Back in January, we introduced you to Sándor Ambrus beautiful Kona Hot. It’s one of his three amazing Retro Kona builds and has promised almost a year ago, here is his pride and joy, a period-correct titanium 1991 Hei Hei.
In 1991, following a stint owing a fluro MBK Hi-Tech Ranger, and later trying a range of impressive bikes owned by friends that impressed me, including a white splatter Cinder Cindercone, stealthy Marin Eldridge Grade, and a shiny Orange Aluminium Elite fitted with full XTR components, I upped the ante to buy my first Kona (after a lot of saving and doing odd jobs over summer). After eyeing the goods up in the store, I was lucky enough to be offered a good discount on an older 91’Explosif.
Rather than being the shiny metallic gold model of that year, it was the blueberry purple. It was also slightly too big for me at the time. It did, however, come fitted with factory upgraded Deore XT components, which bettered the then-current 92’ model’s price tag that was out of reach. Out on the trails, it felt fast and thoroughbred, and to my friend’s surprise, it was quicker and more agile than theirs during out and out sprints. That bike, my first ‘proper’ race mountain-bike, became my passport to owning this particular Hei Hei and why I still love Konas.
Over breakfast, during my college years, I’d fastidiously pour over the early Kona Catalogues, I was infatuated by the shiny raw metal finish and curious over-sized down-tubes of the elusive Hei Hei. The last in the colorful line-up. Much later, during 2016, I began refurbishing that Explosif, and after a lot of online searching, managed to track an early Hei Hei being sold privately in London. Surprisingly, it was not far away from me in a housing estate in Vauxhall, London.
I’d never felt or seen a titanium frame before, let alone lifted one in the air. I couldn’t believe how light it was – like some strange metallic silver cloud. It zinged in my finger-tips. The owner revered it amongst his Kona collection, being propped up in the process against a beaten-up brown leather couch. The model was 1992, same as the gold Explosif that was originally out of reach 25 years ago. It was being sold by the seller since he just couldn’t find the parts to do it justice
After some haggling, I made the payment. With the frame awkwardly in my grasp on the bus, I remember being aware of the size increase of the 20” frame from the 19” Explosif that I knew so well. Following a good going-over with lemon juice and a 3M pad at home, it looked like new. I took up the challenge to build the lightest fastest Joe Murray era Hei Hei that I possibly could, inspired by Steve Peat’s own Hei Hei with Bullet Bros chain-stay device. Soon after, I discovered that the rear brake noodle was missing, and sometime after that, I was informed by a former Kona test rider that the titanium noodles were either cut off to install V-brake routing or in the case of competition frames, were never added.
I started assembling components. First came a pair RM14 Araya rims, as close and as light to RM400s that would have been stock. I searched for a Combo Cage, as per the 92 catalog, and after some persistence, managed to score one that had been stored away since new. It came with an unopened puncture repair box filled with the original content still rattling. Some months later, I found a 150 Ti Racelight bar advertised in Canada. After reaching out to the seller, who’d by then already passed it on to a friend, sometime beforehand, intermittent correspondence began. Around a year later, the same individual offered to retrieve it back for me which started off a long cross-continent friendship filled with discussions of Kona’s, DeKerfs and all things mountain-bike related, along with his sheepdog.
Not long after starting a thread on my build a titanium Velocity stem came available direct via a UK seller on the Retrobike. That moment meant that it could be possible to complete the dream-build spec that I wanted, having also never owned a suspension adjusted frame. Further luck, brand new old stock (NOS) XTR cranks were then quickly found at a reasonable cost in Germany, but funds were becoming a problem, not least because at the time I was out of a job.
Finding a fork was an easy choice. I had bought a Marzocchi XC500 but the weight was disappointing. Later, upon finding online an example of a custom factory-team Kona Hot with MagSL matching painted lower fork legs, I decided that it was the way to go. Following next summer, one was found in the States advertised for sale who was former Rockshox service representative. The fork arrived and was in great shape. The pale patina to the legs even match the titanium tubing, and to match, I found a NOS lemon gold Kona Impact headset (again a Steve Peat reference) which was the identical precursor to the later Control Centre that followed in 94’. Not wanting to fit typical black fork boots, that would appear visually heavier on a silver frame, I managed to source rarer clear versions from America.
Given I now had the Ti stem and bar, and components more or less found, I went full throttle to finding a titanium dowel to obtain a replacement make-up piece for the noodle. Via my new friend in Vancouver, I managed to determine the shape and diameter of the tube I needed, and finally found a matching side-wall and tube diameter in titanium from Russia. I still wonder now what purpose it served – perhaps the military or nuclear industry?!
After a lot of searching for a metal-worker, that could work with titanium and bend the noodle, another Hei Hei came up for sale. It was a more or less a complete bike, with noodle intact. The frame was also size 20” and from within my hometown of all places. After a lot of deliberation, on whether to buy or not, I decided to let it pass. My frame already had already acquired too much personal significance, for me to give up on, helped by it also being in marginally better condition. I pushed on with getting the replacement noodle fabricated.
From my drafted drawings of the noodle, and many calls and emails later, with a further six months of waiting for the metalworkers to finish their backorders, the form-work for the noodle begun. It was touch and go. The correspondence came that was disparaging, causing a lot of concern and doubt. Via some trialing Supreme Engineering, in the West Midlands, managed to adapt the titanium tube I’d sourced to complete the 3-part bend needed, and fit the replica noodle into the lugs via a lathe. It was a huge risk, potentially permanently damaging the frame, having sent the frame to a company I knew nothing about, and to someone who wasn’t aware of the frame’s value.
Once the frame was back with noodle fitted, I was thrilled. It really took the frame to a whole new level than before. The build was then quickly assembled with all the new retro parts I had collated over the three years consisting of XTR throughout including grey cabling. This is the old Warhorse, I could never afford, but with determination and patience, I got there.
Its maiden run was at Peaslake, New Years Day 2019.