- By LCC on at 9:29pm 17 August 2015
- Posted in: News and blogs
- Tagged with: evans, lcc, Condor, Claud Butler, Roberts Cycles, Charles Davey, Holdsworth, Holdsworthy, Freddie Grubb, Varohna, Winston Vaz, Rocky Mountain, Geoff Butler, Phoenix
This article is reproduced, (with minor changes), from The Boneshaker magazine (August 2015 issue) - the journal of the Veteran Cycle Club. Archive copies of this, and other articles on cycling history are available to VCC members at the Club library website.
Note: Owners of early Roberts frames are invited to help compile an index by sending: year of manufacture, frame number, and place purchased to firstname.lastname@example.org with Roberts in the subject line.
In post-war years London was awash with bicycles. More than 600,000 people traveled daily to work by bike in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, there was a buoyant cycle building business in the capital with several bike makers and bike shops per borough. As motoring picked up, however, it drove cyclists off streets that were redesigned for high speed car travel. The city’s many bike makers left town, sold out, went bust or moved on to other things. One lone frame-building outpost of the post-war days survived1 and remained almost unchanged until 2015. Roberts Cycles is not only remarkable for producing cycles that have won both races and awards but for sustaining a family bicycle and frame making business that had its beginnings in the thirties and flourished in the same part of town where it was born until its owner decided on a well-earned sabbatical2.
The founder of the Roberts Cycles business was Charlie Roberts. Like many of his contemporaries in the cycle trade (including Freddie Grubb and Charlie Davey) he was also a competitive racing cyclist. His speciality was time trials and, according to the records of Addiscombe Cycling Club3, 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. Davey, a successful cyclist in the 1920s4 , owned a shop in Addiscombe Road (Davey Cycles) and also, being a cycling club mate of Freddie Grubb5, helped finance the Allin and Grubb business (both well-known South London bike brands) in 1919. By the time Charlie Roberts would have worked for Davey, in the 1930’s, Freddie Grubb had set up a separate business and moved away from Croydon, but, pre WWII, Allin’s was selling cycles under the Davey brand name (Classic Lightweights shows an example of ‘The Davey’ head badge with Allin’s address at 132 Whitehorse Road, Croydon). Cycling historian, Mick Butler, records that in 1922 Allin’s, were advertising a Davey Cycles quick release whose design Archibald Allin apparently attributed to Davey himself, despite a rival claim from Freddie Grubb. Norman Cox, the brother in law of Charlie Roberts, and fellow Addiscombe rider, recalls that there was a workshop behind the Davey bike shop where a builder called Ray Cook, another Addiscombe rider, may have schooled Charlie Roberts in frame construction (a Ray Cook is recorded by Norman Kilgariff, Holdsworth historian, as building the first aluminium Holdsworth in 1947).
According to his older son Chas, other builders that Charlie worked for included Claud Butler (originally based in Wandsworth (Herndon Street, SW18) and later in Clapham (Clapham Manor St, SW4)), Holdsworth (Lower Richmond Road , Putney and other locations)6 and Freddie Grubb. Photographs show Charlie Roberts racing on a Claud Butler in the 1940s. On the Holdsworth history website Norman Kilgariff records that Charlie Roberts returned to Holdsworthy (the Richmond shop, (W.F.) Holdsworth, and the wholesale business, Holdsworthy, had become separate ) in 1946 after the war, which indicates that he was working for them at some point before the war started. Chas remembers that his father worked on tandems (his father describing the challenge of bending seat tubes to create a shorter wheelbase) for the British Olympic team while working for Claud Butler.
The Butler company advertised the fact that it made cycles and tandems for Olympic use in 1932, which would have been too early for Charlie to be involved, though Claud Butler may also have built frames for the 1936 or later Games. Among other builders who worked for CB and may have encountered a young Charlie Roberts were Les Ephgrave, Fred Dean, Bill Hurlow, George Stratton, Pat Skeates and Bill Philbrook – most of whom subsequently set up workshops of their own. Chas recalls that his father was friendly with Bill Philbrook and there are evident similarities in the clean, pure lines and meticulous filing of some of their frames.
