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Reynolds - Men of Steel

James Witts
26 May 2016

Back when steel was the frame material of choice, Reynolds ruled the world. But Reynolds is making a comeback thanks to its new weapon.

Look back at the highlights of the 2013 pro racing scene (article originally published in October 2013), and Ian Bibby’s top 10 finish during race three of February’s Challenge Mallorca will barely register. What was significant, however, was Bibby’s supporting cast that day, because the Madison Genesis rider was on a steel-framed bike. Not since 1994 has a steel bike claimed the yellow jersey, when Miguel Indurain won his fourth Tour aboard a Pinarello. Marco Pantani’s 1998 victory on an aluminium Bianchi is the last time a non-carbon bike won the Tour. 

Carbon is all-pervasive in the professional ranks these days, but under blue Balearic skies, Bibby rode to 10th on his Genesis Volare, made from Reynolds 953 stainless steel tubing. Could it be that steel is making a comeback for top–end bikes? And could 953 revive the fortunes of the most iconic steel tubing manufacturer in cycling history: Reynolds?

Weight loss plan

Historically, steel has been lauded for its comfort and durability but lambasted for its weight. A little like your elderly Labrador who gives you security and love but rarely moves from its basket. Not with 953. When Cyclist visits Reynolds’ current home of Shaftmoor Industrial Estate in the Birmingham suburbs, we are handed a tube of stainless 953 and it’s astonishingly light for a piece of steel.

‘It’s not as light as carbon but you can easily hit 6.8kg for a steel bike,’ says Keith Noronha, MD of Reynolds and a lifelong roadie. ‘We were at the Tour Series race in Redditch [in June] and talked to some of the riders about using 953 in the future. They seemed keen. This isn’t to denigrate carbon in any way but if you look at the technology of 953, it’s well in advance of most carbon composites.’

It was late in 2005 when 953 hit the UK market, usurping 853 as Reynolds’ top-end tubing. Its tensile strength is 1,750-2,050 megapascals – nearly three times as much as Reynolds’ famous 531 – and can only be sourced from one company: Carpenter Specialist Alloys in the United States. This is unlike the sourcing of other steel alloys Reynolds uses, which is often dictated by market forces.

It’s also ecologically sound. Reynolds is part of the Niche Vehicle Network and one of the hot topics is recycling. While steel can be melted down and reused, you end up shredding carbon. ‘When carbon’s done, what can you do with it?’ says Noronha. ‘With steel nothing’s wasted.’

With lightness complementing steel’s noted longevity and comfort, it seems like 953 is the tubing that frame-builders have been waiting for, but there’s a snag: stainless steel is notoriously difficult to work with and only a handful of artisans currently have the skills and set-up to be able to produce 953 frames. As such, it has a way to go before it can match the popularity of Reynolds’ most revered tubing: 531.

The magic number

Formally known as ‘manganese-molybdenum alloy tubing’, 531 was created in 1935 by company director Austyn Reynolds, who was developing tubing for the aeronautics industry. The number comes from the ratio of the three main elements used to create the steel. Not only was double-butted 531 much lighter than its elder sibling, known as Reynolds HM, its tensile strength came in at a then impressive 750 megapascals. Suddenly stiffness, lightness, durability and comfort were achievable using a material that frame-builders could manipulate easily. 

Post-war, cycle production increased with 531 tubing leading the way. But it took 23 years from its creation to mount the platform that would make it truly global. In 1958, Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul won his first and only Tour de France, and did it astride a Learco Guerra bike constructed from Reynolds 531 tubing. (To highlight 531’s long-held reverence on the pro scene, the same year Gaul recorded a 62-minute ascent of Ventoux from the Bedoin side – a record that stood for 31 years until Jonathan Vaughters beat it.)

The next 24 out of 25 Tour victories came via Reynolds tubing. In 1961 Jacques Anquetil won on board a 531-tubed Helyett-Speciale; eight years later Eddy Merckx conquered all on a Reynolds-tubed De Rosa; in 1978 Bernard Hinault rode to yellow on a Reynolds-tubed Gitane. Those TdF victories brought Reynolds public acclaim, at odds with their humble beginnings…

Victorian values

The 1890s witnessed a surge in cycle manufacture, mainly due to John Kemp Starley’s ‘Safety Bicycle’. This new-fangled rear-wheel drive, chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels eclipsed more dangerous models such as the Penny Farthing, opening up a whole new world of freedom for the individual and a commercial opportunity for the entrepreneur.

