The history of Reynolds Tubing

The history of Reynolds Tubing

by Chris Lowe

Reynolds began in 1841 when John Reynolds took up shop as a manufacturer of nails. The business prospered over the next 34 years at which time he retired and entrusted the business to his sons Edwin and Alfred John. Sadly, Edwin died in 1881 leaving Alfred John Reynolds alone at the helm. By 1890 Alfred John’s two sons, John Henry and Alfred Milward, joined the business.

As the century closed, the company had developed an excellent reputation in the nail business and Alfred M. Reynolds began to look at ways in which the company could expand. In 1895 he began examining a problem which cursed many frame builders of the day: how to join thin, lightweight tubes without weakening the joints at which they are connected. It was a question that would forever shape the future of not just the Reynolds company, but of all bicycle manufacturers. Reynolds came upon a way to increase the thickness of the walls at the ends of the tubes only, while not increasing the tubes outside diameter. This was indeed a major breakthrough. Up until then frame builders had to manually insert a liner into the end of each tube to reinforce the joint or use heavy, thick tubing. In 1897 Alfred M. Reynolds and J.T. Hewitt, an employee of the company, took out a patent on their “butted” tubes.

A year later John Reynolds & Sons Limited decided to spin off the tubing business into its own separate company to be known as The Patent Butted Tube Company Limited headed by Alfred John Reynolds and his son, the inventive Alfred M. Reynolds. In 1902 they published their first catalog devoted to cycle tubing. The catalog boasted of a set of Reynolds butted tubing weighing only 4 1/2 pounds. Competition in the cycling industry was fierce at the time but Reynolds was generally acknowledged by the cycling press as being the best. As time progressed the company would also manufacture a range of handlebars (which at the time were made of steel).

In 1914 war erupted throughout Europe and Reynolds received contracts from the government to manufacture tubing for military bicycles and motorcycles. In 1916 they received an important contract to manufacture tubing for use in aircraft. The contract was important as Reynolds would continue to be closely involved in the aerospace industry right up through to the present day. As war contracts continued to come in the company continued to expand and in the autumn of 1917 relocated their headquarters to their present location: a large Tudor period house known as Hay Hall.

The signing of the armistice meant an end to the war contracts and thus Reynolds was forced to find new markets for its products. One of the markets tapped was the auto market and it wasn’t long before Reynolds began supplying tubing for use in the frames of autos which were becoming increasingly popular. As the world began to get back into order following the War, The Patent Butted Tube Company Limited made the decision in 1923 to change their name to the more readily identifiable “Reynolds Tube Company Limited”. A year later the newly renamed Reynolds put some of their experience in manufacturing aircraft tubing to use in the bicycle trade by introducing the “Reynolds H.M. Quality”.

The H.M. stood for High Manganese and the tubing was a noticeable improvement over all existing tubesets. It should also be noted that because of the high manganese content of this, and all other later tubes from Reynolds, it is inappropriate to refer to Reynolds tubing as chrome-moly since there is little, if any chromium used. The proper term would be manganese-moly. So good was H.M. that it would remain the premier tubing for the next 11 years. All this activity at Reynolds didn’t go unnoticed in the business world and so it came as no surprise that in 1928 Reynolds was acquired by Tube Investments Limited, better known as T.I. Limited.

Reynolds began working in aluminum to meet the demands of the Royal Air Force. However, it has only been in the past couple years that Reynolds began to produce aluminum bicycle tubing (perhaps giving great weight to the argument that aluminum is far from being an ideal material for bicycles!). A more immediate product of their aircraft endeavors was the introduction in 1935 of the legendary “Reynolds 531” tubeset. A tubeset that still remains popular through the present day. However, 531 came about unintentionally. It was Chief Inspector and Metallurgist Max Bigford who spotted an aircraft tubing which he thought held the potential for making an excellent cycle tubeset and reworked the specifications along with Director Austyn Reynolds. So important was the introduction of 531 that the Cyclist’s Touring Club awarded Reynolds their plaque for the most meritorious contribution to the sport of cycling.

In the late 1930’s the activities of a certain ex-German Army soldier of questionable mental stability were drawing the attention of military planners in Great Britain. This soon lead to the introduction in Britain of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane. The Spitfire was at the time a marvel of engineering and so it was only natural that Reynolds was called upon to supply tubing for its production. By the end of 1939 it appeared war with Germany was inevitable and Reynolds was forced, for the first time ever, to cease production of cycle tubing. As World War II progressed Reynolds expanded its work force, opened new facilities, and maintained production around the clock. It should also be noted that during these demanding times a great many Reynolds employees also served in the Home Guard (similar to the US National Guard, but devoted entirely to the defense of the British mainland). In fact, so many employees volunteered that Reynolds had its own company-sized unit within the Home Guard.