During the war Charlie joined the Air Force as a mechanic (photo left) . Initially he serviced Lancaster bombers but high casualty levels among flight staff saw the unit disbanded and he was then assigned to Burma, where he again worked on servicing aircraft. Post war he returned to frame building, primarily for Holdsworthy, where he became foreman and later works manager. Norman Kilgariff records that there was repeated to-ing and fro-ing at what was now Holdsworthy. Thus in the late forties/early fifties Charlie left Holdsworthy to briefly join Freddie Grubb’s together with ex-Holdsworth director Ivor Cox and fellow employee Bill Rann. He returned to Holdsworthy where he held the status of foreman in 1956, according to another employee, Reg Collard7. Collard says Charlie Roberts left again in 1957, along with Collard himself, and other staff members. Charlie clearly returned again because he was employed as works manager at Holdsworthy in the early 1960s.
Roberts Cycles, 21 Trewsbury Road, Sydenham
It was then, in the early sixties, that 14 year old Chas Roberts entered the bike trade helping his father braze bike racks at home in the cellar to supplement the family income. He also took steps in the direction of track racing and received lessons from respected rider Keith Butler (son of Stan Butler who bought Allin’s Cycles) but did not pursue the sport.
Trewsbury Road, Sydenham
Charlie, according to Chas, got tired of office politics at Holdsworthy and left abruptly in 1963 or 1964 to set up his own business. Initially all the work took place in the cellar of the home the 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 and has since appeared in similar formats in the logo of the Classic Rendezvous bike website and, more recently, Charles Kennedy cycles. As Chas notes – there aren’t many ways of linking a C with an R. 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 (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. Chas recalls that lugs in the 1950s and 1960s were of a poor quality and invariably had to be extensively filed and cleaned before they would be used on a Roberts frame. Prugnat and Nervex lugs were an improvement on earlier designs when they became available, but they too required filing. Chas, and his younger brother Geoff (eight years younger than Chas and a keen racing cyclist) who had also been brought into the business at an early age, 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
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 Holdsworth. After several years at the Roberts workshop, Bailey subsequently moved to Vancouver where he initially worked for Roland Hill and then joined the newly formed Rocky Mountain Bikes, as remembered by a young Paul Brodie of Brodie bikes8. (When encountered at Rocky Mountain in the 1980s Bailey said he had fond memories of working at Roberts – and insisted a photo be taken of his battered bike to show to Chas as an indication of Bailey’s, jokingly, hard circumstances). 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. The plan was 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 ‘pencil’ seat stays was the use of chunkier section seat stays, a style later followed by many builders in the 70s. This came about when Ron Webb, a six day track rider, introduced Charlie to Australia’s top riders who wanted stiffer frames for better power transmission. Charlie utilised parallel rather than tapered stays for the Australian team’s six-day frames and the ‘beefy’ stay became common on Roberts frames, notably track and touring cycles. Another unusual Roberts design was the curved split seat tube designed to accommodate a very short wheelbase for time trial bikes. The time trial cycle illustrated on the Classic Rendezvous website was exhibited at the New York International Bike Show in 19769. The link with the US was a consequence of a connection with a US importer based in Maine called, fittingly, Cycle Imports of Cornish, Maine run by Bob and Judy Richmond. Chas Roberts travelled to New York for one of the exhibitions.
VCC member George Bolton describes one of the most unusual designs of the period: a children’s Penny Farthing, built with a 27” front wheel and a rear wheel from a pram – at least two Roberts built Penny Farthings have survived.
The Roberts business prospered at Phoenix, moving to a larger workshop at the same premises, but in 1976 John Pratt sold the business and Charlie Roberts, his sons and Derek Bailey moved from Forest Hill to new premises in nearby Penge.
