After going over an early version of the A.S. Gillott history contained elsewhere on this website, Ron Cooper and I sat down for a conversation during a trip to Northern California in 2004. I had met Ron during other visits to the U.S., while I worked at A Bicycle Odyssey, but this was one of the first real chances I had to sit down with him for a long conversation. Ron continued to build frames up until his death in late 2012.
We’ve established that the history of A.S. Gillott is fairly accurate, but were there any other details that you can help fill in?
Not really, apart from the fact the only that really interests me there is that I didn’t really work so much with Jim Collier there; I worked more with Bill Philbrook.
Bill Philbrook and George Holt?
Yeah, George Holt, and a master framebuilder by the name of “Doc” Green. He was a master framebuilder from one of the other small lightweights in North London.
So you actually did most of your training with Bill Philbrook and Doc Green.
Yeah, because we were in a different part of the workshop.
How did you start working at Gillott’s?
There was an opening there for an apprenticeship, and as I’ve said before, I was already into cycling, deep, riding with clubmen, small little races and whatever, and infused by the Herne Hill thing. Totally committed to cycling.
So you were mostly a trackie, then?
No, on the road mostly, but so impressed by the riders who rode on the track, the whole spectrum of track riding which was quite popular then, and small road races, mostly time trials, and then of course, when the opportunity started at Gillott’s I was in the door to make a start, and from then on it was just sailing right along through the spectrum of the works, cutting lugs, doing quite a bit of fillet brazing with Len Hart who was a trackie. He was a welder from the outside who came into the cycling industry.
And Len Truman was also there at the time?
Len Truman was there as a foreman framebuilder.
So you got in the door, they put you to work filing lugs originally?
Filing lugs, doing all those little odd jobs, and working with Len Hart on the fabrication of fillet brazed frames which was really his forte, being a master welder he knew everything about welding, fillet brazing, right through the spectrum. I worked with him for quite a long time, fillet brazing frames, doing the frame which was a difficult frame to do, which was odd really for me to do it starting out but I had the technique already, and that was a fillet brazed frame with the laminations on it … Gillott Fleur-de-Lys style. So I worked on that for quite a long time which was quite a difficult process. Imagine a fillet brazed frame with the miters, and then the sleeve on it to be brazed on, and then mitered again to be perfect, and then fillet brazed all around. But by that time I had the ability, and they had the confidence in me.
How long did it take to get to that point?
About a year.
And you started in 1946?
1945-46, around then … I was 15 years old.
And how old are you now?
And you were born when?
1931, June 7th.
So it took about a year then …
Yeah, it might have been a bit longer, you know, to perfect that technique, and it was one of the most difficult frames to do?
Now how long did it take before you felt you were a master framebuilder?
Quite a long time then, well, I never really felt like I was a master.
But after nearly 60 years …
We’re talking going on through that spectrum, the first few years … well, I guess about 8-10 years until I had done everything, lugged frames, because the staff moved on, got different jobs and things like that, I progressed into that other side of the trade which was the lug jobs, track bikes, and even tandems, and after that sort of experience I though I had arrived, that was it.
Which do you prefer to do, lugged building or fillet brazing?
No real preference really; either one of them I’m happy with. I like doing both, still like that challenge, and always have.
About how long does it take to build a frame?
It depends on what particular type. A fillet brazed frame will probably take start-to-finish about 10 hours.
And a lugged frame?
A lugged frame, depending on whether it’s fancy lugs or whatever, would not take much difference really … about the same for a simple frame. A fancy frame will take longer obviously with more detail in the lugs.
60 years is a long time to have been building frames. What sort of changes and innovations have you seen over that time?
Mostly the tubing, and the lugs that are used, from the early part of the production of frames with the soft castings that were available then, and then on to the pressed steel castings that were used mostly in Europe, then on to the investment castings. And of course the different tubing which was available. Initially talking about the standard-sized tubing, and then coming on to the multi-shaped and things like that. The different types of course, different make-up and different shapes, multi-shaped tubing, and Cantiflex tubing like on the Bates, and different fork blades, different shapes.
