For many decades, Reynolds 531 was the doyen of bike frame tubing, and almost anyone who owned a lightweight bike knew that those magical three numbers were a sign of quality, and even status. Bikes back then were rarely graded by their groupsets; they were scaled by their frame tubing sets, and British tubing pioneers Reynolds were very much the leaders of the pack.
With a major global shift towards OEM manufacturing throughout the 1970s and 80s, and with the mass arrival of aluminium and then carbon fibre, steel suddenly lost its appeal, and the material that had conquered around 27 editions of the Tour de France (through the likes of Charly Gaul, Eddy Merckx, Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain to name but a few) slowly but surely rusted away in the back of the garden sheds of the cycling world.
Throw in a turbulent ride with their ownership, and Reynolds suffered something of a rough patch for some years; although a management buyout saved the day, and as many smaller manufacturers once again show their appreciation for steel, the famous Reynolds badge is now highly - and justly - prized on quality bike frames.
Reynolds have steered through this twisty ride back to prominence by current managing director Keith Noronha, and we asked him to tell us more about this iconic British brand. With such a long history the distant origins are also a tad rusted over, as Keith explains: “Even though I’ve been with the company since 1980 (and am now the CEO/owner) I don’t know the full history of the company. It’s all a little bit foggy!
"We do know that the Reynolds family have been in Birmingham since the early 1800s, and we believe that they were first involved in nail manufacturing in 1841 in Aston, Birmingham.”
Nails were not the only things being hammered out of those historic drawing boards.
“We do know from looking at the patent that Alfred Reynolds and Thomas Hewitt, for some reason, decided to try making a butted cycle tube in 1897, when cycling had only been around for 20-30 years," says Keith.
"We have no idea why a nail maker would try to do this, but that fundamental mechanical process they invented is basically how tubes are still butted now.”
Between the World Wars the Reynolds family decided to sell the company.
Keith explains: “Around about 1928 the Reynolds family sold out to Tube Investments (TI), who also owned Raleigh Cycles. The family stayed involved with the company until sometime during the 1960’s.
"Although the tube drawing was moved to another factory, the original Reynolds factory continued with cycle tubing as their main business, but they also produced tubes for motorcycle frames, and even built high end motorcycle frames themselves, but not bikes.”
Raleigh were a major global entity for many decades, and still manufactured their own frames in Nottingham. Naturally Reynolds was their tubing of choice, but like most things in UK manufacturing that all changed during the late '70s and '80s.
“The cycle industry went through a tough time in the 1980s, and I can see from company records that they were wondering what to do with the business, although it survived as part of TI until 1996," says Keith.
Things took a few interesting turns for Reynolds during that period: “The TI group had already sold off Raleigh due to what was then termed offshoring [manufacturing in other countries].
"They also sold their US carbon golf club shaft maker, which was linked to Reynolds [who’s derivative now produce Reynolds wheels].
"It was around about this time that the American guys started showing interest in the cycle industry, and Reynolds also started using different alloys such as 853, as we were facing major competition from companies such as Easton.”
Even so, aluminium and mass production were where the bike industry was at then, and Reynolds were slow to take advantage of this.
“It would be fair to say that we missed the boat with aluminium back in the early 1990s," says Keith.
"We didn’t really see it as a serious competitor at the time and were slow to move."
Keith adds: "In the early 2000s, carbon fibre became a critical force to be reckoned with. Reynolds continued to innovate with steel, but our traditional European market was declining.
"In about 1996/97 the management company that owned Reynolds got into financial difficulty. I had been working with them in the US, came back to the UK and we made a management buyout of Reynolds in 2000, so it’s now privately owned.”
A management buyout was a bold move, but those who believed in its viability were also heavy on experience, and they also knew they had to cut their cloth somewhat.
Keith says “We stayed in the Tyseley factory for a while but became a much smaller business than it had been under TI. But a big part of that was because we then focused purely on the cycle business and not all of the subsidiary products that they had done before.
"During the last decade or so we’ve seen a lot of changes, mostly due to offshoring. Around 80% of our business is now for export, and we have different strands to the business.”
Balancing their butts with the books, Reynolds made a healthy all-round decision to maintain UK production for their high-end tubing; but in order to remain competitive in the mass-market, they started producing their lower grade tubing in the Far East.
“We’re still committed to manufacturing in the UK, our high-end brands such as titanium, 835, 631, 953 - and our stainless steel 958 and 921 - are made in the UK.
"We have deliberately taken a partner in Taiwan for producing the Reynolds 520 chromoly butted tubes. 20 years ago we would have done this in the UK, but the costs are now so high that it makes more sense to produce in Taiwan.
"They use butting machines produced to our spec and we work closely with them on quality control. The customer for these tubes is also in Taiwan, it makes much more sense with lead times and costs to do it this way.”
How exactly does the process of making Reynolds tubes work?
“We buy what we call 'fat pipe' and then that pipe is thinned down, firstly by reducing the outer diameter," says Keith.
"The tube thickness is reduced significantly, which is called cold working.
“What comes next is the butting, which is still based around the original 1898 patent. It’s called “drawn over a mandrel". Basically each butted tube is drawn one at a time over a specific die and mandrel to butt it.
“We have to supply a kit of parts for each frame tubing set. Every tube goes through a different process; for example a seatstay may be butted and then tapered, but some tubes are also heat-treated by an external company based nearby.
“With the 953 stainless steel tubing, I counted around 48 different operations that a seatstay goes through from raw material to output, which is why there is a long lead to sale time for some frame parts.”
We all know about butted, double-butted and even triple-butted, but what exactly is the difference?
Keith explains: “We have a controlled mandrel that basically controls the inner dimensions of the tube, and a 'donut' which is the die. So for example, say a 26.8mm tube – we would have a die that sets the outer diameter of the tube and we have shaped steel mandrel. We put the mandrel into the tube and its pushed through the die [known as cold working].”
The tooling used for the process often dates back to the glory days of Reynolds.
“Many of our machines here were built back in the 60s and are around four times more powerful than the modern machines that we can buy in Taiwan.
"This is why we can work with such hard steels as we do now, and why we can achieve such thin tubing walls compared to other manufacturers.”
“It’s that combination of die, mandrel, and a tube with specific lubrication, and then the tube is squeezed. We then have a device called a realer, which is able to pull the mandrel out of the tube without changing the butt profile.”
As a whole new cycling generation discovers the delights of quality steel frames, and as many of us rediscover this timeless material, things are looking sweet for Reynolds, which is great news for cyclists and the bike industry alike.