87 Penge Road, Anerley
Work continued at Penge where Roberts had their own shop front as well as a workshop at the back. The new address, 87 Penge Road, Anerley, was put around the head crest. Sadly, 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 Holdsworth, and later by Neil Brice, another Holdsworth graduate. Bailey, as described above, 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 frame10. 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. Burton went on to run De Ver cycles in Streatham and is father of Germain Burton who rides for the De Ver team and has recently raced for the UK pursuit team. Another well-known client was time trialist Eddie Adkins whose regular builder, and sponsor, was unwell at the time when he needed a new frame.
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 and is still involved in cycling, encouraging young people to take up the pursuit. 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.
With the expansion of the premises there was an opportunity to install a paint shop and Eric Cam joined the team enabling Roberts to control all aspects of construction and finish in-house. The quality of frames improved with the increased availability of new tubing from Columbus (imported by Saba to the UK) and the introduction of new ranges from Reynolds: 537, 531SL, 531C and others. This 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.
The successful era in Penge was brought to a halt not by a lack of business but because the council decided they wanted the area to be more residential – a sharp contrast to 21st century London, when councils are trying to restrict the removal of shops and workshops as the boom in residential development creates neighbourhoods without either. The outcome in 1983, however, was yet another change of address. Chas and his team, which now included Winston Vaz , yet another recruit from Holdsworth (where Winston had worked for 9 years) , transferred the works to 89 Gloucester Road, Croydon – a location off the beaten track, and initially without a shop front.
Croydon, 89 Gloucester Road and Cycle Art Bromley
The move in 1983 to Gloucester Road, Croydon (two streets away from where Charlie Roberts embarked on his career) has proved to be the most stable in the Roberts history, location-wise and, to a large extent, staff-wise. From the Penge team Derek Bailey left for Canada, and Neil Brice moved elsewhere, but both Winston Vaz and Phil Maynard stayed in Chas’ team, the latter establishing a reputation for constructing beautiful fillet brazed tandems. Geoff Roberts left to set up his own frame building business near Brands Hatch before working with other builders, including Ron Cooper and, more recently, running frame building courses.
Eric Cam remained as the paint sprayer and ushered in the fashion for complex fade paintjobs that persisted through the 80s and into the 90s. Perhaps the best known Roberts colour schemes of the early Croydon period were the blue/metallic pink fades used on time trial machines and road bikes, and the black, red, yellow, white fade that graced many of the newly popular mountain bikes. Because the workshop at Gloucester Road originally had no showroom, Chas decided to take 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. Regrettably a break-in at the Bromley shop resulted in the loss of records, kept in a Campagnolo brake box, so the exact details of production up to that period will never be known.
Staff changes at Gloucester Road were not great. Phil Maynard eventually left and was replaced by Adrian Parry who, within the trade, developed a reputation as a builder of considerable talent with the ability to build anything from trikes and tandems to low profiles and unusual mountain bikes. Chris Shaw joined the team during the mountain bike boom but was sadly killed in a collision. Adam Horton worked as a mechanic and at the front of shop before being replaced by Andrew Colvin in the showroom and Brian Phillips, an experienced mechanic who had previously worked at Cycle Systems, a Harrow cycle shop that offered customised Roberts frames, and Beta Bikes in West Hampstead.
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 above all else. Roberts, who had never really built anything else but custom made steel frames, were in the spotlight again and, along with Witcomb, one of the two remaining custom builders in London. Roberts also had an enviable track record of building specialised fixed wheel bikes, a particular favourite in the retro cycle revival. This boosted orders for track frames in particular, but road and touring frames also benefited. The versatility of the Roberts team was evident at the Bespoked custom bike shows in Bristol and London, where they exhibited an unusually wide range of frames for customers, not to mention other builders, to admire. Among them were frames made using the new and significantly lighter stainless steel tubing, like Columbus XCr and Reynolds 953, and atypical designs like the Fleur-de-Lys lugged step-through frame based on 1950s French styling.
Some modern day peer recognition of Roberts is evident in Made in England, co-written by Matthew Souter and Ricky Feather, two of the most lauded of the new generation of frame builders12. This book features interviews with UK builders, with several of the younger generation citing Roberts, as well as the late Ron Cooper, as an influence. Chas Roberts himself cites Bill Philbrook and Ron Cooper as builders he respects but he also admires the contemporary younger builders like Mark Reilly of Nerve.