Half a century earlier, John Reynolds had set up business manufacturing nails and soon became the industry leader. He retired in 1875, leaving his two sons, Alfred John and Edwin, in charge. Alfred John became the sole proprietor in 1881 after Edwin’s death, and in 1895 he set about diversifying the business – a theme that would prove pivotal in Reynolds’ survival.

Despite cycling’s boom time, one pressing issue remained: how to overcome the weaknesses caused by joining thin tubes to heavy lugs. Alfred soon conjured up a solution: create a manufacturing process where the tube walls are thicker at either end without increasing the diameter. In 1897, Alfred Reynolds and a Mr TJ Hewitt jointly took out a patent for the process of manufacturing ‘butted tubes’.

‘Over there hanging up is the original patent,’ Noronha says, as we wade through archive material in one of four cabins that double as offices nestled in the company warehouse. ‘That quite simple yet ingenious design opened up a world of possibilities.’

Today the production of butted tubing fundamentally follows Alfred’s original template. ‘We do this by cutting selected plain gauge tubing, nuzzling, butt using a specific tool, reel, size tube diameter, polish, straighten, heat treat, cut to length, oil, mark, pack as a minimum,’ says Noronha, employing the terse technical language of a man whose schedule sees him regularly scout the world for new materials.

The clever bit is the butting process. In a mandrel press, the tube is pushed through a die that forces it down onto the mandrel. The die dictates the outside diameter while the mandrel sets the inside diameter and tube profile. Logic dictates that the mandrel is now trapped, which it is. But this is the genius part. The tube is spun between offset reels (shaped like industrial cotton buds) that, while having no effect on wall thickness or overall profile, increases the external and internal diameters of the tube just enough to slip the mandrel out. Voila – a thin-walled central section with thicker-walled ends. 

‘An example is pulling tubing down from 40mm in thickness to something like 31.8mm or 26mm for oversized or standard handlebars,’ says team leader Mario Paul Borg, a genial man whose thick Solihull accent could cut tubes on its own. 

By 1917 demand for tubing for aircraft and military purposes meant Reynolds’ home of the Works at Newton Row and Grove Street couldn’t cope. With assistance from the Air Board and Ministry of Munitions, the company acquired land at Tyseley in southern Birmingham for £5,000. It’s where it would stay until 2007 before moving to its current premises.

World War Two and the battle for the skies meant bicycle production stopped completely in 1939. Instead, despite being targeted by the Luftwaffe and being bombed once – no fatalities, lost a roof – the company continued to supply tubing for projects such as the famed PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) weapon. At the time, Austyn Reynolds recalled the extent of the plant’s involvement in Britain’s wartime effort in a letter to TI Group Services, who then owned the company. 

‘Our labour force at the outbreak of war was 1,113, which during peak production reached 2,055… We had been entrusted with the manufacture of the Spitfire light alloy tubular wing spars and 18,037 sets have been supplied to date, valued at over £2,000,000.’

The big time

After the war, aluminium tubing became more prominent, with Reynolds playing a key role. Many may be surprised to note that Reynolds still produces aluminium tubing, along with titanium. It has also dabbled with magnesium but that hasn’t yet worked out commercially. ‘Maybe in the future, though,’ says Noronha.

The 50s saw its reputation continue to grow in cycling and the motorbike industry. Reynolds provided steel tubing for firms such as Dayton and Hercules, and at its peak was producing 450 motorbike frames each week. ‘We also supplied tubing for the iconic Norton feather-bed frames,’ says Noronha, ‘including the ones ridden by [seven-time world champion] John Surtees.’

Reynolds even supplied the gas cylinders that Hillary and Tenzing used in their successful ascent of Everest back in 1953, and helped to build Richard Noble’s Thrust 2, which broke the land-speed record in 1983 (633mph). The 50s to the 80s were heady days indeed, but by now cheap aluminium frames constructed in the Far East were changing the cycling landscape. Britain’s manufacturing collapsed and Reynolds changed ownership several times. And if it wasn’t for one man, this article could easily be Reynolds’ obituary.

