Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jack Taylor: Loss of a Treasure

The bicycling world should note the recent passing of a great man, a treasure, and a legend, Jack Taylor, who died on Nov. 2nd. Jack was one of the three "bicycle brothers" behind Jack Taylor Cycles of Stockton-on-Tees, England.

Jack Taylor was a true life-long bicycle enthusiast. After discovering the joy of cycling as a youngster, he rode his bike everywhere, eventually getting involved in the British club-racing scene in his teens. Though he deeply admired some of the high-end bicycles he saw at the time (the bicycles of Claud Butler were a favorite), the story goes that Jack could not afford to buy the lightweight bikes he dreamed of, so he set about learning to build his own. 

The Taylor brothers: Ken, Jack, and Norman.
Jack began building bicycles in 1936 out of a shed behind his mother's home in Stockton-on-Tees. In the early days, he had two friends, Lance Bell and Jack Hood, to help him. Later, as the little shed became a popular visiting spot for the area's elite cyclists, he was joined by his two brothers, Ken and Norman. Jack Taylor Cycles became the family business officially in 1945. Norman handled most of the frame-building duties, Jack did the exquisite finish work, including the beautiful box-lined pinstriping that their bikes were known for, and Ken built wheels and did final assembly on complete bicycles. Ken also boxed the bikes for shipping (many of which came to the U.S.), and wrote on each box "Have a Nice Ride."

In those years during and right after the war, apparently there were shortages that made it difficult at times to get the needed supplies for building frames, such as lugs. Out of necessity, the Taylors started building lugless frames with the fillet brazing method, or as it was sometimes known, "bronze-welding." These smooth-finished frames had a lovely "carved of one piece" look to them, but the lugless building method also lent itself to a variety of different or even non-traditional frame designs, including tandems, trikes, and more.

A beautiful touring bike belonging to Troy Warnick, courtesy
of the Classic Rendezvous. Note the elegant front and rear
racks and  internal wiring for the generator lights.
Though many of the earlier bicycles built were racing models, Jack Taylor Cycles became well known and highly regarded for their tandems and touring bikes. According to The Custom Bicycle by Kolin and de la Rosa, the company's tandem production was not far behind their production for single bicycles. Their touring bikes were probably the closest thing made in Britain to the wonderful bikes made by the great French constructeurs of the golden age, with their lovely integrated racks that were built in-house. According to Jan Heine, of Bicycle Quarterly, the Taylor brothers were "blown away" by the bicycles they saw during a visit to the Paris Bicycle Show and took tremendous inspiration back home with them. Whether lugged (often with Nervex Professional lugs) or fillet-brazed, Taylor touring bikes are real things of beauty.

I always liked the Jack Taylor
head tube logo. It has a Mondrian-
inspired look to it. It was
designed by one of their first
American customers.

The Taylor brothers, who raced with a club called the Stockton Wheelers, also helped to change the racing scene in the U.K. It's pretty well known that time trialing was the main form of road racing in the U.K. for many years, as massed-start racing was banned. British racing up through the 1950s was often done in a quasi-legal way -- sometimes described as "cloak and dagger" racing. Racers rode in black, without race numbers, and tried to avoid attracting attention of the law -- not that racing was actually illegal per se. The ban had more to do with the National Cyclists' Union, which governed British racing, than with any actual law. In 1942, a British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC), led by Percy Stallard, had formed, and the Taylor brothers were among the first to join. After participating in a massed-start race, the brothers and other members of the BLRC were suspended from the NCU. Nevertheless, those efforts eventually led to sanctioned European-style massed-start racing in the U.K. and the Taylor brothers reportedly rode together as a team in the first Tour of Britain.

Here you can see the flawless fillet-brazing, the gorgeous
flamboyant paint, exquisite box-lining, and the unique
Reynolds decals -- all in one great shot.
The Taylors had a strong relationship with the Reynolds tubing company and as a result, they were able to get a number of special tube sets produced for their bicycles. Plain gauge or butted, oversized or curved -- there were several variations made specifically for Jack Taylor Cycles. Special unique Reynolds decals were also used on many Jack Taylor bicycles.

The company was famous for its racing bikes with the curved seat tubes -- originally designed for hill climbs and time trials, according to the catalogs.

A curved seat tube model belonging to Dave Martinez.
(Photos used with permission from Classic Rendezvous)
There is a charming short film about the Taylor brothers produced by the BBC in the mid 80s called The Bike Brothers. In it are some wonderful scenes from their shop, featuring Norman brazing up a tandem frame, Ken building a wheel, and Jack pin striping another tandem frame while two of his customers look on in wonder. And in each scene, the brothers talk gently about their philosophy and how things have changed. As Jack describes the process of pin striping (using a little wheeled tool) I can't help but find myself wishing I could have visited the shop myself at some point before they closed it up. You can watch The Bike Brothers here:


In this scene from the film, Jack pinstripes a frame while some visitors watch:
"It's a bit of a job that's died out, hand-lining. Racing lads don't go in for it, you know." "You make it look so easy," says the customer. "Oh, it's dead easy," Jack replies. "I couldn't do it for a lot of years. We had a man, Mr. Dixon, he was 71. He did it all with a brush. When he died, I was in a panic. I had to force myself to do it. He couldn't use the wheel, and I couldn't use his brush. It puts a bit of life into the frame, doesn't it? When we started making these every bike had a different style of lining on it. All the different firms had their own peculiar style. Then it died out. So I can only presume that the people who did it have either died or retired. And probably I'm the only one left doing it."
Jack Taylor decided to retire in 1990, when he would have been about 72 or so, and that meant the closing of the business, though brother Norman did continue to build some frames until about 2001. And just as Jack described as the way an art like hand-lining dies out, I've read that those later frames, with paint jobs outsourced to other shops, don't have the beautiful pinstriping that the bikes had been so well known for. Norman died in 2008 at age 85.

At the end of the film, The Bike Brothers, one can hear the voice of Jack saying, "I don't like progress. I think as you get older, you find that it isn't progress, it's only change. And it isn't change always for the better." I couldn't agree more.

Farewell, Jack. Have a Nice Ride.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for this tribute. One small correction: Jack's brother Norman died in 2008, not 2004. Lot's of other useful information and pictures of Jack Taylor bikes here: http://www.blackbirdsf.org/taylor/

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    1. thanks -- I knew the date properly, but must have goofed in typing, then didn't catch it.

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  2. A wonderful tribute. Much appreciated and enjoyed. Thanks.

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  3. Nicely written. Jack was an honest hardworking decent man with a lifelong passion. I have been a Taylor man since 1976 and visited them in 1982. Ken is a regular correspondent, and I visited him this year in June. I was the original owner of Dave Martinez' (RIP Dave) curved tube that you show, and now I have a new one that fits. Here is my Jack Taylor flickr collection if anyone is interested in more pics
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/8379107@N03/collections/72157607051898889/
    cheers, Bob Freeman

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    1. Thanks for including your link, Bob. I wonder who owns that curved tube model now?

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  4. If I'm not mistaken, Jack was born July 26, 1918. "Have a Good Ride" Jack.
    All the best,
    Mike Thompson

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  5. For those local, service will be at Stockton Parish Church 10:30am Thursday 13th November

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  6. I'm not sure if this is still active
    I am in Canada an RN would like to build a Jack Taylor curve frame
    Does anyone know where I can find a design?
    Thanks
    Ian.

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    Replies
    1. Hard to say, but there are some websites devoted to the brand specifically, so they might be a good place to start. http://old_school_cycles.tripod.com/id3.html or try
      http://www.blackbirdsf.org/taylor/

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