Roberts were probably the first British frame builder to construct a US-style mountain bike in the early eighties13. Like many boys brought up in 1960s South London, Chas Roberts rode a UK style track/trail bike off-road as a young teenager so he would have had an inbuilt understanding of the sport before it arrived from the US. Indeed Chas’ off-road track bike was the first cycle he ever assembled (at the precocious age of 13). It was based on a Phillips frame re-sprayed light blue and fitted with knobbly tyres, cow horn bars and a sloping top tube – the only missing MTB ingredient was the gear mech. as used by US pioneers Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher (UK off-road ‘track’ bikes were single speed). At Roberts the 1980s MTB initiative came from Jake Heilbron14, the manager of West Point Cycles in Vancouver and co- founder of Canada’s Rocky Mountain Bikes (where Derek Bailey of Roberts Cycles turned up), and Kona cycles. 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. Chas recalls the challenge of setting up for wheels of a different dimension:– 26″ US cruiser wheels and tyres, as used on the converted Schwinns that served as the pre-mountainbike ‘clunkers’ in the mid-1970s. To deliver a lighter frame than then in use in California, Roberts opted for tandem tubing to ensure durability in off-road use. The frames were well received across the pond and Roberts made several for the US and Canadian markets.
Photo right : Early Roberts mountain bike at the 1984 Wendover Bash (Graham Wallace)
Initially mountain bikes were treated with curiosity or contempt by UK road cyclists but off-road cycling gradually took off, in part because, both in the US and UK, on-road cycling had been made less attractive by ever higher car use and the re-design of many roads purely for fast motoring. Roberts were well placed to satisfy the new market at a time when high quality mountain bikes were limited in supply. At the upper end of the nascent market only graphic artist Geoff Apps was offering Cleland cross-country bikes – in very small numbers, and both Covent Garden Bikes and Greg Oxenham at Bike UK were importing a few of the original Ritchey Mountain Bikes. The initial problem for Roberts was that while they could build mountain bike frames using existing tubing types, there was a shortage of componentry. They resorted to buying low cost mountain bikes, such as Muddy Foxes, to strip for parts. Sources of components, notably those from Suntour and Shimano, gradually came on stream and 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. One of the first sloping top tube frames from Roberts, purchased in the mid-80s, also included the recently introduced brass head badge (since succeeded by the stainless version). Another Roberts innovation for off-road machines was the decoratively filleted seat tube sleeve – critical on early machines when suspension was not available and seat post adjustments were frequent. The sleeve, usually with a spear point finish, often distinguishes a Roberts-built frame, even when they were built for the trade. In the 1980s Roberts built mountain bikes for Evans Cycles and others. Recently sold in East London was a Roberts-built Evans with not only a sleeved seattube but also the characteristic beefy seat stays with an engraved R – the colour, bright metallic pink, was also a characteristic choice at Roberts in the 80s and 90s.
As with road bikes, word spread of the Roberts mountain bike expertise and UK and world champions came knocking at the door to be 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 frames can be identified as coming from the Roberts workshop by the unusual circular cut out on the seat tube reinforcing sleeve – the cut out first featured on the rare Cobra model and was a reference to 60s and 70s Roberts frames with drilled lugs.
The development of mountain biking meant that the original Roberts ‘mountain bike’ blossomed into a whole range of off-road bikes to suit different uses and meet different price points. Their first mountain bike catalogue featured the top of the range White Spider (named after the north face of the Eiger), the mid-range Black Leopard, the off-road tourer, the Rough Stuff (a nod towards the UK precursor of mountain biking, the Rough Stuff Fellowship); and the Trans-continental, a long range tourer (whose name might have been the Inter-continental but for the clash with hotel and missile names). Short-lived off-road models included the Cobra, which included unique wide cow-horn bars (based on tandem bars but reversed and sawn-off) and was made with the UK’s first set of Tange Prestige tubing (imported by Muddy Fox); the Stratos(11 built) which had chain stays meeting the centre of the seat tube and an additional tube routed from the downtube to the bottom bracket15, the Phantom, built with the first UK set of Columbus Nivacrom OR; and the all-white ‘gentleman’s bicycle’, as it was dubbed in an MBUK review, which combined light road tubing with 26″ wheels and 7-speed gearing to create a sub-20lb hybrid machine. 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 one illustrated on http://www.pistonheads.com/gassing/topic.asp?t=1163713 appears to have a DOGSBOLX mono-stay (see below) and may be a later version.
