Wheeler dealers riding high

Ellis Briggs: In the age of bicycles mass produced in Asia, some specialists are still in work. Frederic Manby reports on one of the oldest family firms

Once upon a time if you had a bit of money you would ride a horse to town. A bit more money and you could add a cart on the back. A hundred years ago the rest of us relied on the proverbial Shank’s pony – our own legs – or with luck a bicycle.

England – and much of Europe – was blessed with bicycle makers. Some of them, including Peugeot, Rover and Skoda, became car makers.

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Among the pioneers was Fred Hopper, of Barton on Humber, Lincolnshire. In 1860 he was repairing cycles, quickly moving to manufacturing them and by 1906 employing 400 people. He exported to Australia, India, Japan and South Africa and claimed to have the world’s largest cycle factory, capable of 100,000 bikes a year. In 1913 it became Elswick Hopper – a brand familiar to Britain’s 1960s baby boomers until it faded away in the 1980s as part of the Falcon cycle conglomerate, not far away in Brigg.

While many brands are still on sale – Claud Butler (my first “racing bike”) and Raleigh among them, the vast majority are made in countries like Taiwan and China, and stickered up for the UK market. Raleigh was the last major casualty, closing its Nottingham factory in 2002 after glory days, sending post-war heroes like Reg Harris to race victories. Others, like BSA, Triumph, Hercules, have been resuscitated under licence in places like India. Phillips, once number two in Britain after Raleigh (and my reward for passing the 11-plus exam), motto “Renowned the World Over” is made in China now.

And yet the UK bicycle business is buoyant. Brompton makes some 28,000 folding small-wheel bikes a year. There are the nattily suspended Moulton small-wheeler and its antithesis, the big hunky Pashley, from Shakespeare country. Pashley was founded in 1926 and may even be the longest surviving UK bike maker. It was almost a national scandal when it was passed over for the London hire bike contract in favour of a Canadian firm.

Falcon is still in Brigg and knocks out as many as 300,000 bikes a year with names like Claud Butler, Falcon, Boss and Elswick but none is made here. Production comes from Taiwan, Turkey, Bangladesh and the Philippines. That’s the way the mass market has gone.

The British bike shop, though not the industry, was saved by the mountain bike craze, starting in the late 1980s and getting a-wheel proper in the 1990s. Suddenly, aluminium was the thing and soon we were wobbling along on fat-tubed bikes with a US or UK brand sticker but more than likely made in the same factories in Taiwan. Still, the wholesalers and retailers were laughing again. Foreign firms could knock out “mountain bikes” at a pace – and at a price which in real terms continues to drop. For no more than £350, you can buy a soft-riding all terrain bike which won’t skid from under you on the daily commute and will handle safely on the country lane.

So, while everyone had to be seen on a fat-tyred wilderness chomping velo tout terrain (that’s foreign for mountain bike) the traditional road bike builder was taking a hit.

Odd, then, that a retro fad among city commuters for lean ’n’ skinny fast steel bikes has helped to rescue the specialists. Before that, at the end of the 1990s, it was all about aluminium. “When steel went out of fashion we had to think about packing up our frame building. We couldn’t see much of a future,” says Jack Briggs, scion of one of the longest established, maybe the longest, firms still making bespoke frames. Most of today’s specialist bike makers – a dwindling elite group which includes Woodrup in Leeds and Whitaker & Mapplebeck in Bradford, were started around 1946 as men were being de-mobbed and the nation needed bikes to ride to work, while ex-servicemen returned to racing and needed light sports bikes. Mercian in Derby was another 1946 start-up, and in the 1960s a Mercian Olympic was my second and still badly missed “racing” bike, sold when I bought a car. The firm is still going strong today.

Ellis Briggs flourishes in a canalside and rather unlovely 1960s building in Shipley. Pleasure craft and dog walkers are on one side. On the other, a busy traffic intersection which has been built since Jack and younger brother Paul Briggs took on the council lease – having been lured out of their original premises. As locations go, it is off piste, but like all these shrines, the faithful find them. The majority of the business is in selling bought-in bikes and equipment, with a niche market for their hand-built race and touring bikes.

Grandfather Thomas Briggs, started the business in 1936 with his brother-in-law Leonard Ellis. Hence the bikes were called Ellis-Briggs. The hyphen was later dropped (just like Land-Rover lost its hyphen) and after a litigious parting of the ways the Briggs family retained the Shipley business and the Ellis family had the J T Rogers subsidiary in Castleford.

In the 1950s, a new bike cost a large part of the weekly wage but post-war prosperity was giving us more spending power. Jack Briggs: “You probably rode a bike because you could not afford a car.” In 1957, the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was telling us that “most of our people have never had it so good”. Families wanted a car and, says Jack Briggs, cycle sales went “down and down”.