Have there been any particular innovations that you’ve particularly beneficial and any you’ve eschewed as not really being your style?
Anything that’s really, really light, and doesn’t have the structure of the modern tubing, before we got the high-tech tubing coming in which was very light, very strong, made with superior steels, there were a lot of light tubings that weren’t up to building a frame, overstressed, hardening and tempering which wasn’t quite right. Immediately you got on to that sort of thing, and you had to feel that particular type was not going to be good.
What do you think of the really modern multi-shaped tubing, compact geometry frames? What are you thoughts on some of the more recent trends with lightweight steels?
I think they’re very good, always thought they were very good because of the structure of the tubing and the composition of the steel.
What about some of the more design aesthetics of the frame, like compact geometry frames, sloping top-tubes?
That works well, actually. It works well with the compact frame where you can use a lighter tubing, you can use the multi-shaped tubing to get the right effect, not only cosmetic, it works well structurally.
Getting back to why you became a framebuilder to begin with, you mentioned you were really into racing at the time. Was there a lot of competition to get in to Gillott’s?
There was; in fact, there was a lot of builders that didn’t really make the grade, so they moved on and progressed to something else, or got different jobs?
What was the name of your club at the time?
I started with the London Clarion which was a co-operative thing, and that was more of a clubby sort of thing, not racing. And then I progressed on to Ealing Manor. These people, it was the club to be in for national champions, international riders, and I was more or less headhunted into that club.
Any names that people would recognize from the club?
Number one would probably be Tony Pugh. They had people that won the Isle of Man International. Pugh went on to ride the Amateur World Championships. Stan Saunders was an international rider who turned semi-professional independent class did very well on the continent.
How important was your racing to your development as a framebuilder?
Quite a lot really, in as much you got a feel for the type of racing you were doing and applying a particular frame or style for it. We already had the lines that we wanted for our frames at Gillott’s and it progressed from there with the structural weights that were required for the different riders and strengths, different tubesets for a sprinter vs. a pursuit rider.
What is your approach to determine the proper size frame for a particular rider?
Roughly, I had a framebuilding jig, or bikes you could sit people on, and you could take measurements from original bikes, and most customers know exactly what they want to with regards to their position because they’ve probably been riding for quite a long time. And you would come to the conclusion of what they really require, different top tube lengths, different angles to suit the angle of the body, how they wanted to sit on the particular frame. But as a benchmark really, I suppose, inside leg measurement, and taking off about 10-inches if you’re working in inches was always pretty close, but there was always an exception to the rule.
You had a stationary sort of bike, similar to the Serotta Size Cycle that Tony has at his shop (A Bicycle Odyssey, in Sausalito, California).
Very similar to that, sort of a Heath Robinson sort of thing, not high-tech, just sliding angles and lengths.
Do you have a favored tubeset you prefer to build with?
I mixed tubes quite considerably, although I’m not sure the producers like you to do that, but I mixed tubes constantly right through my career, different combinations, particular seatstays that would work for a frame.
When building a lugged frame, do you prefer using investment cast lugs which don’t require as much finish work, or do you like building with pressed lugs, which require more handwork?
I really prefer the investment cast lugs, because of their strength, their fit, and of course they don’t need as much finishing, but of course using the other stuff, the pressed steel lugs, you can shift it about more to adjust angles, and you can make multi-shapes from the spear points quite easily?
Was there a particular pressed steel lug set you liked to use?
Nervex were always good, they were close to an investment casting actually. They were well-produced and structurally very strong for what they were. The Prugnat lugs were very good, but they had sort of welding marks on the seams from how they were produced that you had to get rid of or fill in, they required a little more work, but they held up well.
Do you generally brass braze or silver braze lugs?
Brass, unless of course it’s a hardened steel (like 753) which you would use silver.
