The people who made Witcomb Cycles

by | Mar 22, 2024

The story of Witcomb Cycles is well documented online, see:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witcomb_Cycles
https://www.classiclightweights.co.uk/classic_builders/witcomb-lightweight-cycles/.
Here, one of our members, Suzanne Buxton records details from her conversations with Barry Witcomb.  They give an insight to the people who made and ran the company from its foundation by Ernie, Barry’s father, in 1949.

Ernie and Lily

“Father was an outgoing personality, who had to meet everyone.  He was a ‘go getter’, and an entrepreneur who was always pushing the business forward.  He had letters from The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, and other dignitaries, to whom he had written overing to build them a bike.  Father was involved with the Board of Trade and travelled all over the world to trade fairs, most notably America, coming back from one in San Francisco with a million pounds worth of orders – an incredible amount for the time.

He wrote around three life stores, the last when he was 95 years old.  He was married to Lily, who he met in London at a cycling club dance.  At the time she worked as a maid in London at the Conservative Club and Bath Club, not far from the Ritz Hotel.  For the first date she told him that she would meet him outside the Ritz Hotel.  Her recollection to Barry was that ‘he thought that he was on to a good thing’ a rich woman!  The marriage lasted 75 years.”

Makers and Mechanics

“You can do anything with a steel frame;  we were always repairing top tubes and down tubes.”

In the early 1950s Witcomb frames were built by Wally Green and in 1957 Stan Brittain rode the Tour de France on one.  Barry says that he really began to learn his trade when Malcolm Barker cam to join Witcomb from JRJ Cycles in 1959. 

The 1960s and 70s to him were exciting times with trade shows in Milan, New York and San Francisco.  From 1969 onwards they became big in the USA with lots of orders from American shops.  He recalls an order from one shop for 40 frames per month.  Customers were coming from all over the world, including China.  He says that they built frames using files, hacksaws and a brazing torch, nothing on jigs, all done freehand.  They made all their own tools and things to hold the frames together while being brazed.  All very low tech.

In the 1970s, he says, the Americans came to train at Witcomb.  He spoke about them with fondness.  Peter Weigle, Chris Chance, Ben Serotta and Richard Sachs, who he described as wonderful.  He fondly recalled riding back from Canterbury with Rich Sachs in the snow.  The 60s and 70s were his favourite era.

In the early 70s he was team mechanic for Team GB, Team USA, Team Canada and Raleigh.  On a team there was one mechanic with one or two spare bikes and a box of spares, that’s all.  He did a tour with Phil Bayton where a frame broke and a new one had to be built over night so that he could ride the stage the following day.  “Of course, all the mechanics knew each other, they were lovely times”.

Witcomb Cycles built frames for many other builders.  He recalls building for Ribble, Sid Mottram, Gillot, Claud Butler, Evans, Hetchins, RO Harrison and lots of London bike shops, “They were nice times, businesses fed off each other”.

Barry, the rider

“When I was racing you could race 5 or 6 times a week”.  He described himself as a ‘reasonable’ local rider.  The northern riders were always much stronger and made up most Great Britain teams for events such as The Milk Race.

Now in his 80s he described himself as a ‘fair weather cyclist’.  When it’s not as cold in the UK he rides 2-3 times per week for 2-21/2 hours steady.  He has a carbon Bios these days with modern g4earing which he says he needs.  When he things back to the gears he used to use he can’t imagine how he managed.  The components on his bikes have always been Campagnolo and grew up with an allegiance to the brand and can’t imagine riding anything else.

The one thing that Barry misses is that the road cyclists where he lives don’t seem to wave or acknowledge each other any more and that makes him feel sad because in the 60s and 70s everyone knew and acknowledged each other.

Suzanne Buxton
March 2014

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