Classic Lightweights UK
Classic Frame Builders
W W 'Bill' Philbrook
Author Bryan Clarke
Left: Bill Philbrook holding a frame with multi-coloured paint job in the yard behind the workshop
Right: Bill at work in his workshop
‘London’ bicycle and frame builders from the
post-war period there is probably no one held in higher esteem than
Walter William Philbrook known as just ‘Bill’ or
‘Phil’. He was born on September 25th 1916 the son
of a railwayman in the South East London suburb of Sydenham not far
away from Crystal Palace. Like many of his generation he left school at
the age of 14 and ‘with a fascination for bikes’
began an apprenticeship with the bicycle builders, Buckley Brothers
whose premises were I think at that time at 61 Dartmouth Road, Forest
Hill. Buckley Brothers had a fine reputation for making high quality
lightweight bicycles in the pre-war period and one of a small group of
South London firms that included Selbach and Granby that were building
with ‘taper tubes’. They were famous for producing
one of the lightest bikes at that time which weighed only 13lbs and
displayed at the first Lightweight Show as well as a 22lb tandem frame.
Buckleys were not just cycle makers but innovators, patenting a strut
between the bottom brackets of tandems, designing triangulated chain
stays and ‘rigidride’ frames. The build quality of
each frame was ‘par excellent’ and the attention to
detail must have influenced Bill in his formative years.
Drawing for Norman’s Tandem
Left: Beautifully sculpted rear end Centre: Part made drop-outs from Bill’s workshop Right: Front dropouts
Norman’s notes state the Philbrooks moved to Gillingham on May 13 1959. According to the Nick Sands article, in 1959 after a visit to Rochester to see a relative, his wife Mary came across a double fronted rundown shop at 4 & 6 Arden Street, Gillingham, Kent with accommodation above it. They were to move in that year and Bill was all set to build frames for the trade and under his own name (PAG = Philbrook –Arden Street- Gillingham) for the first time and he joined the local Wigmore Cycle Club. By 1967 the accommodation above the shop was declared unfit for habitation and the family moved to Rochester according to Sands. Despite this it did not stop the use of downstairs workshop which remained in use for a further 25 years.
with Jeff’s scooter
carrying bike frames. Can you identify them? (courtesy Jeff Lyon)
Left: Head lugs and seat cluster on Bettina Selby’s Grandini
Right: Meridian head lugs and fully flush fork crown
Below: Seat cluster on Selby's Grandini
Mary writes on a
‘post-it note’ ‘It was an old Railway
Drivers Time Book an Uncle of mine gave to Bill – he was
always going to get a new one – but never did as you can
see!’ ‘The black parts are because the book was
well worn and a bit greasy as it was always in the workshop. We moved
to Gillingham in May 1959. This book was started for Bill’s
own frames in 1960’
Entry for my frame from Bill’s frame workshop book
Some years look very lean with only five frames listed but he probably had unrecorded trade work to supplement it. However, Bill was also known to be slow but precise. Sands states ‘Although there was always a waiting list, typically 6-8 months, a favoured customer could get a frame in just over a week if it was wanted for a special event. All work was carried out on the premises, including the stove enamelling.....’ This was carried out in a converted metal cupboard according to Norman. Interviewed in a ?Seattle newspaper, Jeff Lyon who worked alongside Bill from 1974 until 1981 stated ‘I could tell he was somebody different right away. If it took him 80 hours to complete work for which he’d only get paid forty, he’d do it. Unfortunately he was a bit slow sometimes. I remember once a fellow brought him a frame for some braze-on work and painting. It took him so long that when he finally finished it and called up the fellow, someone at the other end of the line said, “Oh I’m sorry, Harry’s been dead for six months now”. Nonetheless he was still fussy about detail.’
Jeff Lyon outside Bill’s workshop in Arden Street Gillingham 1970s (courtesy Jeff Lyon)
More recently, Paul Mepham of Harry Perry Cycles told me of a time when he was desperate to get a frame back from Bill and was told it would be ready that evening at 7pm. Paul arrived but did not leave the workshop until 11pm only to be stopped by the police suspecting something suspicious until the situation was explained and the mention of Bill by name! Whilst these are amusing anecdotes it does demonstrate the long hours that Bill put in at his workshop, ‘12 -14 hour days’ according to Ron Ash.
