Ron Cooper – RIP

Sad news this week of the death of 80 year-old Ron Cooper, one of the true legends of British frame building, who right up to near the end, even after 65 years in the trade and many thousands of frames, was still hand-crafting fine steel bicycle frames three days a week at his old-fashioned workshop in Deptford.

I was fortunate enough to meet him about eighteen months ago, when I was following and photographing the building of my dream touring bicycle. It just so happened that Ron Cooper’s workshop adjoined that of paint shop in Deptford where my frame was sprayed. When I went up there to witness that part of my bicycle’s creation, Mark Reilly – the master builder at Enigma who was building my frame – introduced me. He and Ron Cooper had known each other for over twenty years, with the legendary builder playing a role in Mark’s formative years as a frame-builder.

Walking into his workshop was like a step into a long-vanished past where traditions ruled, craftsmanship was king and there was always time to get things right – everything Ron Cooper did, he did by hand, the old-fashioned, time-tested way: all the sawing, the mitring, the brazing being done without a jig since he believed a jib put too much stress on the tubes. He had been doing things that way since he began his career, as a fledgling 15 year old apprentice at A.S. Gillot Cycles, in 1947. Then as now, the results were beautiful, and were said by those who owned a Ron Cooper bike to ride like a dream. Certainly he made many frames for Britain’s top racers in the 1950s and 60s, and to this day enjoyed a very keen following in the United States, where more than half of his frames ended up. He was particularly known for his exquisite hard-carved lugs, elegant beauties which he was able to turn out swiftly, precisely and by tricks and methods all his own – and which he (naturally) jealously guarded.

Having met him that afternoon, and enjoyed an hour or so of chatting with him in his workshop about frames and frame design, I had always wanted – intended – to go back up there again and talk with him some more. Alas, my workaday world intervened and I let it go too long. Nevertheless I am grateful for having had the opportunity to meet him the once, and to have been able to capture (I hope) something of his character, and the doughty old-style British values of workmanship he projected, in this photo I took of him that day – one which was for me like a peek through a slowly closing workshop door into a world which has, sadly, just vanished a little further into the past.

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9 Comments

  1. Ron Clark December 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    He looks precisely how I would expect a venerable old English framebuilder to look, right down to the cap and blue work coat.

    Brazing frames without a jig…now there’s some serious skill. One can only hope he had an apprentice to whom he passed on his skills before he left us.

    • Roff Smith December 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

      Yes, he certainly fit the bill.

      Alas, he left no apprentice – not that I am aware of.

      But he had friends and to those special few he shared his wisdom. Mark Reilly, the man who built my dream touring frame, was self taught, a kind of natural precocious genius who at 17 was the youngest person ever to be accredited by Reynolds to build with their (then) elite 753 tube set. Through his friendship with Ron Cooper, twenty five years ago, when he was first starting out, he learned many of the old man’s tricks and styles – and so it was that my frame was built sans jig, not something Reilly does often, but he generously offered to do so because he said it would be nice and fitting to build a traditional tourer in the traditional style. He also employed Ron Cooper’s (and other old timer’s) nice touch of welding in a lucky coin (in my case a shiny 10p piece, dated 2010) into the base of the steerer tube. I like knowing it is there.

      So some of Ron Cooper’s traditions and old-fashioned skills live on.

  2. Ron Clark December 17, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    I love that sort of thing (the coin). Handing down those sort of handcrafting skills and traditions to the next generation is a real legacy to be proud of.

  3. Carl Pettman December 18, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    Another craftsman gone, another nail in the coffin of traditional workmanship, it’s sad and it ‘s a shame but I suppose that’s progress. I wonder if in 80 years time someone will be mulling over the passing of a carbon fibre frame builder.

    On a slightly related note, I remember my uncle restoring and rebuilding a bike for me when I was about 15, he did a beautiful job of resprayng a road frame in British Racing Green, he bought me wheels and groupset and gave it to me when it was finished. I road it everywhere, it was beautiful and I was proud if it, I rode it for two years, it got stolen once, I was devistated and then it was recovered by the police,  I was surprised and delighted, I did my paper round on it, mini tours, Saturday job journeys, all the usual stuff. Then my head got turned by a motorcycle, and I needed a deposit for my new mistress so I sold the bike.

    I don’t know why my uncle built it for me, he doesn’t know why he did it, that was 40 years ago. I asked him recently about it, and he said someone gave him the frame and it was just something to do. “can you remember the make of the frame?” I asked “a Gillott” he said.

    Bugger!

  4. Kieran December 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    Interesting, Deptford was also home to witcomb cycles.

  5. Mark Mclennon December 31, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    Ron was not based in Deptford but was near Bexley in Kent. He was based in Honor oak Park prior to that

    • Roff Smith December 31, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

      I know only that he was working out of a shop in Deptford when I met him in 2010

  6. Mark Mclennon January 2, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    I think maybe you meant dartford which is in the borough of Bexley.

  7. Phil Sanders June 11, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    I can confirm Ron’s work locations of Honor Oak and Dartford (…more accurately Crayford, but it’s in the vicinity of Dartford which is larger and better known.) He was based in Honor Oak in the ’80s when he built me my first “proper” road bike, and it was in Crayford in early 2012 that I met him for the first time in over 20 years, to get the frame re-sprayed and the stays re-spaced for modern wheels. It’s still my Sunday-best and my favourite bike to ride in good weather.
    I was very sad to hear of his passing but also very privileged to see him ending his days still crafting his magic!

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