During the War Reynolds produced tubing for everything from the Spitfire to the PIAT (Britain’s answer to the Bazooka) to flame thrower barrels. In all, Reynolds produced 77,000,000 feet (14,602 miles) of alloy tubing and 53,000,000 feet (10,038 miles) of steel tubing. All this was produced by a labor force that at War’s height numbered less than 2,100 employees. Following the ending of the War Reynolds scaled back its production considerably and in 1947 they formed a separate company, “Reynolds Light Alloys”, to handle the production of aluminum tubing.

In 1958 Charly Gaul of Luxembourg pedaled to victory (at a then record setting pace of 22.8 MPH) in the Tour de France astride a frame built from Reynolds 531. This would mark the beginning of what would soon become a near total domination of the Tour de France. Between 1958 and 1991 (the last year a Reynolds frame won the Tour) Reynolds tubing was used in the bikes of 26 Tour de France winners. Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault all used Reynolds exclusively in their Tour victories (Indurain also used it in his first Tour win in 1991).

It is worth noting that Reynolds 531 was so successful that it wasn’t until 1976 that Reynolds was able to improve on it with the introduction of Reynolds 753. 753 is a very unique, heat-treated tubing with an ultimate tensile strength of 179,200 psi (Compared with 121,000 psi for Columbus SLX). The heat treating process also means that great care must be taken in brazing the tubes so as not to overheat them which would result in a brittle and unridable frameset. To avoid this builders must braze with silver instead of the traditional brass. All this extra care means not just anyone can use 753. In fact, before being allowed to purchase 753 tubing from Reynolds a frame builder must first submit a sample of their work to be quality tested. If the builder makes the grade they become certified by Reynolds, a source of pride amongst many frame builders. In 1977, following the successful introduction of 753, Reynolds again changed its name, this time to “T.I. Reynolds, Limited”.

Because 753 requires such care, and is thus unsuitable for mass production, 531 tubing remains very popular. A sign of this continued popularity came in 1980 when Reynolds 531 was the recipient of the “Guidon D’Or” (Golden Handlebar), an award given for services to the sport of cycling. In order to understand the importance of this award consider the following: only three companies (Peugeot, BP France, and Pernod — all French) have received this award and only 4 times prior has it been awarded outside of France.

Since 1980 Reynolds has introduced a wide variety of tubing from 501, intended for entry level racing bikes, to the new 853 which is intended to give titanium and composites a run for the money. Reynolds has also introduced both oversized (731os) and internally rifled (708 classic) tubesets to meet the demands of heavier riders and sprinters. They have also expanded the use of 753 tubing to include tandems and mountain bikes. In addition to their 2 dozen plus steel offerings, Reynolds now offers butted titanium and aluminum tubing.

Reynolds has a tradition of being truly innovative, that is they introduce products that are truly new and not just inventing new tubesets for the sake of meeting a demand created by marketing hype. It is, after all, worth noting that over 40 years passed between the introduction of 531 and 753 tubing. It is just such longevity that puts Reynolds in the same class as other notable British companies such as Brooks and Carradice. Such products remain competitive decades after their introduction because of the intelligence of their design rather than the strength of their marketing. They are immune to fashions, fads, and labels (including “retro”) and simply continue to be the best products available for a given purpose.

This article originally appeared in the Rivendell Reader, issue 6.
Reprinted with permission. Thanks G.P.

Coyote Sports acquires Reynolds Cycle Tubing
Current management team to remain the same

Oldbury, Warley, West Midlands, England, September 18, 1996 — TI Group plc announced today the sale of the Reynolds cycle tubing company, which includes the “853”, “753” and “531” brands of cycle tubing, to Coyote Sports Inc.

Coyote Sports Inc., is a privately held company owned by Jim Probst and Mel Stonebraker based in Boulder, CO. Coyote Sports was recently formed with the specific purpose of establishing a cohesive group of companies in the sporting goods industry.

Included in the purchase was Reynolds’ sister company Apollo Golf, a seamless golf shaft company.

TI Group based in England, has substantial U.S. and international engineering businesses and in one of the Top 100 companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Reynolds, with its cycle focus, was a non-core business and therefore available for sale.

“In establishing Coyote Sports, our criteria for acquisition included a company that had global international markets; strong OEM relationships; strong R&D, innovation and manufacturing capability; capable of substantial growth; and strong management,” said Probst. “Reynolds met these criteria.”

The new owners are prepared to back Reynolds with substantial investment to underpin the growth seen after the successful launch of “853” air hardening steel tubing, at the Interbike Show in 1995.

The current management team of Andy Taylor, Managing Director; Graeme Horwood, Research and Development Director; Stewart Tibbatts, Manufacturing Director; David Nelson, Controller; Keith Noronha, VP/General Manager, now UK based; Terry Bill, Sales Manager Europe and Pacific Rim; and Tim Halloran, Sales Representative North America. Holloran will continue to work out of the Elk Grove Village, Ill., office.

“The acquisition is excellent news,” said Noronha. “Coyote Sports has the commitment and resources to back our drive to once again make Reynolds a major player in the industry. We will focus on giving our customers innovative and distinctive products that add value to their model ranges.”