In 1975, the number of American framebuilders amounted to nearly 100. Today, there may be less than 20 still involved on a full-time basis. These, however, are building a reputation that is equaling, if not exceeding, the European masters.
Since the 1960’s, when purchasing a hand-built frame was becoming an alternative to buying a factory bike built up with pro equipment, the American “bikie” has become more and more demanding of the quality expected from the custom framebuilder. During the bike boom there were very few, if any, U.S. counterparts to the big names, like Masi and Cinelli, which were already popular here. When I first became conscious of pro bikes, Frejus and Raleigh were two of the magic names that were considered when you went to buy that ‘ultimate’ bicycle—the one which may never be replaced simply because it already had top-of-the-line Campagnolo components and thus could not be improved upon. Then, in the midst of all this, hand-built frames were becoming almost as popular as built-up pro bikes.
I saw my first hand-built frame in 1970. I remember being completely blown away by its appearance simply because it was displayed with no equipment attached. It had never occurred to me that the frame, some eleven-odd pieces of steel held together with or without lugs, was actually the most important part of the completed bicycle. In retrospect, the frame I saw could have been any factory-made bicycle without its accompanying components. It was, however, an English frame which had gained popularity when very few consumers had considered buying anything but a built-up bicycle.
During those years, when the bicycle became an alternative source of transportation and when American racers were starting to study and emulate their European professionals, the demand for frames was beginning
As stated, my experience with frames began in 1970. In recollecting the ads of shops selling lightweight equipment, I remember what seemed like dozens of different bikes being imported into the U.S. In a time when the popular names that were available off the peg were Bob Jackson, Holdsworth, Colnago, etc., I was aware of only two American-made alternatives—Corky Gulbranson and Albert Eisentraut.
While the imports became popular and buying a frame was almost a common occurance, American customers were slowly—very slowly I might add—learning more about what they were buying. People who were on their second or third frame were looking more closely at the quality of the paint job, the lug filing, the dropout joining, to say nothing about the alignment and mechanical finish, (i.e., bottom bracket threads, headset fit, etc.).
Problems were arising that almost never before had to be solved in the typical American bike shop. What could you do when you sold a frame and the customer could not fit his bottom bracket cups properly, or when the seatpost wouldn’t go in far enough? Of less importance, but still deserving consideration, was what happened when the frame broke, was crashed, or simply was in need of a proper paint job with the original decals?
To me, it seemed that during those years, there was what could be considered and underground movement. Many young Americans were interested in learning and solving the mysteries of the framebuilder’s art. A number of young people were going to England or the Continent to learn to build frames.
My own experience consisted of ten months in a shop outside London. I had no prior experience using a torch, files, or any of the special tools necessary to build frames. I had no knowledge of fixtures, machine tooling, or even how to size myself up to buy a bike from a showroom floor. I was quite unprepared for the task. But I approached it as a craft, a chance to perhaps someday have my name roll off the tongues of the cognoscenti in association with the “best” available. What a letdown it was when I found how much there was to learn. I had spoken with many older people in the trade and asked how long it would take to learn to build frames. The answer was almost always that they were still learning. In short, if there are a thousand people building frames, there are at least the same number of ways to approach this craft. And I was only seeing one way, that of the shop in which I was to spend nearly one year. Talk about a small fish in a big pond!
I assume that most American framebuilders had similar experiences. I think what we all had in common was that we came back, tried to set up shop, and coupled or European exposure with our own ideas and innovations. It was very difficult for most of us to sell our products. No one had ever heard of us. It was easy to sell a frame that was made by someone who was supplying a pro team, but very few people would trust their hard-earned dollars to an unknown upstart. (And how could you guarantee a frame that was built by someone with virtually no background to speak of?)
The way I see it, American frames started to gain acceptance when people began to see the evolution of these products. That which was first looked upon as a part-time project had now become a work of art. Aside from the riding characteristics, framebuilders were paying much more attention to the handwork involved and, in some cases, to the care with which the frames were constructed. When people saw the beauty and quality associated with our work, we were finally given consideration.
It took nearly a decade for many of us to develop our skills as craftsmen. There were, and still are, dozens of people finding that framebuilding as a profession simply isn’t desirable. For example, in 1975, when I had had about four years involvement in framebuilding, the frames being advertised as having been made in America numbered nearly 100. Many people built a few and then “hung it up.” Many had found that they just couldn’t “cut it” commercially due to the initial investment or the seemingly low income relative to the amount of work involved. While many builders had tried and failed, there were a handful of us who found we could make it professionally. Compared to the 100 or so that were around in 1975, I think that less than 20 are still in business on a full-time basis.
The late 70’s saw the beginning of of the breakthrough for American framebuilders. The demand for our frames was outweighing the supply. Back orders were growing. The public knew the difference.
While there are still no European pros racing on U.S. made frames, the people here have recognized us as among the best available. We are offering better looking products, frames built with more modern brazing and jigging techniques, complete backup service for repairs and repainting, and, in contrast to our European counterparts, we seem to be open to change and improvement. On top of all this, we’re only a phone call away.
This framebuilder’s opinion—the dominant frame won’t be American; it won’t ever be made in one particular country. Deep down we all know the complete bicycle is only as efficient as the legs that pedal it. But we have finally “gained the confidence” of the public to which we offer our products. While the European framebuilders, so popular during the bike boom, have been slow to cater to the discerning need of the American bikie, we have filled the void. We offer quality. We offer beauty. We offer precision. We offer service. The American framebuilder has finally come of age.
The preceding article was originally written for Competitive Cycling, and appeared in July, 1979. All references to should be kept in that context.