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 – concocted by mechanic Adam Horton who was a self-acknowledged weight weenie and Viz magazine fan, in which the word featured prominently16). Adam pushed the team to innovate and cut out excess weight. This led to the distinctive mono-stay on the DOGSBOLX which all but eliminated seat-stay flex due to braking pressure. Adam also persuaded the frame builders to trim every tube end internally to save the last possible gram. Such was the publicity and acclaim for the DOGSBOLX that other builders paid indirect tribute by introducing the Cat’s Meow and the Donkey’s Knob. Most DOGSBOLX frames were fitted with front suspension forks as soon as those became available. A variant on the DB was the Psyclo which used cow horn bars, Shimano road racing brake/gear levers and a lightweight suspension fork.
While Roberts mountain bikes were originally built with Reynolds 531 tandem tubing this changed to Reynolds 531 off-road tubing when this became available, as well as its contemporary: Columbus OR. As with Roberts road bikes, Chas would frequently combine Reynolds and Columbus tubes. On the DOGBSBOLX and Psyclo frames a Reynolds 853 main frame was combined with wide section Columbus Nivacrom chain stays to provide resistance to flex.
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
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 Josie Dew chose to ride a Roberts, giving the brand an unexpected boost.
It became customary for Roberts owners, including Josie, to send Chas a photograph of themselves and their bicycles in faraway lands – more than a hundred photos were on display by the time the showroom closed. One included a unique, low profile Aston Martin bicycle 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 England17Chas 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 . Weight weenies pushed Roberts to offer steel main tubes with carbon forks and stays – in some cases matched with couplings so that a 12lb bikes 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 Trans-continental 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 1990’s 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.
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. These frames would have been fitted with decals giving the Trewsbury Road home address. On the Classic Rendezvous website frames with the Trewsbury Road address are stated as having numbers ranging from 130 to 2100, which suggests that at least 2000 frames were built using the first numbering system. Given that some frames were built for the trade and may have had different numbers it is hard to estimate total production. Chas Roberts recalls that 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. This makes it easier to date frames in this period, however, as so often with frame builders, there were some exceptions to the system – Classic Rendezvous shows a frame from the Penge period (Cinelli top eyes and Nervex lugs) with the number 572, and a 753 frame with similar transfers (world champion stripes on head badge) numbered 88222. While the latter appears to be consistent with the Roberts numbering pattern, the former is either a deviation from the system or a repair of an older Roberts frame. The more modern, post 1979, system appears to have switched from a four, five and six figure system to a more consistent six figure one, by adding zeros, with the first frame built in 2001, for example, having the number 010101. Chas notes that the numbering system sometimes varied when frames were earmarked for the trade or for spraying outside the Roberts premises18.
One of the most prolific and skilled custom frame builders in the UK, Winston Vaz was a mainstay of the Roberts Cycles workshop until shortly before it closed in 2015. He also worked for Holdsworthy and has built frames for other respected brands. In recent books featuring Roberts Cycles (“Made in England,” The Elite Bicycle”) it’s often Winston in the photographs wielding the torch or checking trueness.
If you own a Roberts mountain bike or touring bike built since the late eighties chances are that it was built by Winston Vaz. A sure sign of a Winston frame is the ‘scalloped’ seat tube sleeve – instead of filing the sleeve to a point at the front (itself a Roberts characteristic) and point at the rear Winston cut a scallop at the rear leaving two short points on either side of the tube as well as the longer point at the front (see photo.)