Saved from the abyss

Keith Noronha was born in Nairobi but is of Asian descent. ‘My parents are from Goa,’ says Noronha. ‘They moved to Kenya in 1938 looking for opportunities.’ Soon Mr and Mrs Noronha had three children and, despite the political issues, Noronha describes a content childhood aligned with a strong work ethic and a love of cycling. ‘I used to ride out to the Rift Valley, covering all of the places I suspect Chris [Froome] rode.’

Though never realising an ambition of riding the pro ranks, Noronha immersed himself in cycling and, in turn, sowed the seeds of his future career. ‘When I was 15, I owned one of the few 531 butted tubes in Nairobi. I think it was a Tommy Simpson replica bike.’

The Noronhas moved to England in the early 1970s, father for work and young Keith to study engineering at London University. From London he took up his first graduate role working for Land Rover as a trainee chassis engineer. It prompted a move to the Midlands, at the time still the heart of manufacturing in this country. ‘There were probably 20-plus manufacturing plants around here making cars and components and most of them were owned by British Leyland Cars. Lucas, for example, would have made the lighting and electrics and they were just up the road. Sadly most of them have gone now.’

Noronha turned from engineering to finance, moving to Gaydon in Warwickshire to work for BL. ‘I was exposed to a lot of new technologies and it’s helped me to this day with Reynolds; we must keep looking forward or we’ll disappear.’

Next up was, in Noronha’s words, his most critical move: from BL to Tube Investments Group. It was a huge conglomerate whose list of brands included Raleigh and Reynolds. Soon he was in the United States working on the golf shaft arm of TI Group but, because of his interest in cycling, effectively he ended up leading Reynolds’ American bike operation.

‘My real break was heading up the launch of 853 in 1995. It turned out to be a much bigger deal in America than the UK – primarily because of our link with LeMond Cycles. Trek was based in Wisconsin and we managed to forge a profitable partnership with them.’

Despite this, Reynolds continued to suffer because of aluminium and carbon competition, and in 2000 the then owners went into administration. Noronha and his family swept up their investments and bought the company. 

‘I’m still not sure if it was the right decision,’ laughs Noronha. ‘Between 2000 and 2006 things were very tough and it would have made more sense to have closed the business down and make it a badge-making business – ie, get the tubes made abroad and do little here in England. But we stuck with British manufacturing and I think that’s paying off.’

Noronha scaled down operations to cope with the drop in sales – ‘current workforce is between 10 and 12’ – which has not only cut costs but means the company can handle smaller orders from the increasing number of UK frame-builders. 

Diversify and conquer

‘We’re also getting new offices built,’ says Borg, happily. ‘These cabins will be gone soon, which is great because they’re crap.’ Borg has worked at Reynolds for 36 years and remembers the days when 100,000 pieces of tubing were going through the factory each month. He’s been through the tough times but is optimistic about the future. ‘We’re diversifying and that’s good for all of us. Recently we created a wishbone for a car. It was a right pain in the bum to do but when you see it on a car, it makes you proud.’

Diversity has been integral to Reynolds’ past and will be to its future. We suspect cycling will remain core to its business for some time yet but other sectors are beginning to sit up and take notice of the benefits of Reynolds tubing. Gesturing to the tube of 953, Borg lists the trades and sports that now use Reynolds. ‘That tube is used in an MRI machine. We also contribute to frames for the space industry, and we had an elite speed skater from Holland come over. He was mad on cycling and noted that the tube the blade sits in is essentially a seat tube. He asked if we could make one out of 953. We did and he won bronze at the world championships and medalled at the Olympics too.’

‘Nowadays our business is 90% export-oriented,’ adds Noronha. ‘We had to diversify and push the international side because of the demise of the bicycle industry in the UK. We now sell a lot in places like Italy and also somewhere like the Philippines. In fact there’s a guy in Penang who keeps me updated on what’s going on in his part of the world. He’s always extolling the benefits of 853. I’d say he’s a fanatic.’

Bike fanatics and Reynolds tubing? Surely not…

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