In the 1960s, there was a demand for a bike with a more vital name than Ellis-Briggs. Customers found the name lacking a dynamic image to suit the swinging Sixties, la dolce vita, mini skirts and, indeed, the Mini, Beatles and, well, vitality. Ellis-Briggs (still hyphenated) introduced the Favori to do battle with the inrush of exotic continental brands. The Favori did just that for more than 40 years, made not in Milano but Shipley on Aire. What may be one of the last Favori frames hangs for sale – a sign of times changing yet again.

Jack runs the shop while Paul is upstairs in the workshop, reigned over by their frame-builder Andrew Puodziunas, who was trained by Jack Briggs senior 40 years ago. It takes some 40 hours for Andrew to select the steel tubes – the renowned UK brand Reynolds – and cut and joint them into a frame. “A man of very few words, but he has an eye for detail and a level of perfectionism not matched by many,” says the firm’s website. Well, true, he declined to be either interviewed or photographed but owners trill happily at his finished product. Output is 20 a year, so these bikes are rarities.

The workshop is far from neat. There are tools, bits of bikey things, detritus and cast-offs covering every surface. There is a big power drill, a clamp where the frame is held during brazing. In one corner is the old brick hearth where the joints would be heated and brazed. “That was before my time,” says Paul Gibson, who handles sales and IT and technical stuff. He rides his white Ellis Briggs to work daily along the Aire Valley. Of the two brothers, it was Paul Briggs who raced the best, riding with the sponsored Ellis Briggs RT squad.

Noted riders included Brian Robinson and Beryl Burton, Peter Procter, Bernard Burns, Doug Petty, Danny Horton (who also worked in the shop, and died in October), Arthur Metcalfe and the much missed young racer Dave Rayner. There’s a plaque in his memory on a seat near the “cyclists’ cafe” higher up the Aire in Gargrave and every November a memorial dinner is held in Bradford, with a fund sponsoring young riders racing abroad.

Ellis-Briggs zipped into the world spotlight when the local rider, Ken Russell, (still living in Bradford today) won the 1952 Tour of Britain.

The 22-year-old bike salesman rode solo against international, works and amateur teams, finishing the 14-day race at an average of more than 24mph including sections where they had to ride slowly – a phenomenal rate for the time. The distance was 1,470 miles, from Hastings to Cardiff to Carlisle to Dundee to Scarborough and then south.

There was a tremendous following for this annual race, with crowds lining the streets to watch the riders.

Russell’s lone assault was straight from a boy’s adventure story – with a heroic gesture on the final day from one of his rivals.

On this last stage, which ended at London’s Alexandra Palace, the cranks were coming loose on Russell’s Ellis-Briggs and a tyre was losing air. With 30 miles left, the leading Belgian Team rider Marcel Michaux – who had hoped to win the stage – selflessly swapped bikes with Russell, who then had to nurse the borrowed bike because it had a cracked fork. Near the end he risked a final sprint and almost won the stage. His winning margin after more than 61 hours of racing was three minutes. (Newsreel of the race www.britishpathe.com). Today, these classic bikes of the post-war years are highly prized and modern, lean single speed road bikes are in vogue in flat cities like London but there is not much call for single-geared bikes in the hills.

What many want are capable touring bikes with room for mudguards and bag racks. Prices for a bespoke Ellis Briggs Randonneur bike start at £1,250. Expect it to take 10 working weeks. The shop has made more than 6,500 frames in 75 years. They are light, rather than very light: Riders like them for the forgiving ride of a steel frame. Aluminium road bikes can be ultra light but are stiff and harsh for a nice day’s ride. The 6,537th EB bike was awaiting its new owner in Ipswich.

Owner of number 6536 is Michael Byrne, who treated himself to a retirement present. He came to England from his native Virginia in the early 1970s to work as a teacher and bought a bike to get to school. It was a second-hand Carlton (built in Worksop until 1981), with the de rigueur Reynolds 531 tubes, and he had it resprayed by Ellis Briggs and joined the Cyclists Touring Club. Twenty years ago the blue Carlton was joined by a faster , yellow Raleigh Triathlon, also bought at Ellis Briggs.

In 2005, Michael retired from Yorkshire Martyrs, Bradford, where he taught RE. Until it closed this summer he worked at the Skipton outfitters David Goldie. He bought his Ellis Briggs in September and chose the colour Flam Read, as in flamboyant. For several years he has enjoyed day rides with David Goldie, has completed the Great Yorkshire Bike Ride from Wetherby to Filey, and in September did the 48 mile King of the Pennines tour.

When we spoke the new bike had been used on a couple of rides in the Gisburn and Otley area. It has pukka Reynolds 631 tubes and smart components, including integrated brake and gear levers. “It rides very well,” reports the delighted owner, “though it took me a while to get used to the gear change – my hand kept going to the down tube.” That’s progress for you.