I understand that when you build frames, you free braze them; you don’t use a jig. Why is that?
Doesn’t that make it harder to keep the alignment?
So how do you compensate to make sure the frames are straight?
If you start from the word go spot on, then you continue through.
But, doesn’t the heat of brazing cause things to shift?
A little bit, but not very much, it depends on how you start.
When you are putting your frames together, do you tack braze them to get them into shape?
We used to pin them originally, but we moved on to tack brazing.
It’s just so amazing to me … I can just imagine that you put the frame together and apply the torch and I can just imagine it going “whhut” and warping.
No no, and you know why … if you get the miters right, then it all comes together right. There’s a technique that not a lot of people have got … so that’s the secret of it, making sure the miters are perfect.
I know that some builders believe that with lugged frames, the miters don’t need to be as perfect because the lugs are providing the strength.
But ideally if you can get them spot on, and it’s just as easy to get them spot on as off, because you’re just using your eye. Because I don’t use milling machines and things like that. I cut the miters by hand with a hacksaw and files.
Have you had any apprentices yourself?
No apprentices, but I have had people help out cleaning up, doing finish filing by hand. Peter Mooney was there for awhile, and a lot of personal friends, clubmen, and the like helped out.
Are you familiar with any of the current crop of American framebuilders, such as Richard Sachs, or Peter Weigle. Are you familiar with any of their work, have you seen it?
I’ve seen it, but I don’t know them personally.
What you have been able to see what do you think of the quality of American work?
What advice can you give to an aspiring framebuilder, someone who is just starting out?
Practice their miters. For the most part, I suppose they’ve got a good idea of what they’re about, and the whole secret of it is getting it in line, and structurally right. You don’t want it to fall to pieces.
Especially not in the US where people will file a lawsuit at the drop of a hat.
We don’t like to think about things like that.
In a literal sense, what are the tools of the trade? For someone who is just starting out, what are the most important tools to have? What tools are necessities, what tools are nice to have but are not essential?
A lot of the mechanical stuff you can get right now is good in the sense that it can help you do the job more efficiently, quicker, and labor-saving which is a good thing, but basically you can get by with a hacksaw and good set of files.
And a torch of course.
Well you need a torch, yes, (laughing again) and that’s another skill that needs to come into the equation, but basically, if you wanted to, you could build a frame with a hacksaw, some good shaped files, a good straightedge … some other little tools could help, you know the “H” tools and things like that to square up the dropouts. Prior to this sort of situation, at Gillott’s, we had our own alignment tools which were made by the master framebuilders.
You’d build the tools to build the bicycles.
Is there a defining touch to a Ron Cooper frame, something that really sets one of your frames apart from those of a different framebuilder?
Specific handwork on the lugs, before they’re built, the way you’d want to shape a lug a bit more, cut a clover-leaf in it, or whatever. At one time you couldn’t build a frame without putting a series of holes through the shaping of the lug.
Your wife Olive told me a story earlier, that when you went to the Cheese Factory in Novato, there were three Ron Cooper frames lined up, and one of your companions asked the owners if they wanted to meet the gentleman who built their frames. Is there any way that you can tell that this is a frame that you’ve built, or can you remember building the frame?
Invariably you can, not necessarily building the frame, but you know it’s one of yours.
How can you tell it’s one of your frames.
Specifically by the shape of the fork blades, because that was always traditional with Gillott’s, they just had that right. That sets the frame off cosmetically, of course it adds work as well, but the final shape of the blade, the particular curve.
Now then, I also believe you’re known for a particular style of attaching the stays at the seat cluster. At the shop, we called it the Cooper fastback … it’s not quite a fastback, but it’s not quite a traditional attachment with endcaps.
That was developed at Gillott’s actually, that sort of semi-fastback, and I continued it through to my own name when I started out.
Where did the diamond-C that you use on your frames come from?
That came about because nobody else really used a diamond on their frames. And it just sort of evolved.
