London Classics: Condor
Tom Bogdanowicz revisits one of London’s most famous marques, Condor Cycles
What do Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Bradley Wiggins and Jon Snow have in common? The answer is that they’ve all owned Condor bikes. Given that Jon Snow works at ITN, across the road from the Condor shop in Gray’s Inn Road, it’s no surprise that’s where he bought his titanium custom build. Mick, a cycling fan, may have spotted the shop while still a student at the nearby London School of Economics. As the Stones’ money began to roll in he bought several Condors from owner Monty Young and also introduced his pal Eric, another cycling enthusiast, to the brand. ‘Slow Hand’ apparently topped the shop price record in 1972 with his crème de la crème all-Campag machine costing a princely £247. Wiggo’s 90s Condor steed was presumably free when he rode for the Condor Olympia squad.
Based in the heart of London for more than 60 years, it’s not surprising that Condor’s a brand favoured by celebs. From the outset, founder and owner Monty Young has shown plenty of PR savvy: sponsoring races back in the 50s and backing several racing teams (most recently Rapha Condor).
Born to a tailor in Stoke Newington in 1930, Monty started out as a cabinet maker, but acquired a taste for bikes from near neighbour Harry Rensch, inventor of the legendary Paris Galibier frame that Condor has recently revived. Young entered the cycling business through a venture with future brother-in-law Walter Conway, which initially sold Triumph roadsters at 90 Gray’s Inn Road. At their second shop, in Islington, the Condor marque was born in 1948: the name Con-dor came from Con-way and introduced the distinctive bird badge that Condors still feature.
Like erstwhile rival Alf Hetchins, Monty had the good fortune to employ an outstanding frame builder. Bill Hurlow had gained experience with London firms like Freddie Grubb and Holdsworth, as well as Harry Rensch’s Paris Cycles. Hurlow stayed at Condor for some four years, creating a range of fancy-lugged designs like the WBH no.1 and Fleur de Lis which are now prized by collectors.
Condor’s involvement in racing made the shop, re-established in Grays’s Inn Road, a magnet for keen riders and I recall visiting in the 80s when Bob Downs, member of the British racing team, worked behind the counter. By then Condor no longer had a workshop in London but continued to offer hand-built frames made by some illustrious names, Chas Roberts and Dave Yates among them.
The brand’s recent resurgence came with the retro wave of fixed-gear and single speed bikes in the 00s. Under the management of Monty’s son Grant, Condor rode that wave offering a range of bikes and frames (combining their rich retro catalogue with new designs built in Italy) well before the mainstream manufacturers caught on. Grant said that fixies accounted for more than half the Condor-branded bike sales in 2005. With the big firms slow on the uptake, Condor was able to not only build bikes, but also entered the parts business offering a range of branded items.