Roberts Cycles

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Roberts Cycles was a custom bicycle manufacturer in Selhurst near Croydon, South London, England.

Beginning soon after World War II, Charlie Roberts started as a frame-builder for Holdsworth, Claud Butler and Freddie Grubb. In the early 1960s, he started Roberts Cycles in Croydon. He was joined in the workshop by his teenage son Chas. In 1979, Charlie died and Chas took over.

The shop closed at the end of May 2015 [1] in order for Chas Roberts to take a sabbatical. He has said that he will return to frame building at a lower volume (10 to 12 a year) after approximately two years.[2] The skilled mechanic previously employed in store by Chas Roberts; Brian Phillips, is available independently (though contactable through an email address on the placeholder webpage [3]) for maintenance and upgrading of Roberts cycles.

Production was limited by capacity to 100 steel frames per year, and they were made in a bespoke manner to the dimensions, mass and equipment specification requirements of the person ordering when new. A mixture of Reynolds and Columbus tubing was used in construction, which was all completed "in-house". Powder coat finishing was outsourced and completed to a high specification. The frames and completed cycles have a reputation on for the quality of finish, reliability and comfort.

The range included track bikes, road bikes, touring bikes, tandems and off-road bikes. Unless built for demonstration of shows, all bikes were tailored to the specific requirements of the customer. Technical specialisms were developed that could be applied including: Fittings in the down tube and cross tube that enabled the complete cycle to be dismantled, and the application of Rohloff internal geared hubs. In the last year of production a prototype Gates belt driven bike was made to explore the potential of the application; though no customer bikes were completed.

Early History[edit]

Like many of his contemporaries in the cycle trade (including Freddie Grubb and Charlie Davey (cyclist)) Charlie Roberts was also a competitive racing cyclist. His specialty was time trials and, according to the records of Addiscombe Addiscombe Cycling Club, founded by Charlie Davey in 1906, he held the Southern Road Racing Association 12 hour record from 1940 until 1959 as well as setting the South Eastern 12 hour record in 1946. While formally registered with the club, from 1940 -1947, he notched up nine first places, six second places and five third places in time trials. Born in 1920, Charlie entered the cycle trade, at the then not unusual age of 14, working for Charlie Davey in Croydon.[4] Davey, a successful cyclist in the 1920s, owned a shop in Addiscombe Road (Davey Cycles) and helped finance the Allin and Grubb business (South London bike builders) in 1919. Other builders, all in South London that Charlie Roberts worked for included Claud Butler, Freddie Grubb and Holdsworth. Contemporaries of Roberts at Claud Butler and Holdsworth included Les Ephgrave, Fred Dean, Bill Hurlow, George Stratton, Pat Skeates and Bill Philbrook – most of whom, like Roberts, subsequently set up workshops of their own. During the war Charlie joined the Air Force as a mechanic. Post war he returned to frame building, primarily for Holdsworthy, where he became foreman and later works manager.

Roberts Cycles, 21 Trewsbury Road, Sydenham[edit]

Charlie left Holdsworthy in 1963 or 1964 to set up his own business. Initially all the work took place in the cellar of the home the Roberts family rented in 21 Trewsbury Road, Sydenham and this home address featured on the head crest of early Roberts frames. The CR monogram in the crest, which remains the firm’s trademark, was inspired by a CP logo once used by local football club Crystal Palace. The Roberts decal on the down tube used the Clarendon font, which remained the firm’s standard choice until the 1990s.

Charlie’s friendship with John Pratt, then owner of Geoffrey Butler Cycles of South End, Croydon, led to him getting access to a workshop in the ‘garden shed’ of the Geoffrey Butler shop. Roberts-built custom frames were then sold through GB Cycles. Roberts also built trade frames for W.F. Holdsworth (then owned by yet another ex-Holdsworthy staffer, Roy Thame), and Condor Cycles (Gray’s Inn Road, London). However, he continued to sell frames privately from his home and those bore the original crest encircled by the same Trewsbury Road home address.

Most of the frames built in the 1960s were road racing, track and touring frames. Distinctive marks of the Charlie Roberts-built frame of the era were: several holes drilled in the spear point lugs, and often bottom brackets with cut outs to save weight. Charlie’s sons Chas and Geoff were brought into the business at an early age, and both worked on building carrier racks and lug filing for three to five years before they were allowed to graduate to frame building.

