Tom's London Classics: Claud Butler bicycles

Part of the ongoing 'Tom's London Classics' series, London Cycling Campaign's Tom Bogdanowicz on Claud Butler, which may have been 'Famous Around the World' but they hailed from Clapham.

Brands come and brands go but, it seems, Claud Butler goes on forever. Despite several changes of hands, and the odd bankruptcy, you can still find Claud Butler branded shops and Claud Butler bikes some 85 years after the name first adorned a bike frame. There is no sensible explanation other than the magic of the unusual name and the man who it belonged to.

Claud Butler, was a showman from the start — he even ran an annual dancehall ‘do’ with big band entertainment. He dubbed himself ‘King of the Lightweights’ and was not shy of putting ‘Famous Around The World’ on some of his seat-tube badge designs.

The cycle business was started in Battersea in 1928 and grew rapidly to include five shops across London and the ‘works’ in Clapham Manor Street — an area packed with Polish refugees back in the 1950s, but now a fully gentrified part of ‘Clarm.’ Claud built bikes that offered the latest in innovative features — ‘continental ends’, fancy lugs, and even (in 1939) the forerunner of the ladies ‘mixte’ frame with additional stays extending to the rear wheel to reduce frame flex.

The early Claud Butler catalogues are written in a style that shows a keen understanding of marketing: presenting his bikes as so laden with exclusive features that Apple and Samsung might be intimidated.

One of his early steps was to build fillet-brazed frames (a smooth finish instead of lugs at tube junctions) which permitted variable angles and saved money post-war when good lugs were in short supply. To offer customers the choice of a lugged appearance, Butler used bi-laminates (additional decorative metal pieces): among the most famous is the coveted axe-head design.

The growing business employed some legendary framebuilders such as Bill Hurlow (later at Condor), Charlie Roberts (his son Chas runs the present Roberts business), and Les Ephgrave (of the famous ‘lollipop’ seat cluster). The workshop built frames for the British Olympic team and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Olympic rings appeared on later Claud Butler badges. This use of the rings was established before they were later restricted by an Act of Parliament and it may explain one attraction of the brand to those who took it over.

Claud Butler’s fortunes waned as motoring boomed and he went bust in the late 1950s. Near neighbour Holdsworth bought the brand and added it to a stable which also included builders Freddie Grubb and MacLean. Claud himself re-emerged with a business in Clapham Junction but that didn’t last long and he died in 1978. Holdsworth did well out of the Claud Butler brand and it accounted for a large proportion of its production. But they too sold up in the 1980s and all their brands went to Falcon Cycles.

Holdsworth, along with Claud Butler and Falcon were in turn bought by the Tandem Group which traces its origins, via Falcon, to a former rival of Claud Butler, Fred Hopper. Although Tandem currently owns a dozen cycle brands, including Dawes and British Eagle, it has chosen to use Claud Butler as its flagship brand and you will find the bikes in many shops. They have yet to revive the famous axe-head lugs, but in the current retro boom you never know.

Photos by Stefano Savarino. Used with permission.

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

This article first appeared in London Cyclist June/ July 2013 magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.