In a world of mass produced and increasingly affordable items, Oscar Wilde once said that: “a cynic is a man that knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing”. So have we really moved on since the 19th century when Birmingham and Coventry had the highest concentration of bicycle and associated parts manufacturers in the world?
Bikes back then were all made of steel, brazed with lugs or in the case of early Dursley Pedersons, soldered with lead. Carbon fibre and aluminium have now replaced steel on the mass production lines and exotic sounding provinces of the Far East, have replaced Coventry and Birmingham. In the first half of the 20th century, there were millions of bikes made in the UK. Large companies such as Raleigh, Elswick, BSA, Rudge and Rover to name but a few made ones for everyday use.
Then there were ‘Lightweights’ made by smaller companies or one man artisans, each with their own style and and distinctive lugs or tubing features such as Bates, Hetchins and Freddie Grubb. Up until the 1980’s it was considered the done thing for a cyclist to buy from a small builder either a quality off-the-peg, a made-to-measure or a bespoke frame and then build up their own custom bicycle. The large companies just did not produce expensive top of the range bikes as discerning riders preferred the high quality, individuality offered by their local or nationally renowned lightweight specialist frame builder. Mass production bought quality value for money bikes to everyone, and the specialist builders supplied riders who not only wanted the best but wanted some input to the sizing, design, colour scheme and component build.
As the 1980’s moved into the 90’s and then the 21st century, cheap imports of aluminium and carbon frames displaced quality steel frames as the ‘must have’ item. Steel seemed heavy, expensive and undesirable in the face the exotic material. Most of the smaller builders, who were nearing retirement and younger builders like ourselves found it increasing difficult to continue and although diversifying into selling other brands to supplement frame building, gave up, moving into other areas of the bike trade or “closed up shop’ and had to take on “normal” jobs to make ends meet. Some continued to carry the torch and weathered the storm such as Condor, Roberts, Mercian and Witcomb.
Now, nearly everyone is under the influence of the big manufacturers and anyone who has the money can buy a carbon race rep for £3000+ and that will be exactly the same as someone else’s race rep from the same manufacturer, or in some cases very similar to another manufacturers! It may fit well, it may not. It may do what you want, and then maybe it doesn’t, because the sales person cut you a deal but didn’t really care what you wanted to do on it. It may look good for a year or two, and then be out style. Between its designer’s conception of it and it being ridden, that bicycle lost it’s soul. It became a costing and logistics exercise. Decisions were made by accountants and forecasters, not frame builders. It became a number on a spread sheet, a sales target and a box movement. People who had no interest much in cycling or your bike other than it was their job, made it on a production line and moved it around the world. This fine for a good quality everyday bike, as that is what mass production is about: well designed quality products made affordable.
But what if these bikes are not for you? Some people have to have an individual frame made just to get one that fits. The big manufactures don’t really caterer for short or tall riders or limit their choice to a bland mid-price point model. Others choose to have a frame made, because it’s different, unique, personal, something to be cherished and enjoyed, a frame to fit like a well made suit, dress or pair of handmade shoes. It can be made just as you would like it to look and perform and to reflect your personality.
Outside of jewellery, tailoring, shoes or prosthetic limbs there is nothing else that can be so intimate to your body or life as a bicycle or a lover. So why compromise? Why buy an expensive bike that has not been made for you with skill and care by someone that you have dealt with on a personal level. Someone who, understands how you want to ride and ensures at all the steps along the way from initial discussions to handing you the bike, that their work has been just for you. A bespoke frame and bicycle may not be as expensive as you think (from Less than £2500 for a bicycle) as you are not paying for faceless number cruncher’s along the way. Modern steel materials are on a par with titanium for weight. As the frame has been built to fit you and how you ride, it will feel alive unlike the dead neutral feel of the ‘couple of sizes fits all’ approach of mass produced frames.
Despite the number of times we hear “how much for a steel bike? I can get a carbon fibre one cheaper than that!”, we do believe that bicycles have moved on since the 19th century and peoples views’ are beginning to change slowly as they realise the true value of a hand-built bespoke frame is not just in its price, but the care, attention and skill that has gone into making it their own.