cycling utah May 1999
An inside look at the Holdsworth factory
By Greg Overton
The professional peloton of the 1970's and early eighties included some of the most glorious bicycles ever, and some of the most recognizable as well. Among them were the beautiful blue Gios bikes of the Brooklyns team, the white Peugeots, and of course, the celeste Bianchis we all love (don't we?). Some of the most beautiful bikes were the orange and blue Holdsworths ridden by their factory team.
Those Holdsworths are probably the most famous British racing cycles ever, and they are considered one of the most well made bikes of that era. For a peak at how these terrific bikes were built - and no doubt, some insight into other racing departments of the era - we thought it would be fun to talk with someone who was involved in the construction.
Simon Pipe worked for the Holdsworthy Company at #1 Oakfield Road, Anerly SE 20, London, as a brazer, painter, and finisher before moving across the Atlantic and settling in Utah. Workdays were 7am to 4pm with two 15 minute tea breaks and a 30 minute lunch, usually taken at one of the two pubs adjacent to the shop. Classic Corner asked him to describe the process of building those great bikes.
"The two top bikes for Holdsworth were called the Classic and the Professional, and would be built in batches," Pipe begins. "For professional racers needing custom or time trial bikes, there was the 'model shop' upstairs where they were built along with prototypes and one offs. But everyone else would choose from these two. The Classic was constructed of Reynolds 531 SL tubing with Campag vertical dropouts and a steeper geometry. The Professional was either 531 SL or Reynolds 753, based upon the rider's preference, with Campag road dropouts and more of a relaxed geometry. Both were Campagnolo Super Record equipped. Holdsworthy Company was the Campagnolo distributor for Britain, and a huge customer for Reynolds tubesets, and we would have huge stocks of components in the warehouse, as well as huge containers of tubesets.
Frame tubes would be brought into the workshop on carts from the warehouse, which occupied one half of the building. The sets would be divided into bulks of individual tubes. One bin containing seat tubes, another top tubes and so on. The tubes would all be hand-mitered based upon size and geometry of each particular frame.
After mitering, the tubes for the main triangle would be placed in a fixture, or jig, and the lugs positioned and aligned. All the joints were then drilled and pinned. (drilling and pinning is a method used by the best framebuilders in which a hole is drilled through the lug and into the tube, and a pin is inserted to prevent distortion of the joint under the heat of brazing.) These main assemblies were then placed on a carousel around which four brazers would be stationed.
Each brazer would do a particular area of the frame, and move the carousel to the next brazer for another joint to be brazed. This method was used for two reasons: consistency of the workmanship, and by moving the work along, doing the joints separately, the frame would not be rushed and weakened by overheating.
A separate brazer would build forks for all the frames. A second carousel would have someone brazing rear triangles and attaching them to the mains. This is where fittings like brake bridges, shift bosses, and cable guides would be added as well.
The next step would be filing and alignment checks. Each frame was hand filed at all the joints to remove excess material and to give the lugs a very crisp edge. After the frames were checked for proper alignment, they were blasted with glass beads as preparation for painting, and to remove any excess flux or file marks.
The frame and fork would then be placed together on a rack and moved to a bench where the fork's rake would be set. All forks were brazed with straight legs and bent over a mandrel to achieve proper rake for a given frame size. After this was complete, the frame was stamped with its serial number and sent along to the next step.
Framesets were given another full checkover and filing before the painting process. They were painted in primer, white undercoating, and the specified color coat in stove enamel. Between each of these steps, the frame was sent through a huge oven and the coating was baked for an hour at over 200 degrees. After cooling, the decals were applied, and a clear coat sprayed, then another trip into the oven.
In the next phase, all of the threads for the bottom bracket and fork would be chased, and the head tube and bottom bracket would be faced so that the surfaces of each would be parallel. The fork would be cut, and the headset and bottom bracket would be installed, then the frameset would be taken to the assembly carousel and placed upside down by sliding the seat tube over a pin fixed to the carousel.
Three assemblers would install components that were contained in rotating bins inside the circle of the carousel. These components were brought in from the warehouse in large cardboard boxes. Campagnolo Super Record derailleurs, brakes, cranks, Benotto bar tape, Cinelli bars and stems, etc just piled into these bins. If a part was missing a screw or was scratched, it was tossed into a container and taken away, eventually to be thrown out. I can't imagine how much Campag was just tossed. Or how much was confiscated by the employees from those trash bins. Employees could purchase parts from the discard bins, or risk not paying and getting caught. There was a security office at the building exit.
Finished bikes were given final inspection and adjustments. If any scratches or runs in the paintwork were found, the bike would be disassembled, stripped to the metal and refinished completely. There was no touch up work done. The customer got a beautifully built and finished bike."
Simon recalls seeing his first mountain bike at Holdsworthy in 1982. "It was something made in Taiwan. We had it in the model shop, and the guys from Reynolds tubing were there. They were cutting the thing apart to examine the construction and tubing. We all thought it was garbage, that customers wouldn't want such workmanship." It was the beginning of the end though. Shortly after, Holdsworth was purchased by Falcon bicycles, and then sold to a producer of mass market, inexpensive bikes and those beautiful hand made Holdsworths were gone.