The job of a bicycle designer parallels that of a surgeon in many senses: triage what’s wrong, decide what no longer functions, find a way to solve the problem and repair or replace whatever needs fixing. And like any good surgeon knows, if the spine fails, so too does the rest of the body.
In the cycling world, the frame is a bicycle’s spine. Without a healthy frame to attach components onto, a bike can only function to the best ability of that hobbled frame. Indeed, frames are often the weakest links on bicycles, rusty chain puns notwithstanding.
And so when Albert Hobbs claimed in an advertisement, “A cycle is only as good as its frame,” it served as a fine indication the founder of Hobbs of Barbican understood his craft the way a surgeon understands the human body. With such credibility to his name and character, Hobbs began manufacturing well-crafted bicycles with frames that were not only functional, but also strong and refined.
This article references information graciously made available at Bruce Robbins’ Hobbs of Barbican site.
Hobbs started his business in 1930 at what is now the Barbican Centre located in central London, though his earliest-dated model, a Raceweight, was not commercially produced until February 1933. Back then, the Barbican was an outwork – not a gateway or military outpost, as is commonly associated with the term.
Like so many other bicycle manufacturers of the era, Hobbs made a name for himself by crafting frames that stressed durability and then punctuating them with ornate, hand-filed lugs. Hetchins frames are often thought of in this way, too.
Hobbs’ business took off quickly and continued gaining momentum through the 1930’s and even into the very early 1940’s. Hobbs of Barbican had been founded in an era conducive to selling bicycles, as the ridership boom of the 1920’s carried over into the early thirties to create a thriving international cycling industry. All of that would evaporate a short but sweet decade later when the Second World War struck, with British involvement commencing in 1939.
Once the war hit, Hobbs suffered mightily. The city of London faced severe casualties, as well as physical damage, and the robust pre-war cycling market vanished. Hobbs was forced to move his operation out of the Barbican and into Sterling Works at Dagenham.
After the war had taken its toll, Hobb’s bicycle business started thriving once again but his hardships did not end with the war. He had chosen to locate his frame building business in the same factory that housed the construction of Sterling and Owen machine guns, and eventually the bicycle business was forced out of the factory for national security purposes.
Hobbs continued his business as a bicycle retailer, but the previously-known company had become endangered. It finally succumbed to extinction in the late 1950’s, after existing as a retail-only operation – the glorious frame building side of the company long gone – for several years.
There was a brief resurgence of the brand in the 1970’s, but unfortunately for classic lightweight bicycle enthusiasts, it was relatively short-lived. The resurgence consisted of a limited run of Hobbs’ most popular model, the Blue Riband, but several collectors have since speculated the new production was simply an effort to use up extra lugs that had been sitting around for years.
Otherwise, the Hobbs of Barbican brand died with an epitaph all too common among other cycling-related brands of its era: beautiful bicycles and their components sacrificed to war. The desire for Hobbs’ models never faded as vintage collectors began seeking out his frames with the signature ornate lug work and raked forks with double crowns, and all-around craftsmanship that indicates hand-built prowess.
Hobbs of Barbican covered all the bases in that regard. Throughout its existence as a frame building entity, the company supplemented those efforts by manufacturing noteworthy components, too. They were sold under the brand name, Lytaloy, and these well-crafted components were only available in a very limited selection.
Lytaloy parts certainly make for beautiful components, with many featuring highly polished finishes and meticulous craftsmanship, but some believe the components were made by subcontractors and merely sold with the Hobbs of Barbican/Lytaloy name. Regardless, it shows Hobbs’ desire to present the highest-quality products to the public, which was reflected in these fancy components every bit as much as in his well-crafted and popular frames.
The Lytaloy line included headsets (which boasted a micrometer adjustment using a serrated cone and lockring), pedals, brakes, mudguards, bottom brackets and light brackets. It also included an alloy chain, but this was met with less success than the other components due to a lack of durability that caused the chains to break frequently.
As was the case with his frames, Hobbs marketed his Lytaloy components effectively and with gusto. This was evidenced in a catalog that describes his pedals as,
“A refinement that will find an immediate appeal among all enthusiastic cyclists whether they ride for business, pleasure, or sport and the price is reasonable for such a high grade component.”
The chainwheel set was marketed as a light, yet strong set-up, with a finer focus on the strength aspect of the component. Touting the sturdy, fluted crank arms made from an aluminum alloy that had only recently hit the market, Hobbs stressed the importance of strength over weight savings.
In addition, chainring replacements were lauded as easy endeavors due to the fact that neither the crank arm nor pedal needed to be removed for the process. This is no great feat nowadays, but in the nineteen thirties and forties when the product hit the market, it was a relatively new concept and certainly worth mention in cycling adverts. Hobbs presented several models for distribution in its relatively brief history. With ever-changing production methods and constantly shifting market dynamics, his models varied drastically in style and pricing throughout the nearly three decades Hobbs of Barbican sold its products.
The most popular model, the Blue Riband, was hand-built by the company’s finest frame builders and featured ornate lugs and Hobbs components such as pedals. Though much of the information regarding specific models has faded over the years, remaining catalogs feature such models as: Continental, Raceweight and Criterium.
Most models were available in either a lugged or fillet-brazed version. As any bicycle collector knows, innovation is what drives the cycling market, where outdated techniques become obsolete and bicycles made using those techniques become vintage.