Winston’s experience and skill comes from several decades (his youthful looks are deceiving) of bike building. Brought up in south London he left school at 16 and followed his brother Mario Vaz into the cycle trade at Holdsworth, then the major cycle maker in the area. Based at Anerley, the Holdsworthy company (for historical reasons the Anerley company was called Holdsworthy but the bikes were called Holdsworth after the founder – see N Kilgariff website) had absorbed several well-known London brands including Claud Butler (south London), Freddie Grubb (also south London) and Maclean (north London) along with some of their frame builders. Charlie Roberts, founder of Roberts Cycles, had been a frame builder and then works manager at Holdsworth though he had gone independent well before Winston joined Holdsworthy.
Frames at the Mario Vaz sprayshop
Winston’s brother, Mario, worked as a foreman in the Holdsworthy spray shop, and occasionally painted frames for Charlie Roberts on weekends. Winston, however, chose to work in the frame building team at Holdsworths. In his first years he worked on tasks such as filing before moving on to brazing bridges and then single lugs. He recalls that Holdsworthy used ‘carousels’ on which frames were mounted and which rotated with pre-heated sections, as a group of four builders brazed the same lug or bottom bracket on each frame in turn. Winston says the constant repetition of the process taught him how to braze each element of the frame quickly and efficiently. It was typical to braze 40 bottom brackets in a day. The work shop produced some 80 frames per day. He recollects that he worked on a range of Holdsworth models including the longstanding Mistral.
When Winston began working at Holdsworthy the works manager was Dick Smith and the master frame builder in the ‘model shop,’ where custom frames were built, was Dave Clarke. Clarke, who had previously worked under Bill Hurlow (a frame builder well known for his innovative lug designs at Claud Butler and Condor), later succeeded Smith as works manager. Another employee, along with Clarke, in the model shop was Phil Maynard, who joined Roberts Cycles in the eighties (see main Roberts history).
Winston stayed at Holdsworths for some nine years until the firm was sold in the mid-1980s to Marlboro then Falcon. His move to Roberts, then located in Penge, was encouraged by an older Holdsworth employee, Dorothy, who used to attach decals for Holdsworth as well as for Charlie Roberts after he went independent.
Winston’s first task at Roberts was to braze a large batch of trade road frames for George Stratton – a popular shop in Wandsworth. Despite this particular order Roberts were producing fewer and fewer frames for the trade and becoming pioneers in a new field: off-road bikes. Although Winston was adept at road frame brazing, he arrived at Roberts just when mountain bikes were taking off in the UK and it was this range of models that he came to specialise in for almost three decades. To cater for sloping top tubes, unusual angles and smaller (26”) wheels Roberts mountain bikes were invariably fillet brazed. Winston mastered the skills required and became the builder of choice for the top of the range White Spider model as well as the Black Leopard and the first off-road touring bike: the Rough Stuff.
One of the last frames Winston built for a Roberts – a Rough Stuff touring frame with S&S stainless couplings won the Bespoke Show award for best touring bike in 2012. The award winning Peugeot (White Spider) frame built by Roberts for Tim Gould was likely a Winston production though the Roberts brand had to remain anonymous – the secret Roberts mark on it was a round cut out in the seat tube sleeve.
Roberts had built the first mountain bike in the UK (see Roberts history above) and a relatively high volume of orders meant regular customer feedback. In the early days of mountain biking, before off-road riding skills were honed, seat height adjustment during a ride was common (there were even devices to enable you to adjust your seat on the move). Roberts therefore used an additional sleeve to strengthen the seat tube at the adjustment point. Rather than leave the sleeve end round Roberts chose to create a decorative spear-point at the front and rear. Taking advantage of the opportunity to personalize his work Winston added a flourish to the seat sleeve by scalloping the rear of the sleeve leaving a smaller point on either side (see photo). If your Roberts (or Roberts-built Evans, or Pearson, or Condor) has a scalloped seat tube sleeve Winston Vaz will have been the builder.
Another distinguishing mark of Winston Vaz frames, as compared with the work of other builders, were the smaller fillets following the style then popular in Canada.