Sands tells us that Bill
made few so called ‘standard’ frames sold as
Avecaise, a name made up one assumes of left over letters from a kind
of ‘Letreset’ used for the down tube decals. Jeff
Lyons still uses this name for his less prestigious frames. Sands also
waxes lyrical about the number frames made for foreign buyers but this
is not exactly borne out in the frame book where it is clear a great
many local club folk were his customers but to be fair many entries
show little more than the name of the customer. In his eulogy Ron Ash
also emphasises the links with the US –‘one
customer flew into Heathrow, collected his new machine and flew back
the same day...’ It is also interesting to note the number of
customers requesting welded lugless frames which from my memory were
not very common in the 1970s/80s unlike today.
Bill was always able to make almost anything from scratch. If one asked for a brazed-on bottle cage in the 1960s these would be more than likely made from solid steel rod, filed, brazed on and drilled. But more importantly many unique touches could be found on a Philbrook frame. Bill could produce wonderful lugless frames that could be made more streamlined as in the time trial frame built for Ian Silvester in 1982 but Griff King-Spooner recalled similar innovations for Tom Smith’s frame a decade earlier with an extraordinary paint job that was ahead of its time. This frame and one made by him for Jeff Lyon can be seen on the Classic Rendezvous website that exemplifies his stunning workmanship and all share the same attention to detail. The writer has recently acquired a road frame which shares the same webbed chainstay bridge and ‘Philbrook’ designed dropouts with brass facets in common with the afore mentioned frames.The lugs are greatly reduced and extensively filed. It was his first frame built with Reynolds 753 tubing.
Beside the numerous little Philbrook touches and finish of his frames there were more important innovations. Some of his beautiful rear drop-outs featured a gear hanger that could be swung back to allow easy extraction of the back wheel (see image below):
Perhaps most intriguing was a tandem with a step down countershaft system developed with the help of Jeff Lyon. These caught the attention of the French press and articles by Claud Lavaud appeared in two editions of ‘Le Cycle’ under ‘Technique’ in September 1982 and October 1984.
Bill would be willing to help out in an emergency as occurred in October 1977 when a sponsored charity float consisting of a large firemans helmet fixed on top of a homemade tricycle collapsed on Chatham Hill on its way to Mainz from Watford. Bill came to the rescue to repair the broken axle and the incident appeared in the local ‘Chatham Standard’ under the caption ‘NOW CAP THAT – Cycle expert Phil rescues helmet-trouble firemen’.
Bill could also turn his
hand at making ‘penny farthings’ for children.
There is a famous photo of him outside his shop with one he made
commercially ‘for a local business man’. One was
also made for his Granddaughter around 1982 according to a note by Mary
to Norman. Sands wrote ‘ Bill’s health
began to fail, so when the Chatham Dockyard was closed, one of the
craftsman there, Rod Kennison, who raced tandems, was taken on to run
the retail side of the business. The times were changing, one of the
last orders was for a BMX. When the very last frame was made in
February 1986, of almost 1000 frames made by Bill in his lifetime, only
333 carry the Philbrook name, each one an individual gem, possibly
surpassing his earlier output’
Tributes were paid by Ron
Ash of the Wigmore CC at a Kent Vets Meeting and the Fellowship of Kent
and Sussex Cyclist who honoured him with a posthumous award of the
Fellowship Trophy in April that year.
I am grateful to Norman
Cole for passing on his dossier to me
sorry it has taken me so long to write something. The outcome is done
to the best of my ability. However, I hope the framework is there for
further contributions and corrections which are of course welcome.
Price list from the 1960s
Details of Philbrook work:
Philbrook standard lugs where he has enlarged the windows, also unique Philbrook manufactured rear end
Details below from the last frame Bill Philbrook made using hand cut Grandini lugs which incorporates his neat internal cable guides and his signature top eyes to the stays.
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