Tom's London Classics: Roberts bicycles

Part of the ongoing 'Tom's London Classics' series, London Cycling Campaign's Tom Bogdanowicz looks at London’s vintage bike brands — it’s the turn of Roberts

Marks of Distinction:
finely detailed lugwork (left); smooth filletbrazing; an early complete Roberts ‘hybrid’ bike (top far right);Tom Bogdanowicz (bottom far right)

We all know that British cyclists struck gold at London 2012 but few will be aware that the British team won five medals at the London Olympics in 1948 (none of them gold) and that the bikes they rode were made in London. Working on the Olympic frames at the Claud Butler workshop was an up and coming framebuilder by the name of Charles Roberts. Claud’s went bust in the 1950s, but Charles Roberts built on his experience, first working for the new owner of Claud Butler, Holdsworth, and then striking out on his own in a nearby Croydon workshop.

He brought his sons Geoff and Chas into the business and they, like most apprentices, started out building bike racks and polishing lugs. By the 70s the Roberts shop, moved to nearby Penge, was a hub for aspiring club cyclists who could admire the rows of immaculately painted frames hanging off the ceiling and adorning the walls.

Getting measured up for custom-fitted frame was a ritual and choosing the colour scheme invariably a dilemma (my first Roberts was pristine white). Charles Roberts died in 1979 leaving Chas at the helm of the operation, which moved back to Croydon. The firm’s renown attracted cycling celebrities to its doors. The Roberts brand was not displayed on the frames built for world pursuit champion Tony Doyle, who had a different sponsor, but they propelled him to two world titles.

In the early 80s the Roberts workshop produced the first mountain bike in the UK — for a Californian Roberts fan, who sent over an early US mountain bike and asked for something similar. With an early start, Roberts mtbs were in high demand by the cognoscenti. More world champions rang the doorbell with both David Baker and Tim Gould riding Roberts-built mtbs to victory.

Unlike almost every other London frame-maker, the Roberts workshop has survived, even prospered — the popularity of budget aluminium and affordable carbon-fibre frames not stopping the orders for tailor-made steel frames. The recent fashion for track frames has enabled Roberts to continue producing frames that are, in some cases, unchanged since the 50s.

Tourists, too prefer custom steel, which can be repaired in Timbuktu or Kathmandu, to the fragility of carbon-fibre: globetrotting author Josie Dew is one of many long-distance tourists whose photographs adorn the Roberts shop wall.Chas attributes the longevity of the business to quality beneath the paintwork —“what you don’t see” — the accurate mitering, painstaking selection of tubes, careful filing and skilled brazing.

Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of Roberts frames is their minimalism — smooth joints, often with only a discreet badge (inspired by a vintage football logo) to reveal their identity. From the outset the Roberts workshop has been known for its fillet-brazed, or lugless, frames — once rare but now popular on factory bikes. Unlike modern TIG welded lugless frames, the hand-made variety has flawless smooth joints, rather than a thin line of metallic chewing–gum, at every junction.

Among the most-collectible bikes from the Roberts workshop are the low-profile time-trial frames whose improbable angles were made possible by the lugless-brazing technique. Older Roberts lugged frames generally used the minimalist Prugnat lugs; but in recent years decorative designs like the Fleur de Lys have appeared.

As expected from a custom builder, the exotic is common at Roberts: for a decade a giant Roberts, built for Britain’s tallest man, was the signpost to Covent Garden bikes; a bicycle for a one-handed rider had all the controls on one side; and an extraordinary hand and foot cranked Roberts recumbent went like the wind, as long as you didn’t get confused.

To see London’s longest surviving frame builder, visit 89 Gloucester Road, Croydon.


Tom Bogdanowicz is London Cycling Campaigns Senior Policy and Development Officer and regulary contributes to London Cyclist magazine.

This article first appeared in London Cyclist Oct/Nov 2012 magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.