shimano versions making the Sturmey hubs the best choice for people who are primarily concerned about how their setup will look and are willing to keep the design's limitations in mind.

If the visual aspect of your hub isn't such a concern and you're a bit harder on your bike then you can't beat the Shimano Nexus Inter-3. Great reliability, very good braking performance and its overall popularity on stock bikes make this hub a safe choice. There are fewer shifter options available but if you're happy with grip-shift then this won't be a problem for you.

Whichever hub you choose, be aware that any 3-speed hub won't be able to take as much abuse as a single-speed coaster. There is a LOT more stuffed in to a tiny space with a 3-speed - brakes work better the larger they are so there is some tradeoff in braking ability when moving to a 3-speed. That said hub manufacturers have done a lot of work to try and deal with these issues. As long as you are aware of the limits of your setup be it single speed, 3 speed or otherwise you can make anything work so get out there and ride!


1. There were a FEW AWC hubs produced in 1988 that are oil-filled instead of greased however I've never actually seen one. 1988 was the first year for the AWC and in 1989 it was converted to a greased hub.
2. After riding more on my SRC3 and doing a few good 'burn in' stops on hills the braking is improved somewhat over its 'out of the box' state but it is still weaker than other hubs I've tried.
Document Actions

S3C Followup Note

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Feb 04, 2007 10:22 PM
Over the weekend I did a repair job on the Cheetah's S3C - so here's some further comments on these hubs.

The coaster brake band is TINY in these hubs. In specimen I've got here all the 3-speed parts are in great shape (pawls showing very little wear, gears in good shape, drive clutch nice, etc) but the brake band is pretty trashed. After looking around online I HAVE found replacement brake bands but nowhere in North America as of yet.

On the brake band - the pre-1991 AWC shares its brake design with the S3C except the band for the AWC is brass instead of steel. 1992 and later AWC hubs changed brake design entirely with 3 separate brake shoes instead of a brake band. This resulted in a considerably more powerful brake, so much so that it's stronger than the hub shell itself!

The overall construction of the S3C is quite well done with the exception of the brake. It should take the kind of abuse you would throw at an AW without much of an issue - all the drive side parts of the hub are nicely machined and obviously well thought out. Most common drive-related problems will probably be broken pawl springs or a worn clutch cross or planet pins. Good news is all those parts are readily available and dirt cheap!


TCW Warning

Avatar Posted by Bryn at May 03, 2007 02:07 PM
As if the overall design of the TCW wasn't bad enough already, last night we discovered it gets even worse...

Rod was riding a TCW on an older Columbia last night... From the way the hub was behaving it seems like the 2nd gear (direct drive) pawl springs broke. Totally common occurrence for a well traveled Sturmey hub. Easy to fix, but not without tearing down the hub. Well, guess what? That whole thing about how the TCW hooks the coaster in through the gears turns in to a MAJOR safety problem. Broken pawl springs = no gear engagement = NO BRAKES. If you put the bike in 2nd the hub would just freewheel in both directions.

Again, if you've got a TCW coaster brake (it'll be from the '60s) GET RID OF IT! Find an AWC, S3C, SRC3, ANYTHING else or at the very least make sure you've got a good front brake. You never know when a pawl might slip or one of those tiny little hair springs will break and you're SOL, hopefully not headed downhill.

Sturmey Archer TCW

Avatar Posted by Trevor at Dec 28, 2009 07:58 PM
I actually like the TCW. It is a piece of junk-- my first one was a '61, and slipped suddenly out of 2nd. I had an AW before that, and learned a little about these things on it. When I went to fix my TCW, I saw that the ring gear was worn where the clutch engages it. I went looking for a replacement, and in that process was introduced to the whole world of internal gear hubs. I eventually found a new ring gear, but to buy it I had to buy the bike shop's entire thirty years' worth of three-speed parts. I was 13, and since then rarely ride a bike without some old three-speed (except of course for my fixies). The TCW was a piece of crap, and I was constantly having problems with it, but it is the challenge of riding a bike with one and the challenge of fixing it when I trash it that makes it so fun. Sometimes at a stoplight I would switch the gear in between 2nd and 3rd so I could freewheel to get a better pedal position for taking off. From my experience with the TCW, and other crappy Sturmey Archer hubs, I have got so good with these things that now there is no internal gear hub that I have encountered that is too trashed to be fixed.

TCW Safety

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Dec 30, 2009 03:10 PM
My problem with the TCW is really a safety issue. I can deal with the various 3-speed problems that happen, but when you decide to drive the brakes off the 3-speed then things get ugly. Up until the '80s Sturmey never built a hub without a dead spot between second and third - well with a TCW that "dead" spot means no brakes - who thought that was ok? So if you have your shift cable out of adjustment the penalty is death?!