And what are your thoughts on carbon forks?
They seem work just perfectly, actually, because they almost identical to the things we make with the shape and the determined distances.
Some American builders feel that the fork is one of the defining parts of the frame. Richard Sachs believes that the crown is the heart of the frame. Of course he builds most of his forks with a 50+ mm rake and corresponding head angle so his frames really would not ride well with a carbon fork, but that aesthetic … for a lot of people riding a bicycle is very much about the aesthetic.
Always has been of course.
So what do you think of carbon forks compared to steel forks? Is a steel fork that has a lot of meaning for you as opposed to a carbon fork? Would you rather build a frame with a particular head angle and stick a carbon fork in it, or would you rather build the whole thing with a steel fork?
A steel fork, of course that’s the thing we’ve always done, and it works very well, and a lot of people prefer a steel fork, but carbon forks work really well, they’re so well finished, you have a hard job to fault them really.
I don’t think they look so good on a lugged frame, personally.
Well, yeah, they do have a bigger section, and that puts it all out of sync, but on some of the multi-shaped tubing frames with the bigger tubes. We did one recently where we had some really big tubing and we put the carbon fork in it with the brazed in fittings for the oversized integrated headset, and it all worked perfectly well, not only for the rider, but it looked right.
How closely do you work with a racer when building a frame?
Pretty close, at times, they’ll come in and look over your shoulder.
Have you ever had an occasion where you have had to refuse to build a frame for a particular person or where you’ve not completed a frame because it wasn’t going to work?
Not really, not that I can recall. We’ve had several different pursuit riders riding Ron Coopers go to the World Championships and things like that. One that comes to mind is David Akam, who joined the Moser team. Very good rider, which is why he ended up riding, pulling the train in the Giro.
Have any of your frames ever been ridden in the Tour?
Not that I’m aware of, no.
I know many of your frames have been ridden in the World Championships, but have any of your frames won a World Championship, track or road, pro or amateur level.
I can’t recall anyone with a Ron Cooper frame getting a medal or anything like that. They might have been part of a pursuit team … although World Champions have ridden my frames.
People from Europe who have come over and have ridden in teams that were provided with Ron Cooper frames, and not necessarily with my name on them.
What do you feel is your greatest success story or achievement as a framebuilder?
Probably this here in California, being recognized so much and valued so well here, we’re talking about a period of almost 30 years. The relationship with people I’ve been dealing with here.
When was the last time you built a frame for yourself?
Probably about 20 years ago …
Any personal touches you put into your own frames?
No, it was just a straight-forward frame. We were going over to Belgium with a team, and I thought I’d have something to show-off and it was just a basic frame actually, and I’ve still got it hanging up in the garage, red with white transfers, with a chrome fork, with a Henry James type crown. The only difference to some of the stuff that we normally did is that I put the stays on the outside of the seat lug, European-style as opposed to the Ron Cooper fastback style.
Why did you …
Just for the hell of it, because I had some nice shaped top eyes and things like that.
Do you still ride?
Just very little.
And you ride your own frame?
That same red one?
Well, I have two actually, I had one previous to that, which if I remember correctly I rode in the Tour of Britain in 1952. I think it’s still in bits in the garage.
I assume that frame was a Gillott, since it was in 1952 … was that one that you built yourself?
It wasn’t, no … George Holt built that one for me.
Part of the reason for your trip to California is that you’re retiring and are passing the torch on to Paul Taylor, who is currently based in Mill Valley. Obviously you feel that he is worthy of carrying on the Ron Cooper name, since he will putting your name on frames. Are you hanging up the torch for good?
Oh no, I’ll still build occasionally, special-orders and that sort of thing.
[Editor’s note: Ultimately, the collaboration with Paul Taylor did not happen.]
So what’s next?
Having fun. I say that jokingly of course, because I’ve always had fun. Nothing too strenuous.