A rare, though unsuccessful model, built by Winston was the Roberts Stratos which looked striking but was weak in the centre and models came back for repair.
Perhaps the most successful and distinctive frame built by Winston was the DOGSBOLX mountain bike which had a fillet brazed mono-stay and tubes filed on the inside as well as outside to reduce weight. The frame continued in production until the closure of the Croydon workshop.
Division of labour
Winston recalls that in his early days at Roberts, when there were six or more staff in the workshop, there was some division of labour with Winston and Phil (Maynard) focused on brazing while Geoff (Roberts) and Chas (when not dealing with customers and financial issues) would do more of the finishing. When the team reduced in number and only Winston and Adrian were brazing frames (1990s onwards) they became responsible for completing all the work on a single frame including all the filing and finishing work.
Given that virtually all Roberts frames in the 1990s and 21st C were custom builds Winston recalls a lot of variation. He built DOGSBOLX frames with S&S couplings, the occasional trike and some frames in extreme sizes. Tubing used at Roberts was usually selected by Chas and often mixed tube sets: the DOGSBOLX, for example, was commonly built with a main triangle of Reynolds 853 and the vertically wide Columbus Nivacrom chainstays.
While Winston was still working for Roberts he carried out occasional repair work for his brother Mario who had established himself as major frame sprayer and restorer in South London. It gave him the opportunity to see the work of other builders from the inside. Winston says close examination of older frames shows how much care and detailed workmanship went into some of them. He particularly likes the work of Ron Cooper and Bill Hurlow.
Two years before the Roberts workshop closed down in 2015 Winston decided to join his brother full time at his workshop in Hither Green and create his own brand. He chose the name Varohna combining the two surnames of his Goan parents: Vaz and Narohna. He considered just using Narohna but that coincides with the name of the current MD of Reynolds tubing and might have been considered confusing.
At Hither Green the workshop has less space than the Gloucester Road operation of Roberts but Winston still has his tools, jigs and the customary rows of frames hanging in the rafters awaiting collection or repair. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Winston still built frames for Roberts when they were trying to cope with extra demand ahead of closure. He has also done trade work for other award winning frame builders and followed the Roberts tradition of exhibiting at the Bespoke custom bike show.
Recent Varohna frames include fancy lugged (fleur de lis, original Nervex pro and custom lugs) road bikes, frames made with Reynolds 953 stainless tubing and a hard tail mountain bike with large stainless dropouts. The website has recently been fully updated and includes a gallery of completed work.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks for information and photographs to Chas and Geoff Roberts, John and Chris Watts, Keith Butler, Bryan Clarke, Neil Carlson, Brian Phillips, Adrian Parry, Winston Vaz, Graham Wallace and Norman Cox. Thanks to VCC members George Bolton, John Foster, Chris Hutchinson for corrections and additions to the web version of the article.
1 Witcomb Cycles (the family was in the trade from the 1920s) closed in 2009. Condor cycles still has a flourishing London shop but its frames have been built outside of London for many years.
2 Chas Roberts announced in April 2015 that the business would close following a sale of display stock. The official press release stated that Chas would be taking a sabbatical of unspecified duration. Sale of frame building equipment commenced in May 2015.
3 John and Chris Watts – personal communication 2015.
4 Wikipedia, Charles Davey http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Davey_%28cyclist%29.
5 Wikipedia, Freddie Grubb http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freddie_Grubb.
6 N Kilgariff, Holdsworth website http://www.nkilgariff.com.
13 The first UK-style mountain bike is generally acknowledged to be the Geoff Cleland Apps cross-country bike of 1979 built by Dees of Amersham according to Graham Wallace. It differed from the US version in its use of 650 size wheels and Finnish Hakka tyres. https://clelandcycles.wordpress.com/history/
16 The Elite Bicycle, Gerard Brown and Graeme Fife p.61
17 Made in England, Matthew Souter, Ricky Feather and Kayti Peschke, p130.
18 After spray painter Eric Cam retired Roberts eventually sold its spray shop equipment to Colortech and then outsourced their spray painting to them. Colortech remain in business.