With the pursuit of innovation in mind, Hobbs dabbled in new frame production methods, bicycle models and marketing ideas. He wasn’t afraid to try altogether new frame materials, either. In an undated ad seen here, a bespectacled Hobbs himself advertises special Kromo tubing (known today as Cro-moly, or Chromium-molybdenum steel) and touted his desire for innovation by boldly proclaiming,
“We are always looking for the latest improvements – and that goes for frames, too!”
Claiming that brazing strengthens the tubing instead of weakening it, Hobbs displayed his knack for marketing and showed exactly why his bicycles were successful when others faltered: he related effectively to the public and marketed his product with a confidence that exuded quality.
Several bicycles featuring Kromo tubing were featured in the 1952 Hobbs of Barbican catalog, starting with the popular Clubweight model. The Sportsweight model was also featured in that catalog. It was available in Kromo tubing and reviewed in a 1949 issue of “Cycling.” The model was met with favor by the reviewer, who dubbed it, “A good, standard, lightweight bicycle at a moderate price.” What more could most riders ask for? Read the full review here.
Again, Hobbs took his positive press to the bank, creating personalized messages for the company’s best buyers to assure them its products were the finest. Kromo tubing became a staple in the Hobbs of Barbican line and most models either came stock with the tubing or were available with Kromo tubing as an option.
According to the company’s 1937 catalogue, the Continental model featured Reynolds 531 steel, Continental-type fork crown, Dunlop tires and various other accouterments such as an oil gun and air pump. The catalog also boasted that the bicycle’s specs and design were crafted to,
“Incorporate many of the features developed abroad under the exacting test of continental massed start road racing, but it is important to note that the design has been expertly adapted to existing British conditions.”
The Continental Superbe was also featured in that catalog. It was a similar model to the Continental but came spec’d with slightly higher-quality components. For those riders with needs beyond the world of gears, framesets were available that accommodated either geared drivetrains or fixed single speeds.
By 1949, the Hobbs of Barbican line had expanded significantly. The Blue Riband found itself the centerpiece of the line, but quirkier models, such as the Blue Riband Tricycle and two different models of tandems, the Superbe and the Race Lite, added to the diversity of Hobbs’ offerings and gave various cyclists different options for their commuting or racing needs. Make no mistake, these models were not without practicality; with a 60 inch wheelbase and tight racing geometry, the Race Lite Tandem was a solid race bicycle aimed toward the criterium circuit. The Continental model remained a staple in the Hobbs of Barbican catalog, and race models such as the Championship rounded out the product line to offer a wide spectrum of frames and cycles for all purposes. It featured brazed construction and “malleable cast lugs of the finest quality,” and was marketed toward track riders as well as racers and “connoisseurs.” The Championship came spec’d with Lytaloy components throughout.
The Criterium, a track-specific model intended for riding in velodromes, was marketed as a solid frame with a reinforced head tube to enhance both strength and aesthetics. As stated in the 1937 catalog, the Criterium frame was welded throughout and filed to minute perfection to improve both the looks and strength of the joints.
By 1952, the Blue Riband came in three different models: the Continental, Professional and Championship. The Professional came built to the specifications of the customer, with a fancier lug design than the base Continental model. The Championship constituted the high-end offering, distinguishable by its scroll and spearpoint lug design. It, too, came customized for each buyer and rounded out the top-end of the Hobbs line.
For the budget-minded consumer, Hobbs offered the more affordably priced Sportweight and Clubweight models, each with unique ride characteristics that made them practical for club racing, commuting or general recreational riding. The Streamweight models came in framesets only and were built with Kromo tubing. They were touted as affordable frames at the same quality as higher-priced competitors.
Identifying a Hobbs of Barbican bicycle may not tingle the spine the same way a handful of other vintage bicycles can, but they sure do maintain a one-of-a-kind mystique. Unfortunately, like so many other cycling-related companies that operated around Europe’s war-torn era – specifically the late 1930’s through the mid 1940’s – most of the Hobbs paperwork and records no longer exist.
But according to the Veteran-Cycle Club, Hobbs of Barbican serial numbers do indicate manufacture dates, at least to an extent:
“For the first two years of post-war production, frames were initially numbered with a six, seven or eight digit number, the first two of which indicate the year of build.”
This differed from later dating and serial numbering methods:
“In 1947, Hobbs changed the numbering system to that used for the remainder of their time as a major frame-builder. Frame numbers were prefixed by a letter indicating the build month. The remainder of the number began with the digit indicating the year. Thus, the frame number B7500 was built in July 1947.”
The Hobbs of Barbican history tends not to weave through as much lore as some other storied companies of the same time and place, but consistency counts for a whole lot in the bicycle world. Consistently strong frames that ride well, consistent workmanship and marketing, and consistent desire to produce a pinnacle product.
Albert Hobbs and Hobbs of Barbican accomplished that much throughout their brief but bright tenure in the bike world, leaving their mark on the lives of those who chose to ride bicycles in a time of war and automobiles, and those who recognize quality today in the realm of vintage cycling machines.
Certainly a sure sign the Hobbs of Barbican name will live on, contemporary companies should take note here: quality sells more bicycles than quantity, and customer relations count for just about everything else. Hobbs of Barbican proved these points back then and continues doing so today by remaining highly sought-after vintage bicycles with a reliable name and solid reputation, even well after the company has long since gone.
Photos: Duncan Granger