East Dulwich and Forest Hill[edit]

Outgrowing the ‘garden shed’ at Geoffrey Butler’s the Roberts workshop moved to East Dulwich but continued to use the Trewsbury Road address on head badges. Business was evidently good because Charlie and his two sons were joined in the workshop by Derek Bailey, an experienced builder from Holdsworthy. Meanwhile, Charlie Roberts’ former colleague John Pratt had sold Geoffrey Butler’s and decided to open a new bike shop in Forest Hill, South London. It was called, appropriately, Phoenix Cycles. He invited Charlie Roberts to share the rent on what had been a funeral director’s premises and Charlie agreed to move his workshop again and to sell Roberts frames via the Phoenix shop. Frames built at Phoenix had either Phoenix or Roberts transfers – John Pratt recognised that Roberts was strong brand and sold bikes under both names.

This was a period when the Roberts workshop pioneered innovative frame designs. A notable change from traditional frames with narrow ‘pencil’ seat stays was the use of chunkier section seat stays, initially on track frames, a style later followed by many builders in the 70s. Another unusual Roberts design was the curved split seat tube designed to accommodate a very short wheelbase for time trial bikes.

Roberts cycles prospered at Phoenix, moving to a larger workshop at the same premises, but in 1976 John Pratt sold his business and Charlie Roberts, his sons and Derek Bailey moved from Forest Hill to new premises in nearby Penge.

87 Penge Road, Anerley[edit]

The move to the new address, 87 Penge Road, Anerley, was marked by inscribing it around the head crest used on frames. When Charlie Roberts died suddenly in 1979, his son, Chas, then in his thirties, took over the business with Derek Bailey and Geoff Roberts working as frame builders. They were joined by Phil Maynard, formerly of Holdsworthy, and later by Neil Brice, another Holdsworthy graduate. Bailey, eventually departed for Canada. Production in Penge ran at around four to five frames per week.

The business grew and Chas was able to buy the neighbouring shop. As demand from club cyclists increased, the quantity of frames built for the trade declined. The 1979 Roberts catalogue lists eight models including several touring bikes, a track iron, a time trial frame, several road bikes and a mixte frame. It also records Charlie Roberts’ racing record, noting that he was runner up in the BBAR, rode London to Paris in the late 40s and had victories in the Bath Road ‘50’ and ‘100’.

One of the customers at the Penge shop was Maurice Burton, Britain’s first black professional cyclist, who won the UK junior sprint title in 1973 and represented England at the Commonwealth Games in 197411. For a period in the 1980s Roberts sponsored Burton supplying him with both road and track frames.

The best known rider, however, to be measured up by Chas at the time was Tony Doyle, whose Ammaco sponsored and liveried track bikes were built in the Roberts workshop. Doyle was World Pursuit Champion in 1980 and 1986. The championship win was subtly reflected in a new Roberts crest: buyers were given the choice of CR with world champion stripes flowing from it instead of the traditional head badge with the address around it.

The introduction of new tubing ranges from Reynolds ( 537, 531SL, 531C etc.) and Columbus (the Italian tubing maker) enabled Roberts to design frames with combinations of tubes from different makers, to suit varying purposes and riders; a mix and match approach that continued until 2015. The ‘beefier’ stays, characteristic of frames of the period, now had the Clarendon R engraved on the top seat stay eye as did many of the straight (as opposed to sloping) fork crowns. Frames were either lugless (fillet brazed) or had spear point Prugnat lugs. A decorative feature on some lugwork were small round cut outs. When Cinelli cast lugs became available these ousted the earlier pressed lugs on road and track frames, though Nervex lugs were retained on some touring frames. The use of lugless construction, an increasingly common Roberts trademark, was required for time trial frames with sloping top tubes, for curved seat tubes, and for frames with aero-tubing. The beefy stays of the 70s gave way to sleeker ‘fast-back’ stays. As the word about Roberts expertise in time trial and low profile frames spread, the number of customers for such frames grew and, for club riders in South London, Roberts became synonymous with cutting edge custom frame design.

Croydon, 89 Gloucester Road and Cycle Art Bromley[edit]

In 1983 Chas and his team, which now included Winston Vaz, another ex-employee of Holdsworthy, transferred the works to 89 Gloucester Road, Croydon – a location off the beaten track, and initially without a shop front. Geoff Roberts eventually left to set up his own frame building business near Brands Hatch before working with other builders, including Ron Cooper.

Because the workshop at Gloucester Road originally had no showroom, Chas took a short lease in 1985 on a shop in Bromley which he renamed Cycle Art – the shop was successful enough for Roberts to stay there beyond the lease but the construction of a showroom at Gloucester Road resolved the issue of having a place to receive customers. A break-in at the Bromley shop resulted in the loss of records, so the exact details of production up to that period will never be known.

The 21st century, notably in London, was marked not only by a cycling boom but a retro fashion that saw hand-built steel frames prized highly. This boosted orders for Roberts track frames in particular, but road and touring frames also benefited. New tubes such as Columbus XCr and Reynolds 953 were utilised.