The other Sturmey tricoasters are probably about as bad reliability wise, but generally the brakes work no matter what.

TCW and Where to put it

Avatar Posted by Trevor at Dec 28, 2009 07:58 PM
Go ahead and get rid of your TCW, but consider sending it my way... I'll be at threespeednerd@gmail.com

SRC3 Update

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Jun 13, 2008 02:31 PM
So I've been riding my SRC3 for a loooong time now (since I wrote this article pretty much) and figured I'd add a follow up...

The hub is still going strong! I'm running it on my Rat Rod with a great big top tube shifter - try that on a Nexxus! It's still shifting great and I haven't touched it since I serviced it about a year and a half ago it, not even to add any more grease.

The coaster brake is still kind of weak in my opinion. It'll work ok, but it just doesn't bite as hard as others do. I have a second SRC3 on a 24" wheel though and it seems to stop a lot better - maybe it's just something with my hub!

Parts interchange info! The "new" Sturmey hubs are "mostly" compatible with the "old" ones. I'm running an old-skool brass brake band from a S3C in one of my SRC3's - it definitely improved the brake performance over the original steel one. Dropped right in too! Here's what seems to interchange ok:

- Axle shaft
- Pinions
- Pinion pins
- Pawl Springs
- Pawls
- Coaster Brake Band
- Dust Cap
- Sprocket
- Indicator spindle

Still going great!

More on New Sturmey 3-Speed Coasters

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Jul 18, 2008 04:35 PM
I had the opportunity to service a 2 1/2 year old 'New' Sturmey SRC3 hub the other day. The hub has a LOT of miles on it and was having brake-related problems. Once in a while the brake just didn't catch and the pedals would just spin backwards - no good!

When I took a look at things I noticed the hub was quite loose with more play than I would feel comfortable with. Once I opened it up it turned out a set of bearings on the driver side had gone creating a whole lot of extra clearance inside the hub. Well, on the other SRC3 hubs I've seen this isn't a problem (other than making it more difficult to ride) but THIS SRC3 had the 'late' AWC style brake with 3 steel shoes instead of the brake band system on my SRC3 hubs. Well the steel shoe brake works a HELL of a lot better, BUT if the hub gets loose it allows the shoes to slip out of their seats causing a loss of brake performance! Yikes!

After replacing the shot bearing and fixing all the clearances inside the hub everything is working great and the brake is performing really well, but if you've got a 'late' AWC or an 'early' SRC3 you really, really, really need to make sure your hub is well maintained and isn't getting sloppy. If you grab your wheel you should at most be able to feel a TINY bit of play at the rim and none at the hub itself. If it's getting sloppy, get it fixed!

More SRC3 Info

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Mar 01, 2009 06:27 PM
I finally tore down my SRC3 on my Rat Rod before I built Rat Rod 2.0. The brake band was looking pretty worn so I started going through my parts supply looking for another one. Then suddenly I had this thought... I wonder if the hub shell itself is really different between the '3 shoe' style brake and the 'band' style... Well, pulled out the remains of my old '3 shoe' style hub and compared it - IDENTICAL. In fact pretty much everything in the hub EXCEPT the brake retainer and the brake band/shoes are 100% the same.

I've always liked the 3-shoe style brake better as has a lot more stopping power than the band style. Swapped the shoes and the retainer in, works like a charm! Even the actuator piece is the same between the two style hubs. If anyone has access to Sturmey service parts it's trivial to convert back and forth between the two styles.

Nexus Inter-3

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Mar 30, 2009 06:01 PM
Was just looking at this posting and realized I really should give the Nexus Inter-3 some lovin'!

Amber has been riding a Nexus 3 now for a looong time, and she's the third owner of the bike. We did have some troubles earlier on - the hub started shifting badly and the brake was squealing a lot, all signs of way too little lube.

Now, the "factory approved" way to service a Nexus 3 is with this special liquid grease they have. You rotate the cap on the brake side of the hub a bit and it uncovers hole marked 'OIL' that opens directly into the brake. This is great for lubricating the brake up, but I don't actually like washing too much of the grit that builds up inside the brake portion of the hub in to the 3-speed mechanism itself. By the time you add enough grease through that port to fix any shifting problems you're having all the metal filings from the coaster brake are now spread through everything.

Anyhow, I ended up doing a total teardown and cleaning on the hub about 2 years ago. I used a nice light white lithium grease for the 3-speed parts and a thick black moly grease for the coaster brake. I also put a bit of the moly around the outside of the pawls in order to stop them from ticking so loudly. Initially there was a bit too much grease and it was a little too thick to shift reliably so I added some light oil into the indicator pushrod hole, this took care of things. 2 years later the hub is still dead silent and shifts perfectly! It's been super reliable, nice and quiet and a great performer.

