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.