Mountain bikes[edit]

Roberts were probably the first British frame builder to construct a US-style mountain bike in the early eighties. The 1980s MTB initiative came from Jake Heilbron, the manager of West Point Cycles in Vancouver and co- founder of Canada’s Rocky Mountain Bikes and Kona Bicycle Company. Heilbron was familiar with the heavyweight mountain bikes being used in California but wanted something lighter and sprightlier so he shipped a Californian style frame to Roberts, whom he knew through Cycle Imports of Maine, and asked them to make something similar.

Roberts established a name for high-end mountain bike design. Their familiarity with lugless frame building made it relatively easy for Roberts to accommodate the new dimensions of tubing from Reynolds and Columbus as well as build frames with sloping top tubes – an innovation that was not available on any of the US nor Far Eastern bikes for sale in the UK at the time.

UK and off-road world champions were measured up for frames: both Dave Baker and Tim Gould rode Roberts-built frames to victory though they were badged as Peugeots (their sponsor). The first Roberts mountain bike catalogue featured the top of the range White Spider (named after the north face of the Eiger), the mid-range Black Leopard, an off-road tourer, the Rough Stuff; and the Transcontinental, a long range tourer. Short-lived off-road models included the Cobra, Stratos and Phantom. One example of the White Spider was built as a companion bike for purchasers of Aston Martin cars – sprayed in a colour to match the owner’s car.

The pinnacle of Roberts mountain bike design was the D.O.G.S.B.O.L.X. (a bike name based on an acronym – Dirt Oriented Geometry System Blend Orthogonal Lateral Extra) featuring a distinctive mono-stay which all but eliminated seat-stay flex due to braking pressure. A variant on the DB was the Psyclo on/off-road bike which used cow horn bars, Shimano road racing brake/gear levers and a lightweight suspension fork.

The advent of aluminium mountain bikes with front and back suspension slowed the sales of DOGSBOLX frames but did not eliminate them. In recent years the design was revived as an off-road single speed in striking black and white livery with the model name on the down tube instead of Roberts.

Road, touring and track[edit]

While Roberts set the pace in mountain bikes from Croydon, low profiles, road bikes and touring frames continued to be built from the 1980s and into the new century. International tourist and writer Josie Dew chose to ride a Roberts, giving the brand an unexpected boost.

A low profile Aston Martin bicycle was built in collaboration with Mike Burrows (who built the Lotus frames for world champion Chris Boardman) with streamlined tubing and a streamlined seat tube. In an interview with the authors of Made in England [5] Chas acknowledges that Roberts bikes were built for Royalty but does not specify the nationality of his aristocratic customers.

Design in Croydon moved with the times. Fastback stays and shot-in seat stays started to overtake the engraved chunky version stays with a single R. Top eyes, bottom brackets and fork crowns were now all available with ‘Roberts’ engraved in full. Aero-tubing was used on low profiles which became ever more unusual in appearance. The production of S & S couplings, which enable a steel frame to be taken apart while retaining its ride properties, became popular with customers at Roberts despite the additional cost . Customer requests led Roberts to offer steel main tubes with carbon forks and stays – in some cases matched with couplings so that a 12lb bike could be carried in a small suitcase. Both road bikes and mountain bikes were now offered with brass head badges. These were subsequently changed in the 1990s to stainless steel ones along with a smaller version that was fitted to the side of the seat tube on Transcontinental touring frames and some top-of-the-range mountain bikes. For a short period in the 1990s the familiar Clarendon font was changed to a ‘reduced’ Clarendon stating Chas Roberts rather than just Roberts – this was more commonly used on touring bikes and then dropped. Two decals that were introduced in Penge, and retained at Croydon, were the Chas Roberts signature in small script and the CR head badge with world champion stripes. Some of the signatures had US and UK flags on the sides in recognition of the transatlantic nature of the business.

In the 1990s a more modern italic font (similar to Jasmine), replaced Clarendon on most frames and, in the 2010s a rounded, sans serif, Deco style, variant was also commonly used.

Frame numbering[edit]

Charlie Roberts numbered frames on the fork steerer tube and bottom bracket (across the bracket) or rear drop-out with the whole series starting at 100. According to Chas Roberts the consecutive numbering system was continued for a short period after his father passed away and then the year/month/frame numbering system was adopted, initially with the month as a one or two figure number and later as a two figure number ( 01, 02 etc. ). The numbering system sometimes varied when frames were earmarked for the trade or for spraying outside the Roberts premises.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.robertscycles.com/archiveindex.html
  2. ^ http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest-news/end-of-an-era-roberts-cycles-to-cease-production-next-month-168131
  3. ^ http://www.robertscycles.com/
  4. ^ The Boneshaker, Journal of the Veteran-Cycle Club, number 198, Volume 20, page 15
  5. ^ Made in England, Matthew Souter, Ricky Feather and Kayti Peschke, p130.

External links[edit]