A few last questions … what inspires you, as a framebuilder? Who do you admire from an artistic or craftsmanship standpoint, not necessarily framebuilding, but what sorts of other things have provided inspiration in your own work in your chosen craft.
Certain artwork. Particular automobiles.
Do you have a favorite car?
I like BMWs, yeah. There are several different cars I admire for their technique on how they do styling and things like that. It’s mostly a styling thing because the actual engines are pretty much the same these days unless of course you pay lots of money. And motorbikes which are prominent now with their fantastic finishes. Sculpture, not any particular ones, just things that hit you.
What was the story of the sale or transfer of business of Gillott from Harry Carrington’s control to Edwardes of Camberwell?
I didn’t have anything to do with it … didn’t really know anything about it.
You were still working at Gillott’s at the time?
Yeah, it just sort of evolved.
When did you breakaway and branch out on your own?
That’s when you opened the shop in Honor Oak Park? I have some information that you left Gillott’s in 1967.
It took a little time to sort things out but not that long.
When I first started working for Tony at A Bicycle Odyssey, there was a blue fancy lugged Cooper that just grabbed my attention … that was the frame that got me hooked. When you built my frame, I wanted something that was very simple, but that was the frame that hooked me.
That’s basically how it worked, even in the shop that I had. Customers would look at a frame, and chances are it would be one of the frames that were going to California, because at that time we were building up a stock section, and would ship them to America 26 at a time. People would see them, and say “I’d like that”, but it was already ordered and pre-sold really, so I’d say “well, in the next batch I’ll put one in for you at that time.”
You mentioned earlier that it took about 10 hours to build a frame. Was it typical that you’d build a frame a day?
That was always the way.
So how many frames would you build a year?
A lot. We’re talking about specifically the Gillott days, that was a frame a day, you more or less had to do that. Not so much the bi-laminated fillet-brazing, that was something else, which took forever. That’s probably why I had that job as a young framebuilder. I didn’t have to do a frame a day like the other framebuilders did. But you can do a frame a day quite easily. I can still build a frame a day now. I don’t do it, but I can.
So how long do you take to build a frame now?
Probably a couple of days.
Where is your shop now?
Crayford, that’s in SE London.
The time that I spent working for Tony was an incredible education about bicycles, and the past couple of years working with Richard Sachs, doing his website has also been a really good education. Because I know that I don’t have the skills to do it; I don’t think I quite have the manual dexterity or the eye or the feel to do it, but I feel an incredible amount of respect for this type of craftsmanship and for anybody that can make a living with their hands … In the present day, too.
Especially in this present day, and doing something that you really enjoy doing. I’d love to continue to pick your brain to find out more of the history. The past 60 years as a framebuilder, working 7-days a week at times, was it worth it?
Only just! Ideally, I did not look after my health as much as I should have.
But the past 60 years, as a framebuilder, has it been for the most part everything you’ve wanted it to be? Being your own boss, owning your own business.
Can you imagine doing anything else?
What advice do you have for someone who does want to get in to the cycle trade?
Why not? If you want to, if you feel that it’s your destiny and things like that … I wouldn’t discourage anybody, not in the present moment because things have moved on so much, it’s the high-tech part of it that’s moving now. And it’s interesting … the more I see of it in California and specifically in this area, it’s becoming more and more popular.
For me, I am not only fascinated by the history of cycling, but by the technology of it as well. There are a lot of people who are in to vintage lightweights and that’s all they care about, the old stuff. Getting a frame from a particular year and building it up with period-correct components … I like knowing the history and where it’s all come from, but I like the way things have developed technologically as well. I kind of like mixing the old and the new. Lugged steel is where heart lies from the aesthetic … but I don’t want to ride Nuovo Record components. I like the modern carbon Campagnolo components!
That’s right, yeah, and it’s all evolved, and the technology has moved on and on and on. And in actual fact, for anybody, it’s really a very interesting subject. And I can understand people getting involved in it, specifically people who are involved in the history of it as well, right through.