There are a few other options shifter-wise than I initially thought. There's a lever-type shifter available and some older shifters came with a different plate that fit Shimano. I haven't tried to see if 333 shifters work with the Nexus or not but I would almost bet they do.

Anyhow, I still don't like the Nexus 3 as much visually as I do the Sturmey hubs, but I'm also a lot more willing to fiddle with mine to get it right than a lot of people are.

333 shifter for Nexus 3spd - no

Avatar Posted by Chris Harne at Jun 22, 2009 10:22 AM
Quite a few years ago, I asked Sheldon Brown whether he knew if the shifters for the 333 hubs could be used for the new Nexus hubs. His reply was negative. He said they were not interchangeable.

Sturmey Archer shifter on Shimano

Avatar Posted by Neil MacEachern at Oct 04, 2016 08:27 PM
As a note, I've been using a Sturmey Archer 3 speed thumb shifter on a Nexus inter-3 hub without issue for years.

Sram 3speed

Avatar Posted by holgeres at Sep 22, 2012 11:08 AM
The Sram's 3 speed is actually very common in europe. That hub is even stronger than the shimano inter-3. The only thing that ever breaks on it is the gearcable rusts. Comes as both trigger and gripshift. Probably the easiest to adjust. Easy to see though how peoples bikes are used. A shimano inter-3 hub lasts maybe 4-5 years tops in scandinavia. Then its trashed. The weather here is just too harsh on them

Rare Here

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Sep 22, 2012 11:09 AM
Thanks for the info - the SRAM stuff is not super common over here, I know many of the shops can order them but you rarely ever see one!

Durability

Avatar Posted by William at Nov 28, 2012 12:42 PM
Hey,

I'm currently looking into a 3 speed coaster hub for my mountain bike. I started riding coaster brake mountain bikes for a local race series, the Coaster Brake Challenge. Over the past two years or so, I've moved to almost exclusively riding my coaster brake bike on my 1.5-3 hour twice a week average mountain bike rides.

Anyway, I'm looking into building up a 3 speed coaster wheel for this bike so that I might tackle some of the more technical climbs that have eluded me on the single speed coaster. I currently have a Bendix red band laced to a 29'' wheel that resides in my rigid 29er mtb. The bedix red bands have proven to be the sturdiest and offer the best modulation of any of the coasters we've tried.

I read your article and I was wondering if you could clarify exactly what you mean by "abuse". Do you think that the breaking mechanism could hold up as well as a typical shimano single speed coaster wheel? We typically burn up the grease (we use hi-temp grease rated to around 500 degrees) over the course of a month of riding and have to re-pack about once a month.

Will the bottom gear hold up if I'm mashing up a steep climb? More importantly, which hub won't let it's braking fade while I"m on a steep descent. We're able to keep up with expensive full suspension xc and all mountain bikes on technical descents as long as there aren't any spots that are too steep and loose.

I would be upset if a gear broke and I had to walk out of a trail but it would be extremely disastrous if a brake were to fail on a descent.

Extreme

Avatar Posted by Bryn at Nov 28, 2012 12:49 PM
Sounds like a pretty tough task for a 3-speed coaster, but not necessarily impossible...

The Shimano would definitely be the best choice. The coaster brake in them is far more powerful (and much nicer feeling) than the Sturmey. Grease life is going to be your biggest challenge though. Shimano recommends "liquid grease" (basically oil) for their hubs, but it doesn't last very long at all and I definitely can't see it holding up to 500° temperatures. I have had very good luck repacking the brake portion of Shimano hubs with high temp moly grease - never had a problem again after that. It isn't so much that the brakes fade, it is more that they tend to lock up when they get too hot, as you've probably experienced with your Bendix.

The Bendix hubs have the best coaster brake I've ever found in any hub in terms of reliability, for what it's worth.

I've never seen anyone break a gear in any of the 3-speeds so I doubt you'll have a problem with that.

durability

Avatar Posted by William at Nov 28, 2012 01:09 PM
Thanks! I'll probably try to see if I can find a used nexus on ebay and run it with a front brake for a little while in case of emergency.

You're right about the brake locking up more quickly when it's hot. This seems to be an issue in any hub although the bendix hubs have a longer time before they reach that point, and they are still very controllable once they do get that hot.

Yes, I wish I could find a modern hub that matches the quality of the bendix. For our purposes they're really best choice.

I'll let you know my findings if I end up getting a 3 speed set up.

Single to 3 Speed Conversion

Avatar Posted by Neil Proctor at Sep 25, 2014 06:31 AM
My wife had a single speed cruiser and I had it converted to a 3 speed. Used a Shimano kit which included an alloy rim. Only had to change the tire. Got the job done at a local bike shop for under $200, including all parts and labor.