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Back when I first stumbled upon the remarkable story of Chater-Lea, I was amazed at the incredibly rich history of British bespoke bicycle making. I was aware of the many key British marques still manufacturing (Mercian, Condor, Rourke and Bob Jackson) as well as the current crop of newer yet equally talented makers (Demon, Feather, Hartley and Sven amongst many). However, what I had little if any idea about was the depth and breadth of British — and I mean across the entire UK — builders and component manufacturers that operated throughout most of the twentieth century.
The original epicentre of the industry in Coventry had at its peak some 450 operating bicycle businesses. By the 1930s almost every decent sized city and town in the UK had a local builder who was typically also closely tied to a local club. In addition to representing their region/town, these local clubs they would also fly the flag of the local builders. Seeking to stand out from the large factory-based firms that produced bikes for the masses, these builders combined engineering and artistry in their creations to constantly push what was possible.
R&D at this time happened not in a lab but rather at the back of an operating bike shop or in the front room (or even garden shed) of the maker. Many of these makers grew what are now considered legendary brands which, with their lugged tubing and beautiful brazing, are nothing short of industrial masterpieces — affordable ones for folks who knew they would be unable to own a Rolls Royce, Bentley or Jaguar. The likes of Hetchins, Ephgrave and Bates may have become more well known than others but the depth of design and engineering talent was widely spread. From East London to Central Glasgow bikes were rolling out of store fronts into the hands of enthusiastic young men and women. Often used to commute during the week with mudguards and waxed cotton bags, come the weekend they were stripped back and raced in local events. Until the first continental European components appeared post WWII, British components were specified depending on the purchaser’s budget. There were long lasting and serviceable components for all, with the very best often costing multiples of more basic offerings.
The place I went to explore these delights was www.classiclightweights.co.uk. Over the last few years I have had the privilege to get to know its founder Peter Underwood and his wife Patricia. Created in 2006 to share builder and component maker histories, memories and photos with a few friends, the site grew over the years to become the go-to resource for anyone interested in classic British bicycles. In recent years the nearly endless stream of content contributions has begun to challenge the site’s dated design and technological foundation. And while he put another 8,000 miles riding on the clock last year, Peter recently turned 87.
After many wonderful conversations among Peter, Patricia and the Chater-Lea team, the idea sprouted of Chater-Lea taking over management of the site with the intention of keeping its bountiful content available and free from unwieldy third-party advertising — a Wikipedia-like resource for all those with an interest and passion for British cycling history.
At the end of 2019 we were able to iron out the details, and as of this month the site is now under the stewardship of Chater-Lea. The plan is to make the site easier to navigate, enhance search capabilities, and add new content. This will ensure that existing and new audiences can continue to enjoy the site. We look forward to keeping you updated on progress. But no need to wait for that. Visit the site now and start discovering the remarkable yet largely untold story of British bespoke bicycle making.
You can learn more at www.classiclightweights.co.uk